What is Buckwheat?
In this day and age, more and more people are becoming more aware of their bodies and their health. A wide variety of health-enhancing products such as food supplements, pills, and teas have re-emerged in the market—all boasting of a “miracle” ingredient that will help consumers usher their bodies and lifestyles toward better health.
Before you buy any kind of health product on the market, we would like to introduce you to one of the best ingredient you could incorporate into your diet—buckwheat.
What is Buckwheat?
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is a plant cultivated in various parts of the world for the grain-like seeds that it produces, and can also be used as a cover crop (to manage soil fertility and quality). Buckwheat, despite it not directly related to wheat—in fact, it is not a grass, and it is more related to knotweed, sorrel, and rhubarb. Buckwheat grain, in the past, has been a main crop, but its cultivation declined in the 20th century. During this period, many farmers have adopted the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which increased the productivity of other food staples, including rice and wheat. Tartary buckwheat, a related species, is cultivated as a gain crop in the Himalayan region.
The name buckwheat might be misleading, but it is actually derived from the term “beech wheat,” in part for the plant’s triangular seeds. These seeds resemble the seeds of the beech nut (which are, far more larger) from the beech tree. The seeds of Fagopyrum esculentum are used like wheat grains, which led to the name.
Where does it come from?
In the wild, the ancestor of the common buckwheat is the F. esculentum ssp. ancestrale, while tartary buckwheat is descended from F. tataricum ssp. potanini. Buckwheat was first domesticated and cultivated in inland Southeast Asia (around 6000 BC), and spread to Central Asia and Tibet, and eventually in Europe and the Middle East.
Essentially, buckwheat is a short season crop that thrives well on acidic or low-fertility soils, but the soil itself must be well drained. The use of too much fertilizer—especially nitrogen—will reduce the yields of the buckwheat plant. This crop is grown by sowing late in the season (especially in warmer climates), so that the plant will bloom in the cooler weather. Buckwheat is also known for its delicate, pinkish flowers, which attract a wide variety of pollinators. The nectar from the buckwheat flower produces a dark-colored honey.
Among the species of buckwheat, common buckwheat is by far the most important economically—this species account for over ninety percent of the world’s total buckwheat production. At present, the largest producer of buckwheat is China, whch is closely followed by Russia, Ukraine, France, Poland, Kazakhstan, and the United States.
The fruit of the buckwheat plant is an achene—which is very similar to a sunflower seed—with a single seed encased inside a hard outer hull. The endosperm is white and starchy, and makes up almost all of buckwheat flour. The seed coat, on the other hand, is usually green or tan in color, which in turn darkens the flour produced from the plant. The hull is typically dark brown or black, and can be included in buckwheat flour (they appear as dark specks. The dark flour produced from buckwheat is known as black flour, and is known in French as “blé noir” or “sarrasin.”
Incorporating buckwheat into your diet
People from Tibet and Northern China have been eating buckwheat noodles for hundreds of years, as real wheat cannot be grown successfully in the cold mountain regions. To process the flour into noodles, Tibetans and Northern Chinese use a special press (made of wood log) to press the dough into hot boiling water. The Japanese and Koreans have adapted this technique in the production of buckwheat noodles. The noodles made from buckwheat flour figure largely in the cuisines of Korea (in the form ofnaengmyeon, memil guksu, and makguksu), Japan (as soba), and the Valtellina region of Northern Italy (as pizzocheri).
Buckwheat groats are also very common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia—the common buckwheat porridge is considered as the definitive peasant dish. In order to prepare this dish, roasted groats are cooked with a broth and simmered to a texture similar to bulgur or rice. Polish and Russian immigrants brought kasha to America—cooked buckwheat served like rice or noodles—which is mixed with pasta, or used as a filling for blintzes and knishes.
Several countries prepare buckwheat pancakes, which can sometimes be raised with yeast. These pancakes are known as buckwheat blinis in Russia, ployesi in Acadia, and bouketes in the Wallonia region of Belgium. Buckwheat pancakes are known asgalettes in France, which are basically savory crepes made with buckwheat flour, eggs, and water. Eggless buckwheat pancakes are associated with the Higher Brittany region.
Buckwheat groats can be used to make farina, which in turn, can be used for porridge and as thickening material in dressings, soups, and gravy. In Korean cuisine, buckwheat starch is especially useful in preparing a jelly called memilmuk. In Northern Italy, buckwheat can be used with wheat, maize, or rice in a wide variety of pasta and bread products.
Buckwheat has been used, in more recent years, as a substitute for a wide variety of grains in the production of gluten-free beer. Technically, buckwheat is not a cereal, but it can still be used in the same way as barley in order to make a malt, which then forms the basis of a mash that can brew a type of beer without gliadin or hordein (which, when combined, form gluten). Gluten-free beer is perfect for celiacs or those who are sensitive to specific glycoproteins.
Gluten free buckwheat
People with celiac disease or gluten allergies can consume buckwheat and buckwheat products, because they do not contain gluten. Various bread-like preparations using buckwheat flour have been developed, which are a healthier (but no less delicious) alternative for those who have medical issues with gluten.
Other uses of buckwheat
Aside from being a useful and healthy ingredient in various food and beverage items, buckwheat can also be used in a wide variety of applications. The hulls removed in the processing of buckwheat for food can be used as a filling for a number of upholstered products, including zafu and pillows. Buckwheat hulls are very durable, and, unlike synthetic fills, do not reflect heat. People with allergies can benefit from buckwheat-hull pillows as an alternative to feathers.
Buckwheat is also used as a form of biological control in New Zealand, in which it is utilized as a source of both pollen and nectar to increase the number of natural enemies of crop pests. This is a healthier and an organic way to control the pests that destroy important crops.
Buckwheat is also important in various cultures. On the Hindu fasting days of Ekadashi, Janamashthami, Maha Shivaratri, and Navaratri, those who live in the northern regions of India consume food items made with buckwheat flour. On such days, eating cereals such as rice and wheat is prohibited. But since buckwheat is not really a cereal, it is acceptable to eat during such important fasting days. Preparation of buckwheat food items differs in various parts of India. The most famous recipes are the “kuttu ki puri” (buckwheat pancakes), and “kuttu pakoras” (potato slices covered with buckwheat flour and deep-fried in oil).
People from Kingwood, West Virginia celebrate the Buckwheat Festival, where people can participate in a wide variety of activities, including livestock judging contests, vegetable contests, and arts and crafts fair. Every year, the people elect a King Buckwheat and a Queen Ceres. One of the highlights of the festival is the preparation and serving of delicious buckwheat cakes, which is a perfect complement to homemade sausages.