What on earth are ancient grains, and why are we scouring the globe for them?
Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin
Special thanks to city’super, Just Green and Spicebox Organics
A North African staple, couscous is not a grain, but coarsely ground granules of semolina flour. Technically a pasta, it can be cooked and eaten as a grain. With little flavour of its own, couscous soaks up flavours easily and is a great accompaniment for vegetable and meat dishes. It is delicious simply tossed with herbs, lemon zest and toasted pine nuts.
Originally from Africa, sorghum appeared some 8,000 years ago in southern Egypt. Largely neglected in the West where it was mostly fed to animals or used for packing materials, lately it has been popping up on restaurant menus everywhere. Versatile and eco-friendly, sorghum takes a third less water to grow than corn. It is gluten-free and rich in antioxidants and proteins.
One of the oldest cultivated grains, barley was a staple in ancient Egypt (mummies have been found wearing barley necklaces), Greece and Rome. With about 17 per cent fibre, it is said to be the most fibrous whole grain. There are two common varieties: hulled barley and pearl barley. For the first, the outer husk is removed but the bran layer is left intact; for the second, both husk and bran are removed. Today, barley is mostly used to make malt whisky and beer. Try using pearl barley in a risotto or to thicken a soup.
Originating in ancient Egypt, farro is also known as emmer or pharaoh’s wheat. Emmer wheat was one of the first strains to be domesticated in the Middle East’s “fertile crescent” and was later served as a staple to the Roman legions before being replaced by durum wheat. Today, farro is commonly used in Italy to make quality pastas and risottos.
In the past few years, we have grown to know and love quinoa. Native to the Andes, and cultivated in Central and South America for more than 5,000 years, quinoa was considered sacred by the Incas, and translates as “mother” in Quechua Indian. Slightly crunchy, fluffy, gluten-free and nutritious with all nine essential amino acids, it’s no wonder quinoa has become so popular in salads and stews.
Amaranth was a staple crop of the Aztecs until Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, intent on conquering the civilisation, put a stop to growing the crop. When cooked, the tiny kernels resemble small brown beads with a robust, peppery flavour. It’s a popular street snack in South America, where it is popped like corn. It is high in protein and gluten-free.
Called arisah in the Bible by ancient Babylonians, Hittites and Jews, bulgur has been a staple for thousands of years and is often called Middle Eastern pasta. Made from pre- cooked wheat berries, its nutty, chewy texture makes an ideal substitute for meat in dishes such as burgers or meatloaf. Its relatively low glycemic level makes it a good rice or pasta substitute for those watching sugar levels.
8. BLACK JAPONICA RICE
Black japonica rice was first cultivated in China, where it was traditionally considered the finest rice and reserved solely for the emperor, hence its nickname “forbidden rice”. The dark, long-grain rice is mixed with mahogany rice and turns a dark, metallic purple after cooking. With a hearty, chewy interior, the rice is slightly sweet, nutty and earthy, and since its recent introduction to the US it has quickly won a following.
No, it’s not birdseed. Newly trendy in the West, millet played a prominent role in early Chinese agriculture. Dating back almost 7,500 years in north China, it is still a staple in Asia and Africa. Naturally nutty, crunchy and nutrient-rich, millet comes in numerous varieties, including pearl, foxtail, proso, finger and fonio. Gluten-free, it can be ground into flour.
A “false grain” that is neither a grain nor wheat, buckwheat is a fruit seed closely related to rhubarb. Originating in northeast Asia, it was first cultivated as early as 6000 BC and was one of the first crops introduced to America from Europe. High in protein, this versatile crop is used for buckwheat galettes in France, buckwheat soba in Japan, and kasha varnishkes in Russia.
Wheatberries are the whole-grain form of wheat before any refinement or processing. Wheat flour, for instance, is made from milled and ground wheatberries. Containing gluten and the nutritional content of a whole grain, wheatberries give a crunchy texture to dishes. To cook, wheatberries must be simmered in a pot of water over low heat for 60 to 90 minutes.
A reliable, resistant staple in Ethiopia for thousands of years, teff is used in Ethiopia’s beloved sour and spongy flatbread, injera. Its name is derived from the word teffa, which means “lost” in Amharic. Resembling fine poppy seeds, the tiny size of the world’s smallest grain makes it impossible to separate the bran, germ and endosperm. Teff comes in three colours and the flavour ranges from mildly sweet to a chocolate-like earthiness.