Ancient Grains…A Grain by Any Other Name
In the world of “Ancient Grains”, not all of them are actually grains even though they are still included under the same category of true grains such as Kamut® Wheat, millet, sorghum, rye, emmer (farro), teff and spelt. Grains are technically grasses, which quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth are not. “Grains” such as Kamut®, spelt, quinoa and amaranth are referred to as Ancient Grains because they have been around, unchanged, for millennia. This is in stark contrast to corn, rice and modern wheat varieties—hard white wheat and red spring wheat—which have all been selectively bred over the years, making them look and taste very different from their ancestors.
Whether these ancient varieties are true “grains” or not, they still offer significant health benefits such as helping to prevent cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure. If eaten as a “whole grain”, they are also high in fiber. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, at least half of all grains eaten each day should be whole (that is, intact, ground, cracked or flaked). Many of the ancient grains are also high in protein, so it makes perfect sense to get to know these grains not only for health reasons, but because they are simple to cook and taste absolutely delicious. Here are just a few Ancient grains that can be found easily for cooking or in finished products like crackers, cereals, pasta, breads and baked goods.
With over 60 varieties grown worldwide, Amaranth was one of the earliest known food plants, it was cultivated by the Aztecs and the Incas. (One of the best-known varieties is called Inca wheat.) High in protein with such nutrients as calcium, folic acid, magnesium and potassium, it’s as simple to make as rice. It’s like porridge with a slippery, silky consistency. Traditionally eaten as a breakfast porridge, it can also be cooked and added to salads, pancake batter and soups, or eaten as a side dish.
Not an actual wheat despite its name, the buckwheat kernels are known as groats. Native to Southeast Asia, buckwheat is common in Eastern Europe and Asia. It provides lots of protein as well as calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. The flour is used to make various foods, including pancakes and soba noodles. Cooked groats are a great addition to side dishes and salads.
Kamut® is actually a brand of khorasan wheat which has a very colorful history. Legend has it that its origin includes introduction by invading armies of the ancient Greeks or Romans or possibly later by the Byzantine Empire. Farmers in Turkey have their own stories and the wheat can still be found growing there in small plots. Khorasan, which is also called Camel’s Tooth or the Prophet’s Wheat was said to be the grain Noah brought with him on the ark. Nutritionally it is a powerhouse of proteins and minerals, especially selenium, zinc, and magnesium, as well as being high in antioxidants. Its sweet, nutty, buttery taste makes it perfect for baking, as a cereal, in salads and stews and it makes amazing pasta and breads.
One of the earliest cultivated crops, it was most likely the original staple crop of China. It’s also very prevalent in Africa and India. High in magnesium, whole cooked millet can be served as a side dish or added to soups. When popped, it can be eaten as a snack. Millet flour can be used in baking. Millet has a very distinctive flavor when cooked correctly.
Quinoa has become a phenomenon as far as “grains” are concerned”. Mainly because it has a mild taste and cooks quickly. Grown in the Andean region of South America, this ancient seed was named the “mother of all grains” by the Incas. It provides high levels of complete protein and is rich in iron, phosphorus and potassium. It cooks in about 15 minutes and can be served as a side dish or added to soups and salads.
Many of us are familiar with rye flour used in the slightly fermented rye bread. The rye bread often takes on the distinct flavor of the added caraway seeds. Rye berries, however, are a very different culinary experience—very chewy, quite dense and always al dente even after cooking for a long time. Rye is high in nutrients, including folic acid, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin and zinc. While rye flour is used to make breads and crackers, rye grains can be served hot as a side dish or added to soups and salads.
Widely popular in Africa because of its drought-resistant properties, sorghum was up until the late 1950’s, the third most cultivated grain on the planet behind wheat and rice. Its high in fiber, niacin and phosphorus. In India, it is used to make chapatis (a type of flatbread). In the United States, it’s most often ground into flour and used in baked goods.
One of the tiniest grains, with seeds smaller than a pinhead, biologically teff is a form of millet. High in calcium and Vitamin C it has a sweet/sour balanced flavor. Because it act like a moisture sponge, teff dishes are best eaten when cooked in Ethiopia, teff is ground into flour and made into a soft, spongy bread called injera. The Ethiopian long-distance runners attribute their amazing stamina to teff. Teff can also be found in cereals and can be sprinkled on salads or added to soup.
And if you feel like cooking up some recipes in your own kitchen two great cookbooks are:
Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More by Maria Speck
Grain Mains: 101 Surprising and Satisfying Whole Grain Recipes for Every Meal of the Day by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough Ancient Grains…A Grain by Any Other Name
One of my favorite recipes from Bruce and Mark is a Kamut Salad with Cauliflower, Olives and Raisins.