Read any professional or amateur review of a taqueria and you’d be hard-pressed to find analysis that doesn’t touch on the quality of the tortillas. Are they corn or flour? Is the restaurant making them in house? If so, do cooks start out with whole corn kernels or a vat of masa someone else ground? The same could be said about crust at a pizzeria. While selecting toppings and sprinkling cheese is easy, making the dough and consistently baking it to perfection is a pizzaiolo’s feat of strength.
Injera, the spongy, fermented flatbread served with every Ethiopian meal, merits similar consideration. The D.C. metro area is home to the largest concentration of Ethiopian people outside Ethiopia, and the region is rich with restaurants and markets serving generous portions of injera alongside vibrant mounds of berbere-spiced red lentils and comforting stews like chicken doro wat. The flatbread acts as a stand-in for utensils—diners rip off swatches and dip their way through meals.
A search for the region’s top injera led City Paper to a shadeless strip mall surrounded by car dealerships on Pickett Street in Alexandria. That’s where World Food opened in 2016. The many Ethiopian families who swing by on their way home to pick up fresh injera—much like the French pop into bakeries for still-warm baguettes—call the market “Alem Gebeya,” which roughly translates to “world market,” according to co-owner Genene Fikru. The store’s injera is known around town as Alem injera.
Fikru, a licensed Realtor, moved to the U.S. from Addis Ababa in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was in the middle of a civil war. “We had to run away from a dictator,” he explains. “That’s the reason I left home. After I got here, it’s been a blessing. Now it’s my home.” He met his wife, Tigest Mekonnen, in the D.C. area about 15 years ago. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1996.
“My wife stayed home and raised our kids,” Fikru says. “They’re now 15 and 13 years old. When [she] came back to the workforce, we decided to do this together three years ago. It was really difficult initially. The space was big and we had to introduce this new product.”
World Food sells everything from bags of Ethiopian spices, sacks of green coffee beans, beer, and fresh cuts of beef to cooking equipment and suitcases. “Most Ethiopians travel back home,” Fikru says. “While they are here to get their injera or their meat, they also get their luggage. It’s convenient and it sells, so why not? But our main product is injera. That’s what brings people into our store.”
The “new product” Fikru refers to is 100 percent teff injera, made fresh in the store every day. Teff is a gluten-free ancient grain most commonly grown in Ethiopia and Eritrea. When pulverized into flour, it is the main ingredient in injera. Mekonnen believes she’s the only person in the D.C. region making injera without incorporating another grain such as barley. “In Washington, D.C., I’m the only one so far,” she says.
To make the injera, Mekonnen combines water and teff flour grown and ground in either Idaho or Wisconsin in giant buckets where the mixture forms natural yeast and ferments for three days. Next she ladles the funky batter onto a circular, electric grill called a mitad. For the first couple of seconds the injera resembles a smooth crêpe. Then the bubbles start forming as a result of the fermentation.
“The bubbles are an important part of the injera,” Mekonnen says. “We call it ‘beautiful eyes.’ I like to say the eyes are beautiful just like mine. If there are no eyes, no one wants it.” The injera cooks for two minutes before Mekonnen removes it from the mitad using a flat, woven basket called a sefed.
A quick survey of restaurants in the area reveals many that serve 100 percent teff injera, but import it from Ethiopia. Such is the case at Zenebech in Adams Morgan and Dukem on U Street NW. Habesha Market And Carry-out, located around the corner from Dukem, makes its own injera but it’s not 100 percent teff.
Das Ethiopian in Georgetown sources its injera, which consists of teff, barley, sorghum, and whole wheat, from Hiwot on Georgia Avenue NW. “The real teff is hard to come by,” says Das owner Sileshi Alifom. “After many try-outs, we opted to go with Hiwot’s injera due to its constantly fresh soft product and daily on-time delivery.”
What makes pure teff so desirable? According to Mekonnen, it’s gluten-free, low in sugar, and easier to digest than injera made from multiple grains, which can leave diners feeling bloated. “When you add barley or wheat you consume extra carbs and you get that bulge all day,” she explains.
“People like to have teff injera because injera as we know it is teff,” Fikru says. “Later on, people mixed it with different things. Using only teff is very expensive, and also very hard to make. Everyone is having difficulty. My wife too. The altitude, the water, the kind of grain, everything is factored in. It took a while to get it to where it is now, but now people like it.”
Mekonnen makes injera in the back of World Food from early in the morning until demand diminishes in the afternoon. She makes two types of all-teff injera. One’s made from ivory teff giving it a lighter hue compared to the one she makes using brown teff. She also cooks one with barley folded in to give customers a more affordable option. They’re all sold, moments after they are made, in plastic packets of five to seven sheets.
The ivory teff injera is both the most expensive (five sheets for $6) and the most popular. It’s thinner than most injera and tastes more tart than even the most aggressive Greek yogurt or San Francisco sourdough. It’s an acquired taste, especially if eaten alone, but once paired with a breadth of Ethiopian dishes, the injera exceeds its competitors.
“It’s so authentic it looks like it’s from back home,” a customer named Gabriel tells City Paper on a recent Wednesday morning. “It’s better than all of the other injeras. I come here as often as I eat injera.”
While most of World Food’s injera customers are individuals like Gabriel or Ethiopian families, there is one restaurant in D.C. that only serves Alem injera—newcomer Tsehay Ethiopian Restaurant, which opened on Georgia Avenue NW in May. “They tried it before they opened and said, ‘This is what we like, this is what we’ll serve,’” Fikru says. “It’s nice of them. They’re honest. It’s expensive for them to serve our injera.”
Tsehay owner Selam Gossa named her restaurant after her late mother, who was one of 14 children and ran her own cafe in Addis Ababa. Because the restaurant is an homage to a beloved family member, only the best will do. “When you have really tasty food, you need good injera,” Gossa says. She was looking for locally made, 100 percent teff injera and found World Food’s Alem injera through her sister Sara, who would buy it for her own consumption. “It’s expensive, but we want quality. This is my mom’s legacy. We can spare to pay 50 cents more.”
While City Paper was visiting World Food, Gossa’s business partner, Daniel Seifu, came by to pick up injera for the restaurant. “I come here every day,” he says. It’s about a 40 minute drive from the restaurant in Park View. He knows Tsehay is the only restaurant to exclusively carry Alem injera. “I hope it stays like that too,” he jokes. “It has more flavor like back home. It’s not thick or hard to digest. That’s what we like about it.”
Unfortunately for the Tsehay team, Fikru says he’s working hard to increase capacity and introduce online sales so more restaurants will be able to serve Alem injera. Two other local restaurants already carry it from time to time.
“We consume injera every day,” Fikru says. “Everything we eat is with injera. That’s what brings people here. That’s our priority. We survive because of it. Our main focus is for them to come and get injera every day, fresh. We make it right, they smell it, and they take it.”