The young man from Sudan walks up to the counter at Edgewater's Kukulu Market and places a half-foot stack of spongy injera on the counter. Among the seven varieties of the tangy fermented flatbread for sale in the tiny store that day, he says he likes this one best, because it's made with the most teff flour, milled from the tiny grain native to the Ethiopian highlands. A few minutes later a woman buys a stack of the same variety, for the same reason.
"Everybody wants to have teff," says owner Assefa Retta.
You can buy injera in a handful of convenience stores and African markets on the north side, but Kukulu is the only one dedicated to the foods and spices of Ethiopia. Assefa (Ethiopians formally go by their first names) opened the place in 2003 after arriving in the U.S. from Addis Adaba just three years earlier. He worked as a parking lot and gas station attendant at various times, but with assistance from the Ethiopian Community Association and the Uptown Hull House's Small Business Development Center, he secured a loan, found a location, and started attracting customers who'd come to the U.S. from all over East Africa. He carries phone cards, cigarettes, soft drinks, and lottery tickets, but the majority of his stock consists of the staples—many of them imported from the motherland—needed to prepare proper Ethiopian food and a selection of books, CDs, and clothing.
Kukulu, named for the Amharic word for a rooster's crow, has a kitchen in the back of the store where Assefa and his son, Betre, roast Yirgacheffe coffee and prepare the spiced clarified butter niter kibbe and multispice berbere paste that find their into way into so many Ethiopian dishes. They also make sambusas—smaller than Indian samosas, stuffed with lentils and spices—which are displayed in cases alongside the roasted grain snack kolo (imported and domestic) and the lightly sweet little biscuits called dabo kolo.
For those who want to make the honey wine tej, they occasionally carry the dried gesho kitel (leaves and twigs) that carries the natural yeast that starts the fermentation process. They also stock the cracked grains used in brewing tella, Ethiopian-style beer.
Kukulu also sells the electric Silverstone Heritage Grill, commonly used to make tortillas or Norwegian lefse bread but also put to use by many Ethiopians as a substitute for the traditional earthenware griddle called a mitad. For a while Assefa's wife, Akline, made injera in the back, along with the spiced flatbread snack chechebsa that I wrote about last year (tinyurl.com/mfre7q), but it's a labor intensive, exhausting process, and there isn't enough room in the store to make it in profitable quantities.
Injera begins with a yeast-activated flour and water starter to which is added pure teff flour or a combination of teff and other flours (Kukulu carries sorghum, wheat, barley, corn, and oat flours for those who like to mix it up, sometimes according to regional preference). The mixture is kneaded and thinned with water and left to rest overnight. It's then blended smooth, added to another mixture of flour and water, and left to rest again.
One by one, individual 15-to-16-inch diameter rounds are cooked by pouring the batter over the heated griddle. The batter is covered, and if it fermented properly, bubbles or "eyes" will form in the top as it rises. Then the finished bread is carefully lifted from the mitad and set aside to cool.
After a three-month trip back home this summer, Akline's extending her break from making injera. For now Kukulu's bread is supplied daily by a group of women who identify their product with their own names on small white stickers. Some make lighter-colored versions that use a mixture of teff flour and white flour, like the variety commonly seen in restaurants. Others use 100 percent teff, which results in a darker injera. Which ones customers buy comes down to personal preference and economics—the mixed flour sell for $1.75 for a three-pack, the pure teff for $2.50.
Assefa is unsure if his wife will return to making bread. Their kids are discouraging her from it because it's so much work. But he says no one else can do it quite as well. "We employed two people here to start, to see how they go with it," he says. "It is not as good as she makes it. She gets frustrated and she gets angry just because in her name she doesn't want to put out this kind of injera. The ladies don't learn as fast as she wants them to learn."