March 26, 2020
Recent events have made many people aware of the need to have a supply of food on-hand at all times, just in case. Due to this there is great interest in different types of food to store. Some common staples are of course rice and different types of beans. Having grown up in the Soviet Union I have a bit of a different attitude when it comes to this. One staple I grew up eating at home, in school and later in the military was buckwheat. Unfortunately this highly versatile and nutritious standby is hardly known here in the United States. So let’s consider it.
A typical school lunch in a Soviet school would have been a 4-course meal consisting of a vegetable or salad, hot soup, main dish with protein and starch and juice or a fruit drink. The deserts were available for purchase. Not bad. The lunch alone was so filling that you could literally run on it all day. One of the most prominent dishes was a starch most Americans would be unfamiliar with, buckwheat. This was served as a side dish (kasha), as a main course mixed with goulash or stroganoff type meat and even mixed with milk for breakfast. At home it was also a part of family dinners. Every family at any given time had a healthy stock of buckwheat in their pantry. Needless to say every kid growing up in the Soviet Union was intimately familiar with buckwheat after consuming huge quantities of it at home, school or at camps. Since it was a universal side dish it was also often preferred to grains such as rice, oatmeal, etc.
For me personally buckwheat consumption took on a different dimension after I joined the military. Someone said that armies march on their stomachs, well the Soviet Armed Forces marched on buckwheat. At least three times a week it was served to us in its many ways. If there is a way to prepare a dish with buckwheat I had it. I even had it out of the can as part of our ‘c-ration’. So you can imagine my surprise when I came to the US and could not find buckwheat in my local supermarket. Not only that, but most Americans had no idea what it even was.
What is Buckwheat?
Buckwheat looks like a grain, it acts like a grain, it is prepared and consumed like a grain but it is not a grain. In fact it is a distant cousin of rhubarb and spinach. The unprocessed, three-sided buckwheat seed has a thick, hard outer hull that must be mechanically removed during processing before it's ready to eat. After the seed has been de-hulled, the inner seed or ‘groat’ has a light brown or light green coloring and is so soft that it can be easily chewed. A hardy plant, it thrives in poor soil conditions and continues to live through freezing temperatures, droughts and excess rain. Historians can trace the use of it back some 4,000 years. It is believed to have originated in the mountainous regions of India and Nepal. Because of buckwheat’s ability to adapt to almost any environment early farmers in Japan, China and Korea began growing it and it spread to the fields of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. As early as the 7-8th Century buckwheat was brought in to Kievlan Rus from Byzantine Greece, together with Christian priests and Monks. This led to its Russian name ‘Гречка’ or Greek. Today Russia is not only the largest consumer of buckwheat, but it has also become the largest producer. Russia is responsible for more than a half of the world’s buckwheat production. Apart from Russia; China, USA, Tanzania, Poland, Holland, Belgium and Latvia produce, consume and export buckwheat today.
What makes buckwheat stand out is the simple fact that it’s an amazingly nutritious food. Buckwheat differs from the common grains by its well-balanced nutritional value. It encompasses high amounts of carbohydrates (60%-65%), protein (13%-16%), cellulose (10.5%) and fats (2%-3% including Omega-3). Plus it's also rich in many of the B and E vitamins as well as the minerals; phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese. In addition to this, it's a good oil source of Linoleic acid, one of the two essential fatty acids we must have to be healthy.
Even though its protein is relatively low, the protein buckwheat does have contains the eight essential amino acids and is high in lysine. If you use half buckwheat flour with your wheat flour, the buckwheat's amino acids will round out the limiting amino acids in your wheat nicely, giving you a nearly perfect balance of the 8 essential amino acids. This particular balance between half wheat and half buckwheat flour is more closely aligned to your dietary needs than even lean beef. This makes buckwheat a great addition to any vegetarian diet. Plus buckwheat grain is also gluten free.
Having a pleasant yet rich flavor, 100% buckwheat flour makes delicious pancakes. Mixed with wheat flour, buckwheat makes great tasting biscuits, muffins and breads and can be mixed up to 50% with wheat flour for making yeast breads. The groats can be toasted (kasha) or used whole in hot cereals and soups. They can also simply be boiled until they become soft and fluffy and then eaten like rice. This makes for a very simple yet tasty and filling meal.
If you are looking into long term storage there is one thing to be aware of. Buckwheat contains essential fats inside the seed which are not well protected once the air-tight hull has been removed. Due to this oxygen will cause these essential oils in the seed to go rancid, giving it a bad taste and making it unfit to eat. So, when preparing buckwheat for long term storage you need to utilize airtight containers in conjunction with oxygen absorber technology. Properly doing so will provide a long storage life.
So in summary buckwheat is a highly nutritious gluten free food which is simple to prepare. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Plus it can be purchased in bulk. Most reading this have probably never considered buckwheat, but I suggest doing some research and looking into it. I feed it to my students when teaching Soviet doctrine sniper/cold weather courses and they always ask for seconds.
A Simple Recipe
You can cook buckwheat like rice. One part of buckwheat grain to 3 parts of water. Bring the water to a boil, add buckwheat, reduce the heat and cover it. Cook it for 20-30 minutes or until the buckwheat absorbs all the liquid. Salt and/or pepper it and serve it by itself, as a side or mixed with saucy meat. You add anything from jams to hot sauce and anything in-between.
Author bio: Marco Vorobiev served in the Soviet Spetsnaz with service in Afghanistan and was the Soviet Armed Forces Sambo Champion.
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