Ingredient Trending: Buckwheat

By Carlynn Woolsey, Foodable Contributor

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2014 has been a powerhouse of a year when it comes to the popularity of ancient grains. Quinoa is a mainstream culinary ingredient as a result, whereas other grains like amaranth and spelt are becoming more prevalent on restaurant menus. Buckwheat, however, has stood out from all of the rest given how healthful and versatile it is. This is one ingredient that chefs and consumers alike are going buck wild for!

Buckwheat Basics

The real kicker is that buckwheat is not even a grain at all, even though it is commonly considered one. It is actually the seed of a short broadleaf plant – similar to rhubarb - that produces small white flowers. The hulled buckwheat kernels are called groats and are pale green/tan in color. Once roasted, the groats turn a dark brown color, and are commonly referred to as “kasha”.

How to Eat It

Kasha has been a dietary staple in Asia and Eastern Europe for centuries. One common European preparation is to cook it in stock with olive oil, onions and fresh herbs. You might also find it on a breakfast menu, combined with oats and served warm, topped with fresh berries. Buckwheat nectar can be transformed into a dark amber honey as well, and is used to sweeten biscuits and cookies.     

In Asia meanwhile, buckwheat flour is used to make “soba” (the Japanese name for buckwheat) noodles. As the noodle craze sweeps the United States, they have become increasingly popular here too, making buckwheat a trend within a trend.  Soba can refer to any thin noodle (“Udon” is the name for a thick noodle made from wheat flour) and is often served cold in salad form or hot with meat, seafood, or vegetables – or a combination thereof. At Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, Chef David Chang plates his noodles in a ginger scallion sauce with pickled shitakes, cucumber, and cabbage.   

Chefs on our shores are also serving up brownies, crepes, and pancakes using buckwheat flour anywhere one might normally use a traditional white version. Buckwheat is gluten-free so it is an excellent choice for those who have an allergy or intolerance.  

Healthy Compounds

This is one seed that packs a nutritional punch. Buckwheat groats contain a compound called D-fagomine, which has been shown to lower blood sugar spikes after a meal. It is low in fat and contains vitamins B3 and B6, copper, magnesium, iron and zinc to boot. Buckwheat also contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein, which aids in building muscle. In fact, it has more protein than corn, millet, rice, or wheat.

Loyal Following

Still not sold on this “ancient grain”? Perhaps an up-close-and-personal experience will change your mind. Toward the end of every summer, the Northeast Buckwheat Growers Association holds a “Field Day” in Upstate New York.  In Preston County West Virginia, meanwhile, the last week of September marks the annual (70+ years now) Buckwheat Festival, replete with carnival rides, exhibits, and meals of signature cakes and sausages. If the buckwheat trend continues to gain momentum at the rate that it has this year, it is a pretty safe bet that we can expect more events like these to pop up!