By Harry Kloman, University of Pittsburgh
T’EJ RECIPES AND PREPARATIONS differ from one Ethiopian cookbook to another, and for the first-timer, it can seem a little daunting. But it’s really very easy, and cookbooks tend to complicate it.
My step-by-step instructions here come from nearly a decade of my own home t’ej-making, and I’ll include numerous tips and things to watch for during the process. If you want to see how it’s done, then you can watch my video, which is also embedded below. I’ve also posted a piece on my Ethiopian food site about making t’ej with raw honey – which ends up being pretty much the same as making it with filtered or pasteurized (i.e., store-bought) honey.
T’ej is best served chilled, and its sweet rich flavor nicely complements any spicy food (try it with Thai or Indian if you can’t find Ethiopian food in your community).
Before we get to my preparation, let’s look at one set of instructions that made it as simple as possible. In 1924, Major J.I. Eadie, D.S.O. – that is, Distinguished Service Order, a British military designation – published An Amharic Reader, a book filled with essays, poems and documents that explored the life and culture of Ethiopia. His book is considered to be the first chrestomathy of the Amharic language and of Ethiopian culture, and he collected the material in 1913, when he was stationed in Ethiopia.
Everything in the book appears in both Amharic and English – it was translated in India, and has a preface written by the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad – and on pages 88 and 89, Eadie presents a preparation for t’ej – or as he writes it, Taj. Here is the English version:
When Taj is made, a horn or cup of honey is put in a large jar with 6 or 7 cups of water (that is to say the proportion is 1 to 6 or 7), and stirred. The next day all the impurities and wax float on the top. (The maker) having taken out the impurities and having slightly heated some Gesho, it goes into the birz whilst hot, and ferments all night. If it be in the highlands it is ready in 8 or 9 days, and if in the plains in 4 or 5 days. Taj, which is filtered and which has been mixed again with honey, will remain good for 20 years. This mixing again with honey is not just only once. It must be done when needed, when the Taj is becoming sour.
Taj for Araqi (spirits) is one part of honey to 5 parts of water so that the Taj may be thick.
The impurities being purified they give wax; what is left over from the wax also is called “Fagulo” and is used for rubbing on mitads. [See the original pages from Eadie’s book.]
Making t’ej doesn’t get much easier than that, although I doubt Eadie’s short description offers modern readers enough to do it at home.
I call my own brand Ferenj Tej, which is a bit of an inside joke. Ferenj is the Amharic word for “foreigner,” so the name seemed appropriate. This word is also (with a slightly different spelling) the name of a race of aliens on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the leader of that alien race is called the grand negus, which is the Amharic word for “king.” I’ve created a front and back label for my t’ej. Each is pictured in this section, and on the back label, you can read “The Ferenj Tej Story” (written, I assure you, with tongue in cheek). The Ferenj Tej motto, written in Amharic at the top of the front label, is "betam teru moq’ta,” which means – well, keep reading.
Making t’ej requires four ingredients: honey, water, yeast and gesho. That last item is hard to find, but later on, I’ll tell you where to find it. You must mix the liquid ingredients with three parts of water to every one part of honey. You can make as large a batch as you like with this proportion. I’d recommend mixing it in a wide-mouth jar that can hold at least one gallon of liquid. A wide mouth on the jar is imperative: You need to be able to get the gesho out of the container easily during the fermentation process, which takes a minimum of 21 to 28 days, or possibly even as long as a week or two more, depending upon which of the following methods you use.
Here’s a list of the ingredients and utensils that you need to make t’ej, all of them easy to find, except of course for the gesho:
♦ Honey, water, yeast and gesho. Any kind of store-bought honey will do. The yeast may or may not be optional, depending on which preparation you decide to try. I’ll get to the details of that a little further on.
♦ A glass jar with a wide mouth and a lid. I recommend nothing smaller than a one-gallon jar.
♦ A measuring cup (16 ounces), a pair of tongs (for removing the gesho), a large pitcher, and a small funnel.
♦ Cheesecloth and a fine mesh strainer with a handle.
♦ Empty wine or liquor bottles. You’ll need a wine re-corker if you choose to use most empty wine bottles, so I recommend empty liquor bottles, which have screw-on caps that make things much easier. You might also use a larger bottle or wine jug with a screw-on cap. You’ll need to soak the empty bottle in hot water for 10 minutes or so to remove the labels. Or you can buy new bottles, but I think recycled bottles add to the homebrew nature of the enterprise. In a 1999 article in the Addis Tribune, writer Indrias Getachew reported: “In Tchid Terra, bottles are cleaned and sold to buyers who will use them to store home-brewed t’ej and t’alla or arake; indeed, bottles are very valuable products, an important input for the informal alcohol industry in Ethiopia.”
OK, now you’re almost ready to make t’ej. But first, a few words about yeast.
In Ethiopia, home t’ej-makers mix the honey, water and gesho and let it all ferment naturally. Yeast – a fungus that comes in many species – is already there on the gesho, and if nothing interferes, it will begin to feed on the sugar in the honey and grow (that is, reproduce) on its own. You can make t’ej at home this way as well, and my first set of instructions below will walk you through the natural process – “natural” meaning that you don’t help it along by adding a little extra yeast.
But I’ve found that here in America, a batch of t’ej can go bad if foreign microbes enter the process. These microbes might be bacteria, or they might be unwanted types of yeast.
To prevent that, you can use some pure, strong brewer’s yeast of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which scientists have found to be the dominant yeast (among many) that occurs naturally in Ethiopian t’ej. You can buy this at any brew shop or online. The common and widely sold brand Lalvin D-47 works fine, and you can buy it at any brew shop or online, even at Amazon.com.
More and more, I’ve been getting reports from people who tell me that their t’ej does become contaminated. So I’d recommend you use my yeast method that follows rather than the method without yeast. It’s up to you.
First, I’ll give you the step-by-step process for making natural t’ej, without yeast. Plan on letting it ferment for at least five or six weeks, or possibly longer if you want it stronger – that is, with a higher alcohol content.
After that, I’ll tell you how to modify the process using yeast. This method takes four or five weeks to ferment to an enjoyable level of alcohol.
And just how strong will your t’ej be? If you mix it with three parts water to one part honey, and if you let it ferment fully – that is, until the yeast has no more sugar to turn into alcohol – you’ll have a maximum strength of about 12% alcohol, give or take. Using more honey will get you more alcohol at the end.
Making T’ej Without Yeast
As I describe making t’ej without commercial yeast, I’ll annotate the process. But don’t be overwhelmed! Once you separate my copious tips from the basic recipe, you’ll see that it’s really very easy.
The basic instructions here are the same for making t’ej with yeast: the proportions of water to honey, the amount of gesho you need, the straining and bottling. So don’t skip ahead – you’ll need to know these basics regardless of the method you choose.
At this point, let me emphasize one thing: I strongly recommend that you make your t’ej with woody gesho inchet and not the crumbly leafy gesho kitel. The latter produces a more pungent t’ej, and it’s much messier to work with. I’ll offer guidance below for both, but trust me when I tell you that inchet is it.
♦ Into a wide-mouth glass jar, mix one part honey to three parts water. You’ll buy the honey by weight, but you’ll mix it by volume. So for a one-gallon jar, get three pounds of honey, pour it into the jar, and then fill the empty honey container three times with water. This will end up producing about three liters of t’ej, which is four regular wine bottles. About 12 ounces of honey by weight equals eight ounces of liquid honey. But that’s approximate, so just use the empty-and-fill method I describe here. A one-gallon jar is just large enough to hold three pounds of honey and the appropriate amount of water.
♦ Blend the mixture very well with a spoon, but don’t shake the jar to mix it. That will only make it unnecessarily foamy. Keep stirring and stirring until the honey dissolves thoroughly in the water and the mixture takes on a unified amber color.
♦ Add the gesho inchet, about a fifth of a pound if you have a one-gallon container filled with your mixture. Less is OK, and whereas more won’t hurt, it could make your t’ej very pungent. Experience will ultimately tell you how much to use, but it’s okay to be a little conservative on your first batch.
If you use gesho kitel, measure about three level tablespoons of the dried flaky leaf into one gallon of liquid and stir it a few times until the leaf begins to get soaking wet in the liquid. Using kitel will later require some extra steps during the straining process, and once again, I strongly advise that you use gesho inchet.
♦ Now, put the lid on the jar and forget about it for one week. You don’t want to seal the lid tightly. If it screws on, just give it one turn, or better yet, place it gently on top. If it’s not a screw-top lid, then put a piece of waxed paper over the top of the jar and place the lid on top of it. This keeps sweet-seeking insects from getting into the mix.
After two or three days, you’ll begin to see fuzz and mold forming on the gesho. That’s nothing to worry about – unless, as I say earlier, it is. You’ll have to learn by experience, just as Ethiopians did thousands of years ago. The fuzz and mold will only appear in a natural batch. Using commercial yeast eliminates this possibility.
A few days after that, you’ll see tiny bubbles rising up from the bottom of the jar, and eventually, it’ll get very foamy on top. The bubbles are fermentation provoked by the natural yeasts on the gesho, and the pungent flavor of the gesho also soaks into the liquid. You can smell the gesho before you use it to get a sense of its flavor.
♦ After one week, open the jar and stir the mixture. Then, put the lid back on and leave it be for another week.
♦ At the end of the second week – it should be pretty foamy and bubbly by now – it’s time to remove the gesho. Using tongs, remove all of the gesho inchet, then stir the liquid a little bit and cover it again. You don’t need to strain the liquid here if you use gesho inchet.
If you use gesho kitel, then you need to strain the liquid at this point in the process, or use a strainer to scoop out the gesho. The former is messy, the latter unreliable – which is why you should avoid using gesho kitel to make t’ej. To strain the mixture, place several pieces of cheesecloth in a tight wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer on top of a pitcher large enough to hold all of the liquid. Then, pour the t’ej through the cheesecloth in the strainer. After straining the gesho from the liquid, return the liquid to the wide-mouth jar and replace the lid. During the straining process, to make sure you’ve strained it well, remember this Ethiopian proverb: “T’ej has no spots and a poor man has no friends.” Yeah, I know: not too helpful. What proverb is?
For three or four more weeks now, the t’ej will continue to ferment. After one week, you can open the lid, stir it just a bit, and then cover it again, allowing it to ferment for yet another week, then stirring it again. (“It likes to be stirred,” an Ethiopian friend once told me, although frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference.) Be sure to taste a spoonful at this point so you can compare the still rather sweet mixture to the finished product. During this part of the process, you’ll see tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the liquid to the top, and some of them will form foam or pools of bubbles on the surface.
One thing to note: Sometimes t’ej made with kitel gets very foamy and active during the last three weeks of fermentation. This is why you use much less kitel than inchet when you begin the three-week process. If your t’ej made with kitel bubbles and foams a lot, you can stir it every two or three days during the last three or four weeks of the process.
♦ After 21 to 28 days of fermentation without the gesho, your t’ej is ready to strain, chill and drink. Taste is after five weeks to see how strongly alcoholic it is, and if it’s not strong enough for you, just let it go another week or even two.
For the final strain, once again, put a piece of cheesecloth in a wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer over a large pitcher. Pour the liquid through the cheesecloth in the strainer. This filters out the remaining particles of gesho. If you use gesho kitel, you may want to filter it a second time. There will be no need to filter it twice if you use gesho inchet. You must then put the pitcher into the refrigerator for a few days before bottling it – we’ll get to that just below.
You really can’t ferment t’ej for too long, and the longer it ferments, the stronger it gets. A three-month batch will get lighter and lighter in color as more of the sugary honey turns to alcohol. Eventually, though, the yeast will consume all of the sugar, and the fermentation will stop. When you see no more tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the jar, you know it’s as done as done can be.
By the way, t’ej needs to be kept as warm as possible while it’s fermenting: at least 70 degrees if you want good steady fermentation. If you live in a warm climate, then you’ll have no problem during the summer, unless you keep your home cold with air conditioning. But during the winter, if you don’t keep your home sufficiently warm, you may find that you need to let the t’ej ferment for an extra week or so. An Ethiopian friend tells me that when the temperature in Ethiopia drops – to, say, 50 or 60 degrees – people making t’ej will wrap the jar with the fermenting liquid in as many blankets as they can find.
♦ When you decide to stop the fermentation and strain it, you next need to rack it. That’s a winemaking term that means letting the yeast in the liquid settle to the bottom of a container so you can strain it out. To rack your t’ej, put the pitcher of stained liquid into the refrigerator for two days. You’ll see silt forming in the bottom: That’s the lees – the yeast coming out of solution.
♦ Now, bottle your thoroughly strained and racked t’ej. Pour the liquid from the pitcher through a small funnel into the bottles you’ve chosen to use. Do this very, very slowly, trying hard not to stir up the lees that have settled to the bottom of the pitcher. It does no harm to get some lees into your bottle. It’s simply that your bottled t’ej will look better and clearer without it. Seal it up, put it in the refrigerator to chill, and enjoy it with Ethiopian food.
The t’ej will continue to ferment in the bottle, and every time you open it, you may hear the hiss of pressure being released. It’s highly unlikely that it will pop, but if you’re worried, just don’t seal the lid on the wine bottle tightly. Time makes the flavor grow stronger, although racking it takes a lot of the residual yeast out of the liquid. If you don’t get some of that yeast out, the cap on the bottle might explode from the pressure of continued fermentation.
You won’t see quite as much sediment (i.e., lees) in the bottom of the pitcher if you make your t’ej with inchet. You’ll see a lot more sediment – some of it lees, some of it dissolved gesho leaf – if you use kitel, and sometimes that sediment will distribute itself throughout the liquid when you pour a glass. That’s okay and perfectly harmless. It just doesn’t look too appetizing. That’s why I prefer inchet, which makes a clearer t’ej. It’s also why you want to rack your t’ej rather than pouring it directly into a bottle.
The racking process shows you how much yeast remains “invisible” in your finished t’ej unless you put it in the refrigerator, which causes that yeast to settle to the bottom and go dormant. But chilling yeast isn’t killing yeast, so before you strain your t’ej, you should save a seven or eight ounces as a starter for your next batch.
This starter is finished t’ej with rich active yeast still in it. Put some in a small bottle, and put the bottle in your refrigerator, which is also where you should keep your packets of yeast. Then, when you begin your next batch of t’ej, use the starter to get the fermentation going more quickly: Simply shake the little bottle of starter to get the settled yeast back into solution and pour it into your honey/water mixture before adding the gesho.
The result: Your t’ej will begin fermenting in days, just as if you had added some commercial yeast. This will allow you to have consistency of flavor from batch to batch. Every time you prepare to bottle a new batch, save some starter for the next one. You’ll never have to use any of your commercial yeast again if you have starter, and you’ll never have to worry about outside microbes infecting your t’ej.
So that’s it for “raw” t’ej, without yeast. For a more sure result, keep reading.
Making T’ej With Yeast
When natural t’ej succeeds, it’s very easy to make, and all of the work comes at the beginning of the process and at the end when you strain and bottle it.
But as I said earlier, I’ve seen American batches go bad because of microbes that enter the liquid and kill off the natural yeast. So if you want to avoid the risk of losing a batch, then make it with a touch of added yeast.
Here’s what to do:
♦ Start exactly as I describe above: Mix the proper proportions of water and honey, stirring it all thoroughly. Then, add a little yeast – and I do mean a little: about as much as the size of the nail on your thumbnail, but certainly no more than half a teaspoon. D-47 and the likes are strong and pure, although adding more or “too much” won’t really hurt: Once the yeast converts all of the sugar to alcohol, it will simply die, and the process is over. Just sprinkle and stir a little yeast into the sugar-rich environment and it hungrily begins to feast on its abundant new food supply. After you add the yeast, add the gesho and stir again.
♦ Within 36 to 48 hours, you’ll begin to see fermentation in the form of a layer of white bubbles gathering on top of the liquid. Within another day or two, those little bubbles will turn into a thick white foam. After one week, stir the gesho into the liquid. You can stir every few days if you like. It won’t hurt, but I don’t know if it helps.
♦ After 10 days, remove the gesho with the tongs, just as you would for a natural batch. Put the lid back on and let it continue to ferment.
♦ After three weeks, taste the t’ej. If it’s too sweet, let it go another week, or even two more weeks, depending upon how strong you want it. As long as you can see tiny bubbles rising from the bottom to the top, it’s still fermenting. When it’s strong enough, you can begin the process of straining, racking and bottling – same as above.
♦ Finally, as I describe above, save seven or eight ounces of your finished t’ej as starter for your next batch, and you’ll never need to use yeast again. Do this before you strain and rack it, while there’s still rich active yeast in the warm liquid.
GESHO IS NOT AN ITEM that you can pick up at your local Piggly Wiggly on the way home from work. You’ll only find it in major urban areas that have an Ethiopian population large enough to support an Ethiopian grocery store, and even then, not all stores will carry it (Ethiopians tend to bring gesho from back home when they visit family). The gesho plant is more or less a staple in Ethiopia, where t’ej is beloved by all and gesho is essential to its creation. In the 1991 book Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia, author Jan Engels has a short entry on gesho:
Rhamnus prinoides. Buckthorn or gesho is found growing in the wild all over Ethiopia between 1500 and 2000 m, but it is cultivated well, sometimes even on a larger scale as a field crop. Rhamnus covers about 5000 ha of the land under permanent production (Jansen, 1981). It is a woody bush, whose leaves are used like hops for the preparation of alcoholic beverages such as t’alla and t’ej, which are common household drinks in the country. Gesho is widespread all over the country. It serves the needs of the people so well that at least at the moment no improvement is needed.
Right now, I know of only one online U.S. company that sells gesho, both through its own website and at Amazon.com. Brundo Market of Oakland, Calif., is a homey little grocery store and butcher shop on Telegraph Avenue, and part of a large community of Ethiopian businesses in Oakland. The shop sells both gesho inchet and gesho kitel through its website. It costs around $14 a pound for inchet, sold in eight-ounce bag, and more for kitel, but then you need to pay shipping, and that almost doubles the cost. Enter “gesho” into the site’s search engine to find both products. You can write to the shop at email@example.com, or you can just buy directly from the website.
The Washington, D.C., area hosts the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, and the tri-state area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) abounds with places to buy gesho over the counter. Sometimes, though, I have a hard time finding gesho at grocery stores within the district.
Here are some places that I can recommend if you’re on the market for gesho inchet, the variety you want to use to make t’ej. I’ve visited all of these grocery stories and chatted with the owners, who are always very helpful and friendly. At a market, you can usually buy gesho for $10 a pound or less.
♦ Nile Market, 7815 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.882.1130). This place always seems to have gesho in stock at a good price. And while you’re at it, have a meal at the adjoining restaurant. The veggie combo platter is delicious and generous.
♦ Lena Market, 1206 Underwood St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.291.0082). This small market also has nicely priced gesho, along with lots of other Ethiopian supplies if you want to buy spices and cook. It even sells wine and beer made in Ethiopia, along with tangy pure teff injera imported several times a week from back home.
♦ Nazret Cultural Foods, 3821 S. George Mason Drive, Falls Church, VA (703.635.7843), 656 S. Picket St., Alexandria, VA (703.212.8907, 888.910.7778), and 8120 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD (215.500.9813). These three excellent markets always seem to have the best price in the greater D.C. area. The folks at the Alexandria shop tell me that they do mail order, but if you call, be patient. The phone numbers I list here are from their business cards. They also go by the name Nazret Baltena, an Amharic word that refers to kitchen and homemaking skills. The Silver Spring store is set to open in June 2016.
♦ In Chicago, you can find gesho at Kukulu Market, 6135 North Broadway (773.818.4685). It’s usually – but not always – in stock, so stock up if you find it.
♦ The Los Angeles Ethiopian community has a cluster of shops and restaurants along a few blocks on South Fairfax Avenue that they call Little Ethiopia, and Merkato Market (323.935.1775), in the heart of Little Ethiopia, is rich with Ethiopian products. Other markets along the stretch are likely to have it, too.
♦ Toronto has a well-developed Ethiopian community. You can find gesho there at Ethiopian Spices (416.598.3014), a grocery story on Kensington Avenue. The company doesn’t have a web site. Other markets have gesho, but always call to make sure, and once again, stock up when you find it.
♦ Finally, in cities with significant Ethiopian populations – Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta – you shouldn’t have a problem finding gesho at a market. Always call ahead, though, and ask if they have “gesho inchet” or “gesho stick” for making t’ej.
And while you’re shopping for gesho, you might look around for a berele, the wide-bottomed, narrow-mouthed vessel used in Ethiopia for drinking t’ej. Dating back a few hundred years, Ethiopians used it to keep insects out of their sweet wine: You can put your thumb over the mouth of the berele when you’re not drinking to protect from invaders. The pair of Nazret markets in Virginia have lots of them for sale.
Relax, You’re Making T’ej
Whether you make your t’ej naturally, without yeast, or choose to yeast and then a starter, don’t sweat it: You’re still making t’ej. I’ve made it both ways and can’t taste a difference. And while I don’t mean to brag, I’ve will note that I’ve sampled t’ej made in Ethiopia at a t’ej bet, and it tasted very much like my Ferenj Tej made with D-47 yeast.
So is t’ej made with starter a “natural” batch? Strictly speaking, no, it isn’t: You’re using a helper with rich active yeast that’s already growing and multiplying. But if your starter is from a natural batch, then you’re just one step removed. And in any case, your helper is t’ej, and that’s natural enough.
In a natural batch of t’ej – but not in a batch that uses commercial yeast or a starter – there is one more thing that can go wrong, and it’s called Brettanomyces bruxellensis. It’s a naturally occurring yeast that threatens to give any wine a taste best described as resembling kerosene or lighter fluid. Some winemakers believe that a slight “Bretty” taste adds character to a wine. Others say it ruins the wine no matter how faint the effect. In t’ej, Brettanomyces can grow if your vessel isn’t cleaned well from a previous batch, or if the yeast happens to be on your gesho.
You’ll know your t’ej has gone Bretty if it smells like kerosene or lighter fluid after the first or second week. Drinking Bretty t’ej won’t harm you, but the flavor (if you can call it that) added by the Brettanomyces will overpower the sweetness of the honey and the pungency of the gesho. Your taste buds will have to decide how much you can handle. You can overcome Brett in a natural batch by adding some commercial yeast the moment you detect it. This yeast should overpower the Brett if you catch it early enough. Or it may not, and you may have to start over – yet another reason to consider using commercial yeast in your first batch and then using starter for the rest of your t’ej-making.
All in all, it’s best not to worry about your natural batch of t’ej turning Bretty because there’s nothing much you can do to stop it. Remember that this is science at its most ancient and raw.
And if you like your t’ej specially flavored by your own hand, you can add a small quantity of any one of these ingredients for the last two or three days before bottling it: banana, coffee, ginger, orange peel, lemon peel, jalapeno peppers. Yes, that’s right: jalapeno peppers. A server at Queen of Sheba restaurant in Washington, D.C., told me that jalapeno is her favorite add-in. I’ve tried it, and it’s quite spicy.
So begin your home t’ej-making with a plain batch, perfect your recipe, and move on to some flavored varieties. You can then serve it with your homemade Ethiopian food, which you can learn to prepare at my other website: Ethiopian Food – Mesob Across America.
University of Pittsburgh