For many immigrants, finding the flavors, ingredients and dishes they were raised on in their adopted home countries can be difficult. But the Inland Northwest offers Almaz Ainuu, owner of Spokane’s Queen of Sheba, a unique link to her native Ethiopia: teff.
A cereal grass native to Ethiopia, Ertitrea and the Horn of Africa, teff’s small seeds are high in protein and have been a staple of the region’s diet for thousands of years. The poppy-sized grain is milled and used to make gluten-free sourdough-leavened crepes called injera, typically used as utensils for diners to pinch and scoop up all the other elements of an Ethiopian meal.
The rise in popularity of ancient grains like quinoa and millet around the globe in the early 2000s led Ethiopia to restrict the export of teff as a way to preserve the country’s ability to feed its people. But an Idaho farmer started planting teff in the early 80’s after spending time in East Africa, so this staple of Ethiopian cuisine is both local and international. Ainuu sources her teff from Idaho and Oregon, and it’s not the only local ingredient on her menu with international crossover. Pulses like lentils and chickpeas that thrive on the Palouse and work well in stews are highlighted in Queen of Sheba’s yemeshir kik w’et and shiro while chunks of potatoes take on the golden hue of turmeric in the yatakilt alicha.
The food served at Queen of Sheba is best shared with friends or family, and welcoming her loyal customers into the restaurant is something that Ainuu missed when dining-in was prohibited. But she is happy to serve her food family-style in a large gebeta or on individual plates for anyone unwilling to share. For those in the know, the nostalgia of sharing food in a time before the pandemic may have even been a source of business for Queen of Sheba.
“I love the support of the Spokane community. During this time of the pandemic, many people still came out to support us,” Ainuu says. “It was so encouraging to see our community pull together to support small businesses.”
photos by ari nordhagen