Different dishes are served on the top of the bread and are meant to be scooped up with it using hands.
If you’ve been to an Ethiopian restaurant, you’ve most likely seen spongy flatbread forming a plate on top of which dollops of different dishes are placed. The staff don’t offer any cutlery because injera is meant to be used instead of it and is eaten with bare hands.
In Amharic, ‘injera’ refers to pancake-like bread, usually made from teff flour (teff is a grass with a nutty flavour). It is thin, soft and slightly sour because of the fermentation process involved in making it. Injera is a staple eaten across Ethiopia and Eretria, and even some parts of Somalia. The process of making ijera doesn’t involve any rolling or kneading. The batter is fermented and then cooked on a griddle called a ‘mitad’, much like a crepe. It is believed that Ethiopians may have cultivated teff more than 5,000 years ago and early examples of mitads can be traced back to as early as 500-600 AD.
In Ethiopia, special occasions and holidays see injera forming a major part of meals. Injera is usually eaten with ‘wat’, traditional stews made with meat and vegetables. Wat is served on the top of the bread and is meant to be scooped up with it using hands.
Traditionally, meals in Ethiopia are eaten in a communal plate where two or three people share the same injera. This is a marker of closeness and friendship. The Amhara people from the city of Bahir Dar believe that a woman who prepares high quality injera must be good at domestic chores. It is also believed that women who prepare injera with good eyes (the holes that give the bread a spongy texture) are very hard working.
Today, injera falls in line with Western dietary trends. The bread is vegan since many Ethiopians don’t eat animal products due to the teachings of Orthodox Christianity. Since the bread is made with pure teff, it is also gluten-free and celiac-friendly.
The way injera is served has also changed in recent times. Most restaurants serve rolls of injera instead of it forming the base or plate. The thought behind this is to reduce food waste since larger injeras are harder to finish and also become soggy when other dishes are dolloped on top of them. Despite the different ways in which it is served, the importance of injera remains unparalleled to Ethiopians.