An Ethiopian Company Wants To Make Teff Chips Big In The U.S.

An Ethiopian company wants to make teff chips big in the U.S.

In recent years, American health and sustainability nuts have been slowly turned on to the benefits of teff. A poppy-size grain with a nutty flavor that's been grown for millennia in the Horn of Africa, it's packed with nutritional goodies. Gluten-free and protein-dense, teff rivals or exceeds the health bona fides of many superfoods. Unlike other trendy grains that are weighed down with complex farming politics (think quinoa), production of the easy-to-grow, hearty crop is skyrocketing, well-monitored within Ethiopia and spreading across the globe.

Yet the only way most Americans have ever encountered the grain is through injera, the flatbread used as both a serving platter and utensil in Ethiopian and Eritrean food. A spongy, sour fermented crepe, injera can be a turnoff to some American diners. And thanks to the conservatism of Ethio-Eritrean cuisine, it's long seemed unlikely that the U.S. would see much large-scale, accessible experimentation in teff delivery vehicles, keeping the grain off casual eaters' radars.

Recently, though, a few folks have started to experiment with an American-friendly snack using the grain: teff chips. Chief among these innovators is Dirkosh, a start-up based in Ethiopia and run by Alula Kibrom, a local raised on injera and eager to share his nation's culture with the world, and Valerie Bowden, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, native who has been living in Ethiopia for a few years.

There's already an item called dirkosh in Ethiopian cuisine. A sun-dried injera, it's already widely available in America, easy to make at home, and commonly incorporated into spicy stews to make a dish called fir-fir. But the company Dirkosh, somewhat confusingly, isn't actually producing the common food that shares its name, which, although crispy, isn't truly a teff chip.

Bowden explains that the name is an attempt to recognize dried injera's influence on their product—or at least the stuff that Kibrom's sister, Frey, made for the duo a few years back.

"The first time [she] made dirkosh for us," Bowden recalls, "we went through 28 injera's worth in one week between just the two of us. That is a lot of injera . . . but we just loved it."

For Bowden, the appeal stemmed from her shift to a low-oil, plant-based vegan diet—a transition that tragically all but cut chips out of her life. Speaking to others on a similar diet, she realized that many shared her sense of loss. Yet when she tried to hook folks on dirkosh, a diet-compliant and low-fat chip replacement to her mind, it went down fine—but it couldn't fill the chip-shaped void in American palates. "Regular dirkosh," she explains, "is very sour, too thick to really crunch, and often has surprisingly sharp edges that can really hurt if you bite down wrong."

Eager to bridge the gap between dried injera and chips, Bowden and Kibrom recruited their friends and family to help them experiment with recipe tweaks. Eventually, they found a way to reduce the fermentation process, lowering the sour flavor, upping the smooth nuttiness and allowing for a lighter, crispier texture when dried that almost perfectly mimics the basic profile of a chip. The prototype Dirkosh chip is plain, garnished with a bit of natural volcanic salt from Ethiopia's Danakil Depression (an area believed to have curative powers).

The Dirkosh team won't say much about how exactly they tweaked injera to make it chip ready, because they know a couple of other companies are trying to make their own teff chips and they're worried about tipping their hand early on. (These other companies aren't nearly as high profile, although records show that Blue Nile Living, a company registered in California in 2013, did trademark the phrase "The Original Teff Chips" in October of last year.) The company's just entering the Ethiopian market in the coming months and, pending fundraising and investor interest, planning to expand into America, targeting health food shops for distribution, within the next year. But they're fairly confident that they'll be able to take off. They have a socially responsible model geared toward sourcing from and empowering female farmers and disabled workers in Ethiopia, an attractive proposition for their eminently conscious U.S. market. And by sourcing from and producing their chips in Ethiopia, they think they can deliver them at a lower price point than folks importing teff or using expensive American-grown grain in the States.

If Dirkosh does manage to take off, perhaps the team will be more amenable to letting teff enthusiasts crib from their notes. But, more importantly, they'll have introduced America to a teff-delivery mechanism designed to appeal to our palates, overcoming the sour challenge of injera. Easy to procure and pop and socially attractive, lending each bite a smug sense of accomplishment, teff chips could be just what we need to get the power of this potent highland grain to the masses.