Against the grain

Prices on the staple of Ethiopian cuisine continue to rise.

ethiopian food 298.88 (photo credit: yonit schiller)
ethiopian food 298.88
(photo credit: yonit schiller)
"Just imagine what would happen if the price of pitot were to double," cautions Shlomo, an Israeli-born Ethiopian, as he walks through the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Something like that is exactly what the Ethiopian community is facing, as teff, the poppy-seed sized, hyper-nutritious grain that is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine, has become one of the most expensive cereals in Israel. The tiny grain, whose name comes from a root word meaning "lost" and has been cultivated for thousands of years in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, is used to make the distinctive, sour injera bread that serves as both a plate and eating utensil during meals. Unlike large-scale cereal crops such as rice, wheat or corn, teff is still mainly grown and harvested in the area where it was first cultivated, the Horn of Africa. Mostly unknown elsewhere, there have been attempts to market it internationally and it is grown by small companies in the Netherlands and in the USA, which supply it to Ethiopian expatriates living in Europe or in the States. But for Ethiopians in Israel the supply is subject to the variable conditions in Ethiopia. "We used to buy it at NIS 5 a kilo, now it is 12," says Solomon Melaku of Ethio-Israeli restaurant on Rehov Eliashar downtown. "It's really very expensive. It happened suddenly about four months ago. I have no idea why, but it's something inside Ethiopia, not a problem here." According to Akbe Gizhan of Shager restaurant on Jaffa Road, there is a shortage of the grain in Ethiopia. "Once, a lot of land was used to grow teff, but today people also grow rice or wheat. Because of this there isn't enough. The prime minister then decided that the price of teff would rise, and that they wouldn't export it. Although you can still get it [here], it's not like it was before." "The problem is that there is not enough teff there," agrees Kassa Zemene of the Ethiopian Spice Store in Mahaneh Yehuda. "It's known that teff is expensive in Addis Ababa and the government won't agree to export it; if there was enough there they would send it. The Ethiopian government has good connections with the Ethiopians living here and with the Israeli government... there are three or four flights from Ethiopia each week, so we hope they will allow more teff to come. "We are waiting for the new crop, in the summer," he continues. "Now, it is expensive. We used to pay NIS 150 for 25 kilos, now it's 300, and each week it gets more expensive." "We hear there is a big warehouse [full of teff] in Djibuti," adds Melaku. "But that there are a lot of taxes and they won't export it." Ethiopia is landlocked, and currently most if its exports are sent through the ports of neighboring Djibuti. Teff is high in protein, calcium, iron, fiber, carbohydrates and essential amino acids. It also has a relatively short growing period, enabling teff fields to be harvested quicker than wheat or other grains. In addition to bread, teff is also used to make porridge and beverages, and the grass is used to feed cattle and in traditional mud-brick construction. Ethiopian-Israelis, especially the older immigrants, still eat a lot of it, despite the cost. "People are suffering here," says Melaku. "There are a lot of sellers, but it's so expensive. I don't know how they get it, maybe the black market. They were going to stop selling it, and so people bought a lot for a lot of money, or they started to use wheat. We are starting to eat pasta and rice also." He sent a letter to the Ethiopian Embassy but never received a reply. "I have a small restaurant, it's the only kosher Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem; I have no problem changing it into a bar or something, but it's a pity." Fassil Melesse, first secretary for commerce and tourism at the Ethiopian Embassy, politely declined to comment. By press time, the Ethiopian ambassador had not responded to In Jerusalem's request for comment. "We raised our prices," explains restaurateur Melaku. "But then we lowered them again... 80 percent of our clients are from the community, so we can't really charge too much. The young people can eat falafel, but what about the older folks? A lot of people tell us to make injera from wheat, but we can't. It's better to serve laffa; it's like coffee, you can't change it."