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Our daily injera

Things you might want to know about injera, Ethiopia's oversized, spongy flatbread:
The brown version is made from a tiny grain called teff and is authentic and expensive. People developed a taste for the cheaper white version, made from all-purpose flour, years ago when teff was impossible to come by in Toronto.

Injera is sold five to the pack (not the more reasonable four or six) for no apparent reason.

Don't refrigerate it. Keep it on the counter, but only for a day or two. (Or freeze it immediately.)

To determine injera's freshness, squeeze it to make sure it's super-soft. Eyeball it to ensure the bubbles on top look large and fresh. If there are patches of steam inside the clear plastic bag — even better (that means it was recently packaged while still warm.)

A bag of five injera sells for about $3.50 for the teff version and $3 for the flour version.

There are about half a dozen people who make and sell injera in Toronto. They supply several dozen grocery and variety stores — plus restaurants.

At meal time, in restaurants and homes, injera is draped over a communal platter and topped with ladles of various stewed meats and vegetables — some spicy, some mild. Extra injera, usually folded or halved and rolled, is passed separately.

Diners tear off pieces of injera, wrap them over morsels of food and swiftly pop the bundles into their mouths.

The edible cutlery, however, is time-consuming to make, since it involves a sourdough starter and overnight fermenting.

So next time you eat some, stop for a moment and give thanks for our injera makers.

Some of them toil privately, packaging their edible work in clear plastic bags without labels. Others paste their logos — like Mulu, Leyu, Atelefugn and Lela — on the bags and try to inspire customer loyalty.

Leyu brand, from Twins Teff Injera, has been made by Senait Ergete since 1996. She makes about 300 five-packs a day and has been around the longest.

"There's no secret — only the freshness," Ergete says.

Mulu brand, on the other hand, is made by Addis Fast Food Processing's Amelia Amino. She's a Filipina who married Ethiopian Merid Zeleke and learned to make injera four years ago.

"I never envisioned to be doing this business," giggles Amino. "It's a very hard job, but hearing the compliments of your customers makes you feel better."

Injera makers can be competitive. Some brands make people feel bloated. (Amino says hers doesn't.) Some brands may claim to use expensive teff flour, but secretly mix it with cheaper brown rice flour. (Amino doesn't.) One thing they all have in common: injera are made one by one in a 15- to 16-inch round flat griddle sold in Chinatown.

"It's a very tedious job," admits Amino, who makes hundreds daily and stresses that freshness is critical. "If you are an injera lover, you can't be fooled. People are very, very picky when it comes to injera."

Sure enough, at Piassa Injera and Takeout, customers poke and prod the bags even after owner Abbabiya Mohamed vouches for them.

Located on a bleak stretch of Dundas St. E. between Jarvis and Sherbourne, Piassa is a beacon with its defiant green exterior and welcoming name.

See, piassa comes from the Italian word piazza — a public square or plaza. Piassa is an area in Addis Ababa (in a country that was occupied by Italy) and a gathering place here in Toronto.

People come for the injera (there are usually four brands on offer), but there's also a self-serve thermos of shai — tea brewed with cardamon, cinnamon and cloves — and a storefront sign that boasts: "The best espresso in the world."

Mohamed makes me a shot. It's a steal at $1.50 and it's made from Lavazza beans and a Lavazza machine. (Lavazza bills itself as Italy's favourite coffee.)

"I have a story tied to this," says the gregarious shopkeeper, whose favourite colour is green.

"An Italian tourist passed by. He read the sign. He came in and laughed and said, `You're sure the best espresso in the world is here at this corner?' He had his first shot and wanted more. The whole time he was around, he wanted more and said, `You've proved it's the best.'"

Indeed, it's right up there. Properly caffeinated, we ponder injera and Toronto's three main Ethiopian business enclaves. There are a few on Bloor St. east of Ossington. Piassa is in the inner-city clutch near St. James Town and Regent Park. The largest grouping is spaced sporadically along Danforth Ave., east of Pape, into Scarborough.

Many Ethiopians, explains Mohamed, lived in Greece before coming to Canada and are comfortable with that culture.

This explains why Mister Greek Meat Market on the Danforth draws an Ethiopian crowd and sells injera.

Injera, it's the bread that binds the community together.

So now you're hungry for Ethiopian. You can eat out or make your own. Ethiopian cooking may intimidate, but if someone else makes the injera, all you have to do is create a few stews.

Visit an Ethiopian store for three key ingredients: injera, berbere (a hot pepper spice blend) and niter kibe (clarified spiced butter). Some sell jars of awaze, a hot sauce made with berbere and oil. Regular supermarkets will stock everything else you need.

As with any recipe, you may adjust the spice level to suit your taste. There is no subsitute for berbere, but you can use ghee or vegetable oil instead of niter kibe. It's best if you're familiar with how Ethiopian food tastes, looks and is eaten before you first cook it.

To serve, drape one injera over a large, round platter. Artfully spoon several portions (about 1/4 cup) of each dish around the outer edges of the injera. Heap a simple salad with vinaigrette in the middle. Serve other pieces of injera, folded or rolled, separately.

Ethiopian shops sell silver tin platters for $3.99. Prettier white tin versions, adorned with flowers, actually come from Chinatown for about $3.99.

Spicy Ethiopian Lamb Stew

This Yebeg Wat has been adapted from Taste of Ethiopia: The Other Good Food, a 1991 out-of-print cookbook by Webayehu Tsegaye. I found the book years ago at an Ethiopian spice store.

1/4 cup niter kibe

1 large onion, chopped

1 tbsp each: minced garlic, minced ginger

2 tbsp berbere seasoning

2 lb (900 g) boneless stewing lamb chunks, cut in small cubes

2 cups water

1/2 tsp salt

In large saucepan, melt niter kibe on medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and ginger. Cook, stirring, 7 minutes to soften onion. Add berbere. Cook 1 minute. Add lamb. Cook, stirring to coat well, 4 minutes. Add water and salt. Raise heat to high; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer, covered, 1 hour or until lamb is tender.

Makes 6 side servings.

Ethiopian Yellow Split Peas

This Alicha Wat is adapted from Taste of Ethiopia.

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, minced

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tsp turmeric

1 cup yellow split peas, washed

5 cups water + more as needed

Salt to taste

In saucepan, heat oil over medium-high. Add onion, garlic and turmeric. Cook, stirring, 7 minutes until onion softens. Add peas and 5 cups water. Raise heat to high; bring to a boil; skim foam. Reduce heat to medium; partially cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally and adding more water if needed, until peas are very tender and become creamy when stirred, about 60 minutes. Season with salt.

Makes 4 side servings.

Spicy Ethiopian Chicken

This Doro Wat has been adapted from Taste of Ethiopia.

1/4 cup niter kibe

2 onions, chopped

1 tbsp minced garlic

1/4 cup berbere

1 tbsp ground cardamom

6 skinless chicken pieces (mix of breasts, thighs and legs)

4 cups water

1/2 tsp salt

6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled

In large saucepan, heat niter kibe over medium-high. Add onions and garlic. Cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add berbere and cardamom. Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add chicken, 1/2 cup water and salt. Raise heat to high; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer, stirring and turning chicken frequently, 20 minutes. Add remaining 3-1/2 cups water. Simmer 20 minutes. Add eggs. Simmer 20 minutes or until sauce thickens.

Makes 6 side servings.

Ethiopian Collard Greens

This Gomen Wat has been adapted from Taste of Ethiopia.

1 lb (450 g) collard greens, coarse stems discarded, leaves and thin stems washed, drained, coarsely chopped

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

1 tbsp each: minced garlic, minced ginger

2 jalapeño peppers, seeded, minced

2 cups water

Salt to taste

In large saucepan of boiling water, cook collards until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain; finely chop.

In same saucepan, heat oil over medium-high. Add onion, garlic, ginger and jalapeño. Cook, stirring, 7 minutes, until onions soften. Add collards, 2 cups water and salt. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer, covered, until most of water is absorbed and greens are very tender.

Makes 4 side servings.

Spicy Crumbled Injera

This breakfast dish, Fit'fit, is adapted from Taste of Eritrea: Recipes From One of East Africa's Most Interesting Little Countries (Hippocrene, 2000, $34.95) by American writer Olivia Warren.

2 pieces injera, torn into pieces

1/2 cup niter kibe

1 tbsp berbere seasoning

Place injera in bowl.

In small saucepan, melt niter kibe on medium-high heat. Add berbere; cook 1 minute. Remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes. Pour over injera. Mix vigorously with fork into crumbs.

Eat by hand by forming crumbs into small balls with your fingers.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

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