Buckwheat has been part of the human diet as far back as the seventh millennium B.C., when it was grown in South Asia. From there it made its way to central Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe and Japan. Of all the crops that are cultivated, buckwheat grows at the highest elevations, having been grown in the plateaus of China and Tibet at altitudes unsuitable for rice, wheat or other grasses. Indeed, Buckwheat isn’t even a grass, it is heartier and more closely related to rhubarb, and the little nut that we eat is not a grain, it is an achene-the plant’s fruit that contains its seed.
Buckwheat-or beech wheat, so named because the seeds resemble tiny beech nuts-has a short growing season, blooming in cool weather, which makes it a great second season crop or cover crop, and matures in about six weeks so it is naturally suited for challenging climates and areas with low-nitrogen soil. In fact, when commercially produced fertilizers high in nitrogen were introduced to farming practices in the twentieth century, buckwheat fell out of favour. Plants like corn, maize and wheat love high concentrations of nitrogen, but buckwheat, not so much. As a result, production in North America has declined from harvesting over 400,000 hectares at the start of the twentieth century to about 80,000 hectares in our generation. Not to worry though, countries like Russia and China are still bully for buckwheat, and the cuisine of these countries, with dishes like blini, buckwheat dosa and soba noodles front and centre in their culinary cultural identity.
Buckwheat is a gluten-free seed, so while it can be ground into flour, it lacks the proteins (giladin and glutenin) to give it that elasticity that makes bread stick together. The word gluten itself is derived from the Latin for glue. As such, it is often mixed with other flours to make bread, or crepes, or soba noodles. Making soba is a real art; to give you some idea, here is a lovely short film of traditional soba noodle making by a true master.
On the plus side of course, some people cannot tolerate gluten, so buckwheat products would be good for them. Furthermore, soba (Japanese for “buckwheat”) is high in thiamine, a deficiency of which results in beri beri so when a beri beri outbreak occurred in Japan soba noodles pretty much saved the day, as the starch that was consumed in large quantities by the upper classes and the military, white polished rice, is devoid of thiamine.
While Buckwheat is lacking in the protein of gluten, it is high in all the essential amino acids, making it a healthy choice, certainly not an “empty extra.” Furthermore, it is a very good source of manganese, copper, phosphorous and dietary fibre and has a low glycemic index, making it a superior food choice.
Buckwheat is truly amazing. When roasted, whole or cracked, it is known as kasha and can be boiled into a porridge, or cooked al dente and served in grainy salads like tabouleh. Even the hulls of buckwheat are utilized in an ingenious and healthy way, and have been used as hypoallergenic, breathable stuffing material for pillows in Japan for centuries, and buckwheat hull pillows are now produced in Canada as well, providing a eco-friendly, organic product that is vegan as well, i.e., not made from goose or duck feathers.
And not’s forget about buckwheat honey, a monofloral honey meaning it is made from the flowers of the buckwheat only.The dark colour reflects the presence of trace vitamins and minerals, as well as higher concentration of anti-oxidants than exists in other honeys.
Get some buckwheat in your life!