Kittee Berns has been an ethical vegan for more than 24 years and a gluten-free vegan since 2008. Author of the cookzine Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian Food, she is the creative force behind the popular blog Cake Maker to the Stars found at http://kitteekake.blogspot.com.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Hello, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. We’re back for the second part of our show here on February 17th, 2015. Okay, I’m glad I got all that out. Now, I am very excited; I’m bursting, okay. I cannot wait to start talking about… teff, truly. So let’s get Kittee Berns on the show. She’s been an ethical vegan for more than twenty-four years (yes!) and a gluten-free vegan since 2008, author of the cook zine Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian Food; she’s a creative force behind the popular blog Cake Makers to the Stars found at kitteekake.blogspot.com. You’ll have to go to my website to see how she spells it. No, I’ll spell it: kitteekake.blogspot.com. Kittee, thank you, thank you, thank you for Teff Love.
KITTEE BERNS: Hi Caryn! It’s great to talk to you.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’ve been after Rhiannon at Book Publishing Co. to get you on the program for a long time, because when I first saw this book I thought, Oh, I just have to have this book. And then she said, “You have to wait; it’s not coming out until…” Actually, she didn’t say any of that – I have no idea what her voice sounds like because we only email.
KITTEE BERNS: I don’t know if I’ve met anyone so excited about teff than you.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’m so excited. And we’ll learn why Caryn’s so excited about teff in a moment. And then, you were supposed to come on the show a few weeks ago, but we had that horrible snowstorm. We had to postpone, and I’m so glad you were accommodating. So here we are… oh, I have to breathe…
KITTEE BERNS: Did you get a lot of snow?
CARYN HARTGLASS: It snowed a little bit today, but the sun is out and I have some guests visiting from Costa Rica and they’re leaving tomorrow morning and I hope there weren’t too many flights delayed so they can get out and get back to their warm tropical weather.
KITTEE BERNS: Yeah. We’re experiencing what we call here in Portland, Oregon as “February Fake Out.” It’s super sunny and warm today, and everybody comes out. They think the rain and the winter is gone and then as soon as March comes, everybody remembers that it’s not Spring yet. But it’s really great today; I’m super enjoying it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: So let’s jump into teff. I’ve known about teff, but I didn’t know it was teff, whenever I’d go to an Ethiopian restaurant. Let’s talk about Ethiopian food first, shall we?
KITTEE BERNS: Sure, I love talking about Ethiopian food. So in Ethiopian restaurants in North America the injera, which is the fermented, spongy, delicious flatbread that most of the food is served on is made from teff but it’s also cut from other grains. So it’s an important thing for people to know that are gluten-free because, although it’s getting more popular to find 100% teff or gluten-free injera in restaurants, normally it’s cut with barley flour, which also has gluten (it has less gluten than other grains like wheat but it definitely has gluten in it) and also wheat flour.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I didn’t know that. Good point number one!
KITTEE BERNS: It’s really important to know that.
CARYN HARTGLASS: So if you have Celiac’s Disease or serious gluten intolerance, the teff injera here in the United States is not for you, unfortunately.
KITTEE BERNS: Well some of it is. So what I’ve noticed over the last few years, as teff and gluten free foods in general are gaining popularity, is that a lot of restaurants will make it, but they have to make it separate or special for you to have to ask for it. Or some restaurants, I know at least here in Portland, can do it if you call at least 24 hours in advance so they have time to actually make you a special batter of it.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s because you live in really cool food country in Portland, which is unlike anywhere. And even though in New York we have absolutely everything, Portland is a concentrated focus on sustainable food.
KITTEE BERNS: So my family is from the DC area; that’s actually where I’m originally from, and so maybe this is also not a good example because the DC area has a huge Ethiopian community. But I’ve noticed there as well that there are restaurants now that have pure teff injera. I’m gluten intolerant, so that’s important to me; when I eat out for Ethiopian I definitely want to be able to enjoy injera. So there are a number of places in the DC area where you can find it, too. You just need to be diligent and know about it. I think that’s the most important thing, and then ask for it. That way it creates a demand and restaurants know that customers want it. I’ve heard about all sorts of reasons, but one of the reasons I’ve heard is that it may be more palatable to a Western palate when it’s cut with wheat and cut with barley. So if customers show that there’s a demand for it, then I think it will make it more available. Also teff flour is really expensive.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Yeah, that’s the problem. And we’re going to fix that, because we’re going to make the demand greater. I wanted to talk about this later but I guess I’m going to talk about it because I’m talking about it in my mind and I’m going to share it with everyone right now, and that is: Here’s my vision. My vision is all the cattle ranchers out there in Nevada and other drought-ridden places, places that are really dry, and they’re struggling because it’s hard. They think there’s nothing else they can do with that property that won’t grow anything… grow teff.
KITTEE BERNS: Yeah, it’s an amazing grain. That would be awesome. I do know there is some teff being grown in Nevada. Not a lot, I think most is domestic. Some teff comes from Idaho.
And did you know that it’s illegal to export large quantities of teff from Ethiopia? I think that’s important for people to know too. So most, if not all, of the teff available here is all domestically grown.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That’s such a good point. I’m glad you brought that up. I did know that, although I forgot about it. What a concept. So teff is a very important food in Ethiopia, and they’re smart saying “We’re not going to export it and share it with the rest of the world so that people can take advantage and exploit our country because we’ve already got food security issues.”
KITTEE BERNS: Even in Ethiopia, it’s such a staple there. And they get cut with corn and sorghum and millet, even in Ethiopia because it’s expensive for people to eat too. Yet it’s a staple – it’s one of their main sources of protein. So they can’t even think about exporting it because I don’t even know if they can produce as much as to keep in Ethiopia for everybody to eat there.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Right. Well there are other countries like Bolivia, for example, they should have thought that way, too, because they started exporting quinoa.
KITTEE BERNS: I know. The quinoa problem is huge there, because it drove the prices right up and it’s not affordable for the people that live there. But yeah I agree, they’re so smart; I think they set this up a long time ago in Ethiopia, the export laws. I’m sure there are some restaurant owners from North America that probably go and fill up their suitcases with teff and come back. But I’m really lucky – here in Portland there’s an Ethiopian grocery store literally three blocks from my house. And even the teff that they sell at that grocery store, it’s the Maskal Teff, which is the Idaho-grown teff, which is pretty cool.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Do you know what you pay for it a pound? Just curious.
KITTEE BERNS: Well, the Bob’s Red Mill, that I think is the easiest for most people to find, is $8 for one of those small bags, which I think is 16 ounces, I’m not sure. But then here in Portland I can get it in bulk in most of the co-ops and supermarkets. I’m sure around the country that’s not possible. But I think probably most people would pay about $8/pound, which is a lot.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Something I learned or reminded myself of when I got your book is… Now, I haven’t made anything in here; I’ve just read it. But I’m getting ready to stick my foot in the cold water—take the plunge—and in some ways that’s what it feels like. And I’m glad I’m feeling that way, because I know many people feel that way when they’re changing their diet. And just thinking about introducing a new food or eliminating some foods, you feel some kind of fear or overwhelmed or you just don’t know what’s going to happen. And it takes a certain amount of energy to get you past that block.
KITTEE BERNS: Well I definitely agree. Even the names of the recipes in the book are in Amharic, which is the national language in Ethiopia. I thought that was important to do because that’s what the food is called. But I think if you just break it down… I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people and I had a lot of people help me test recipes for the book; one of the biggest things that people keep saying to me is how easy the recipes are to make. I think that if you just break down the steps. There are a few things that you need to make that are the basis for the recipes. For instance the seasoned oil, and once you have the seasoned oil made, you just keep it in your refrigerator. And then if you want to make red lentils or if you want to make some vegetables, then you can put it together and it can be a weeknight meal, no problem. But I think you’re right. If you’re just looking through the book, it kind of is a little bit overwhelming. But then if you break it down into small steps, the recipes are actually really manageable and amazingly nutrient-dense – so many legumes, vegetables.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I’m excited because I’m out there at the end of the spectrum in this vegan world and it’s great to find a new food that I haven’t tried before and that I haven’t made before. Now I’ve had it in the restaurants but I haven’t made it, and I’m really excited. Now let’s just mention a few things about Ethiopian food. Number one: this injera pancake thing. I don’t even know, am I saying it right?
KITTEE BERNS: In-jee-ra.
CARYN HARTGLASS: They don’t use utensils eating this food!
KITTEE BERNS: No, it’s so fun.
CARYN HARTGLASS: So you have to wash your hands, first.
KITTEE BERNS: Yes, that’s really important, especially when you’re eating with other people.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I mean, it’s important in general to wash your hands before you eat, period. And so there are all these different kinds of food. For people that are familiar with Indian food, it’s kind of similar in that you have these different soft blends of foods—beans and vegetables.
KITTEE BERNS: One of the main food groups is something that’s called wot. It’s interesting because North Americans kind of describe it as a stew, but native Ethiopians describe it more as a sauce, and I think that’s really important when you’re making recipes at home. We tend to think of Indian food, and it’s more stew-like, but Ethiopian food is supposed to have a sauce and it’s supposed to soak into the injera underneath. That’s one of the most delicious parts: right after you’ve scooped up the food and eaten it with the bread, and all of the toppings are gone, you have this succulent injera that’s soaked up the sauces underneath.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Okay. So briefly, just hold me hand here. Tell me what I need to do to make this wonderful teff-based injera.
KITTEE BERNS: Okay. I’m here for you; I’m going to hold your hand. Making injera is really fun. It’s a fermented food. So if you want to make injera, you don’t need a lot of ingredients. So also, to back up, when I make injera I make 100% teff injera. And that’s what the recipe in the book is for. There’s a little variation if you want to add other grains to it, you can. But I like pure teff injera the most. So, really, what you want to do is start with a sourdough. For people that are familiar with sourdoughs, and if you’re not gluten-intolerant, it doesn’t have to be the sourdough in the bread. You just want something that is an active starter and has wild yeast in it. Another thing that you might not know, Caryn, that is super interesting about teff, is that teff is one of if not the only grains in the world that has a symbiotic yeast as part of the grain. When you hear about folks from Ethiopia that have moved to other parts of the world and they have trouble making injera in their new homes, one of the reasons is they’re saying, because I was just reading before, I was going to talk to you today about the domestic American-grown teff, is that they’re not sure the American-grown teff has the same symbiotic relationship with the yeast, and that might be why it’s harder to make outside Ethiopia, because I was reading that there could be environmental differences, or even the acidity in the water could be different enough that that symbiotic relationship isn’t there. When I was researching for the book, a lot of recipes that have I’ve seen say you just mix teff flour with water and leave it out and the wild yeast will find it and then you can make your injera. But then a lot of people who’ve tried that don’t have a lot of success. So what I did in the book is I have a recipe that’s for a teff-based sourdough starter, but I add a little bit of yeast to it to get it going. Another thing that I’ve read that it could be is that the symbiotic yeast is on the whole-grain teff, but once the teff is ground into a flour, the yeast dissipates, which is interesting to me. So anyways, for the starter, that’s what I do in the recipe. It’s just teff flour, water, and yeast. And then you just feed it a little bit of teff flour every day for a few days. And once you have that starter made (because it takes about 5 days to get going) you don’t have to do that every time you make the injera. You just keep it in the fridge, and then when you want to make some injera you take it out, you bring it to room temperature, you add a little bit of teff flour to it to wake it up and to activate the yeast that’s in there And then it’ll take another almost two days to make the actual injera, but not quite.
CARYN HARTGLASS: The starter – you just kind of keep it around all the time?
KITTEE BERNS: Yeah. You have to be careful. If it’s the middle of the summer and it’s 90 degrees outside, it doesn’t do really, really well. If it’s super hot, you don’t want to over-ferment it. It needs a little bit more babysitting.
CARYN HARTGLASS: That happens to a lot of friends of mine in the summer – they get over-fermented!
KITTEE BERNS: Yeah. I think it’s true for any kind of ferment you’re trying to do. You just have to watch it a little bit more, because it ferments a lot faster. And the same thing in the cold, it slows down. So I give instructions in the recipes what to do if it’s hot or if it’s cold. But yeah, you don’t really do anything to it; you just kind of stir it up every day and feed it a little bit more flour, and it gets bubbly. It’s really cool—it’ll be bubbling away when you know it’s ready to go. And then to make the injera batter, it’s just some of the starter you made, filtered water (which is really important to use because you don’t want to use tap because there’s things in tap water that can kill the culture, like bleach and things like that). And then you just add filtered water, and a little bit of fenugreek and more flour, and then you let that sit around, and it makes a batter that’s thinner than a pancake batter, maybe a little bit thicker than a crepe batter. I have a video on my blog if people maybe want to see what the texture is like. It should be thin enough that you can pour it from a pitcher, but there’s a video that was recently shot in my kitchen, I’m making injera and you can actually see it. I think it’s really helpful to have a visual.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I just realized this… I think the universe works in mysterious ways, and today being Pancake Day, I didn’t realize it. And teff is kind of like a pancake, but you also use your teff starter to make sourdough pancakes!
KITTEE BERNS: Yeah, it makes really delicious pancakes. I figured that out because one of my friends in town who was helping me test recipes had a whole bunch of the starter left over, and she didn’t want to make injera. So she was like, “What should I do with this?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out!” And so I made up a pancake recipe, and it’s really, really good. It has a really nice tang to it. It’s got cinnamon and blueberries in it, and also a little bit of sorghum or a little tapioca, just because teff flour is a really heavy flour. And I think it’s perfect for injera but for regular baking, you need to lighten it up a little bit. So usually when I bake that’s my favorite combo – a little teff flour and a little sorghum or a little tapioca starch. But yeah, those pancakes are good. Maybe try those first – ease yourself in!
CARYN HARTGLASS: Now there’s lots of wonderful recipes in here, not just to make the injera but to make all the different dishes that you’ll put on top and that you can dip in and soak up and it’s just delicious. Now, aside from teff, are there any more ingredients in some of these recipes that would seem foreign to a simple American?
KITTEE BERNS: Probably. There’s a spice that’s really, really important; it’s one of the strongest flavor profiles in Ethiopian cooking. It’s a red spice blend that is based from chili powder and it’s called berbere. It’s what makes all of the red saucy wot and the stews and the sauces. I have a recipe for that in the book, but if people want to make the stew and they live in any kind of metro city, they should probably be able to buy it at an Ethiopian market, or the spices that go into it can be found in Indian markets. It’s such an important flavor profile for the food, people that really are gung-ho about re-creating recipes at home, I think just even ordering it online – you can get it from folks in the States that import it straight from Ethiopia. And then that way you can really get the flavor. When I lived in New Orleans, there we didn’t have access to any. We had Indian grocery stores there, but otherwise I would either get my mom to send it to me from D.C. or I would go to an Indian grocery store and buy most of the spices. So it can be done, but you definitely need to invest in a few things. I tried my hardest in the book to show what spices are optional because I wanted people to be able to make things really super authentic if they wanted to. I know a lot of cooks, and lot of vegan cooks in particular, love the chase of finding special ingredients, but I also know a lot of people don’t want to deal with it. So I really did try to break the recipes down, and show spices that were optional, whenever they are. But you definitely need to find berbere – you either need to make it or find it in the shops or buy it from a distributor.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Okay. Now I’m just thumbing through, here, and I’m looking at the Shiro Wot soup, and I probably butchered the pronunciation.
KITTEE BERNS: Uh oh! What page are you on?
CARYN HARTGLASS: 112. It uses sunflower seed milk. I’m wondering… is that something that you came up with, or is that something traditional in Ethiopian cuisine?
KITTEE BERNS: No, that’s something traditional. I have an Ethiopian friend, her name is Hidu. She’s one of my friends in New Orleans, and she was telling me about this. I’ve heard about it. So sunflower seeds are a big crop in Ethiopia, and so they show up in traditional food. The traditional dish that I’ve heard of before, because I’ve seen it in restaurants, is Fit-fit and Fir-fur dishes. They’re injera-based dishes; they kind of translate to… Fit-fit is sort of like a bread salad and Fir-fir is more like, if you think about a savory bread stuffing, kind of like what you’d have on Thanksgiving but not those flavors, but kind of the way the stuffing gets soft and has onions and savories in it, it’s sort of similar to that. And there’s something called Suf Fit-fit, which is injera, and there’s a recipe for it in the book, and toasted sunflower seed milk (which you make) is poured over the injera… it’s a perfect way to use injera that’s maybe one or two days old and it’s a little bit dry; it just soaks up the milk. And then you add maybe a little jalapeno, maybe some onion, you could put tomato in it or red pepper, and it’s one of my favorite recipes in the book. When I started researching it and making the Fit-fit dishes, I was just dancing around my kitchen.
CARYN HARTGLASS: I do that a lot – dance around in my kitchen. Well it caught my eye because in the vegan world, we use nuts and seeds sometimes to replace our standard dairy products – milk and cheese. And we’re using a lot of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds blended with water to make salad dressing and different cheese spreads, and so I was excited to see that that was there!
KITTEE BERNS: It’s totally similar. Besides that Fit-fit I was telling you about, there’s three recipes in the book that have the toasted sunflower seed milk. My favorite is the Misir Wot, which is the ubiquitous spicy red lentils that you get in Ethiopian restaurants. But instead of water, it’s made with the toasted sunflower seed milk, so it’s kind of reminiscent of more like a West African groundnut stew, if you know this flavor. So it’s got some heat from the berbere in it, and then this toasted sunflower seed milk is just really savory but it’s cooling at the same time and rich. It’s one of my favorite recipes in the book.
CARYN HARTGLASS: Sounds really delicious, and I’m really hungry now and we’re at the end of the half hour. So Kittee, thanks for joining me and I can’t wait to devour your book, Teff Love.
KITTEE BERNS: Thank you, and I’m here to hold your hand if you need me!
CARYN HARTGLASS: Okay, sounds good. Take care!
KITTEE BERNS: You too, bye!
CARYN HARTGLASS: That was Kittee Berns, author if Teff Love. Visit her at kitteekake.blogspot.com, and I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Visit me at responsibleeatingandliving.com… you know where to go! Like us on Facebook, if you haven’t, and rate this show on iTunes! All right, other than that, have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Mekala Bertocci, 3/6/2015