Buckwheat is a non-cereal grain that is extremely popular in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe and in the entire post-Soviet space.
In Russian, buckwheat is called “grechka,” where the root “grech” is the same as Greek, indicating that it originated in Greece. However, agricultural researchers established that it comes from the Himalayan foothills and was most probably traded on the Silk Road. Most likely, it came to Kievan Rus by way of Byzantine, perhaps even earlier than Orthodox Christianity, hence the name associated with the trading Greeks.
Buckwheat spread all over Eurasia because it is incredibly easy to grow. It does not require any pesticides or fertilizers. In fact, it would produce worse crops if treated with any chemicals. It is also a natural weed killer and spreads like a weed itself.
Currently, the largest world growers of buckwheat are Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, and because of the Russo-Ukrainian war the price of buckwheat more than doubled in the last two years. It is also harder to find even in European deli stores in the United States. I recently started buying buckwheat groats online, and in some stores it's still quite affordable.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, buckwheat was one of the staple foods, essential part of everyone’s diet. I often had it both at school and at home. In many ways, it is better than oatmeal because it gives you the same satisfaction of being full but will not nail you to the seat in a lazy trance, it’s much lighter than oats or regular wheat. Truly gives you the energy to go about your day.
Buckwheat is gluten-free if it is not cross-pollinated with gluten grains, which can happen sometimes because buckwheat is a great food for bees as well. Buckwheat honey is incredibly popular in the post-Soviet space. It is darker than the usual, amber-colored honey, and slightly tangy to the taste. Once you try it, you won’t forget it and will be able to recognize it. I’m on my last ounces of buckwheat honey that I brought from my home country of Kyrgyzstan last summer. Hopefully, I will be able to bring back some more next year.
I have a great friend from Greece whom I met back at the American University in Central Asia at the turn of the century. We would go to AUCA school cafeteria for lunch often and she was amazed that I could eat buckwheat almost every day.
“Don’t you get tired of it?” Valia asked me once.
“Not at all, it’s one of my favorite foods. You know it’s called ‘of Greece’ in Russian, right? Don’t you have it back home?”
“Too much,” she replied nonchalantly. “In fact, so much that I guess we got fed up with it and now eat it only at funerals. When I came here, I was surprised that people here eat our funeral food so often, I thought someone died every day.” We both laughed and this conversation got imprinted in my mind forever. I wonder if Valia remembers it.
Due to its being gluten-free, buckwheat has a lot of nutritious and healing qualities. When my son started to have pancreatic flares, buckwheat kasha and chicken soup were the only two things he could eat that would normalize his digestion and stop him from throwing up. He has largely outgrown his pancreatitis now, so when he asks for buckwheat, I always get concerned and ask him if his pancreatitis is acting up again. Amazingly, most of the times he’d say, “No, I just wanted some grechka.” It is definitely an acquired taste, in my son’s case almost literally.
Buckwheat is easy to prepare: simply cook it like you would cook rice. I have a little Aroma rice cooker and I cook buckwheat in it just like I would brown rice. Make sure you use roasted buckwheat groats for this, though, as raw ones will turn into slimy porridge that is hard to look at and does not taste as good as roasted.
For example, Whole Foods sells buckwheat raw, not roasted, so unless you want it to turn into a slimy mess, don’t buy it. I had to buy raw buckwheat once at Whole Foods when my son had a pancreatic flare on a trip to Washington, DC. Even though I tried to nuke it in the microwave like popcorn before cooking it, it was not as good as the roasted buckwheat. It did the trick of calming his pancreatitis down, but my son had to force himself to eat it.
Here are some of the ways you can enjoy buckwheat when you cook it like rice:
1) Eat it just like any cereal, hot or cold, with milk or by itself with a little bit of butter or your favorite vegetable oil. In the cover picture for this story, I had it warm with milk and fruit salad.
2) Use it as a side dish to compliment an entrée, just like you would with mashed potatoes or rice.
3) Use it as a bed for sautéed mushrooms. The best mushrooms for this are portabella, porcini, chantarelles or any Russian canned mushrooms. I don’t like button mushrooms for this, they don’t have enough flavor. If you are not vegetarian, sauté mushrooms with beef, pork or chicken.
4) Use it as a bed for fried eggs that are cooked so that the yolk is runny.
5) Use it cold in salads like you would use other cooked grains. It goes well with spinach, cranberries, walnuts, cherry tomatoes, and various cheeses. You can get creative in this exercise, by trying different salad combinations that you would like.
You can also add raw buckwheat to any soup instead of noodles or rice. It will give your soup a great picante taste. Here are some other buckwheat facts and suggestions:
Whatever you make with the cooked buckwheat, make sure to rinse it off the plate right away: When dried, buckwheat groats will stick to the plate like they are Gorilla-glued. Or at least soak the plate in water before washing.
Finally, buckwheat flour will make great gluten-free pancakes. If you want to make completely vegan or vegetarian pancakes, the flour mixes well with almond or oat milk.
If you give any of these recipes a try, let me know how it came out and if you liked it. Again, remember, it’s an acquired taste and you may not like it the first time. Bur I hope you give it another try and enjoy this wholesome grain as much as I do.