Ancient Grains For The Modern Table

Ancient Grains For The Modern TableThe recent renaissance of Ancient grains proves that there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, we seem to be ‘discovering’ grains as old as, well, King Tut’s tomb. In fact, all grains have been cultivated for thousands of years – barley for over 9,000 years and corn (maize) for roughly the same length of time. So what are the distinguishing characteristics that make some grains mysterious and ‘new’ enough to be classified as ‘Ancient’?


Everyone, from growers to processors to bakers, has a slightly different definition of Ancient Grains, but botanists and herbalists use the term to describe those grains or seeds that remain true to their original genetic form – they are virtually untouched by plant science. In other words, they have not been bred to be easier to grow, harvest, process and refine; to increase yield; or to have favourable commercial baking characteristics.

The ancient grains have retained the original nutty flavour and al dente texture along with their genetic pedigree. They are significant because they offer taste and nutrition while providing alternatives for people who suffer from allergies to more common grains, that is, people with wheat allergies. They supply a different range of nutrients than the modern varieties of wheat, corn, and rice most often refined and stripped of vital nutrients. For adventurous cooks, ancient grains enliven vegetarian and vegan dishes. Perhaps most important, buying ancient grains encourages plant biodiversity, a rapidly shrinking fact of modern agriculture.


Modern wheat (Triticum aestivum) is a descendent of three ancestral grains that top our list of ancient grains. The early wheats listed below, in addition to being GMO-free, all grow a tight protective hull around the kernel that protects it from insects and eliminates the need for pesticides.

Spelt (Triticum spelta) – originated in Iran around 6,000 to 5,000 BC and was later introduced to Europe. Most widely available, spelt has a distinctly pleasant earthy flavour and is available as berries, flour, pasta and couscous. People with allergies to wheat starch may be able to digest spelt, but for people with gluten allergies (celiac disease), spelt is not tolerated.

Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) – originated in the upper fertile crescent (Tigris-Euphrates) region and was first cultivated around the Neolithic period (ca. 5000 BC). Rarely grown today, only small, artesan co-ops make it available.

Emmer (Triticum diococcum) – known to have been the primary wheat grown in Asia, Africa and Europe through the first 5000 years of recorded agriculture. Similar to rice in texture, emmer is often substituted for rice in recipes. In Italy, emmer is known as faro.

From these three grains, three later species of hull-less wheats, known as Kamut® (T. turanicum), Polish (T. polonicum) and Persian (T. carthlicum), emerged as minor crops in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Of these, Kamut® is the most popular, due to its availability in North America and exotic history of discovery in an Egyptian tomb by a WWII US airman.

Four other grains (or seeds) round out our ancient grains list. All are generally available in supermarkets, specialty and whole food outlets; most are grown organically and some are offered as a fair trade commodity.

Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) – the only seed to provide humans with the most effective balance of protein matched only by milk. And with its high lysine content, amaranth plays an important role in dairy-reduced or vegan diets.

Millet (Panicum miliaceum) – “The millets are a group of small-seeded species of cereal crops or grains, widely grown around the world for food and fodder.” (Wikipedia)

Teff (Eragrostis tef) and sometimes sorghum (Sorghum spp) and Job’s Tears (Coix lacrima-jobi), are often considered to be part of the Millet group of grains, even though they are not part of the botanical family.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) – protein-rich and extremely high in calcium, 1 cup of cooked quinoa equals the amount of calcium found in 1 quart of milk. Gluten-free and easily digested, quinoa is a favourite seed for those on vegetarian or vegan diets.

Chia (Salvia columbariae) – due to their high protein, antioxidant, mineral and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, chia seeds are fast becoming the darling of the ancient grains. This is a plant in the mint family of herbs originating in Mexico and cultivated by the Aztecs. The Mayan word for Chia is ‘strength’; ancient civilizations used them for stamina. Chia seeds gradually release slow-burning glucose into the bloodstream for long-lasting endurance.

Versatile and indestructible (both in the field and in the pot), ancient grains offer a rich variety of choice in recipes. They add body to soups and stew; make hearty pilaf and risotto dishes; and contribute critical nutrients to stuffing and salads. Paired with nuts, legumes and other seeds, ancient grains complete our nutrient requirements.

With the hype of low-carbohydrate diets now waning, the focus has shifted to the quality of the carbohydrates we ingest and the fact that whole grains are important sources of a wide variety of nutrients including fibre, protein, vitamin B and omega fatty acids. Eating ancient grains completes the circle of life that grains and seeds have woven from the beginning of time.


Bio Chia From Grass Roots Organics; 136135 Concession 8, RR #1 Desboro ON N0H 1K0; 519-794-4445

Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario
A directory of ecological farmers and products by county in Ontario.
5420 Hwy. 6 N.
R.R. 5 Guelph, ON N1H 6J2
(519) 822-8606

Rube’s Gourmet rice from around the world, legumes, grains, flours, cereals and trail mixes. St. Lawrence Market South, Lower Level (Front Street at Jarvis). 416-368-8736

Source Salba
Salba® is a registered name for chia seeds. The site lists the nutrients and chia products available and gives lists of stores in Ontario where Salba® may be purchased.

Related to Durham wheat, the kamut kernel is larger than any other wheat berry, which makes it great in salads and vegetable dishes. Reprinted with permission from The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible by Pat Crocker (Robert Rose, 2007).

Serves 6 to 8


  • 1-1/4 cup kamut kernels
  • 1-1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 cup chopped zucchini
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tbsp tamari or soy sauce

1) In a saucepan, combine kamut and stock. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

2) Bring stock and kamut to room temperature. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes or until kamut is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. Drain, rinse and let cool.

3) In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper, zucchini, peas and corn. Sauté for 4 minutes or until vegetables are tender-crisp.

4) Stir in kamut, parsley and tamari and heat through. Serve immediately or chill before serving.

The nutty flavour of the whole grain combined with the earthy mushrooms makes this pilaf remarkable. Reprinted with permission from The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible by Pat Crocker (Robert Rose, 2007).

Serves 6


  • 1 cup spelt kernels
  • 4 cups vegetable stock, divided
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped Portobello mushroom caps
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped sweet potato
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh sage
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional

1) In a large bowl, combine spelt with 4 cups water. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

2) Rinse spelt in warm water and drain. In a large saucepan, combine soaked spelt with 3 cups of the stock. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until kernels are tender.

3) Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add mushrooms, onion and sweet potato. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add wine, garlic and remaining 1 cup of stock. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

4) Stir spelt and any liquid in the pan into the vegetables. Add sage, thyme and Parmesan if using and stir to mix well. Serve immediately.

You can make a refreshing slushy drink by simply combining one cup of orange or apple juice with one tablespoon chia seeds and soaking for 30 minutes. The following makes a nutrient-rich, between-meal drink that will stave off hunger for hours.

(Serves 1 or 2)


  • 1 Tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup frozen acai berries*
  • 1/2 cup grapes

1) In the bowl of the blender, combine chia seeds and orange juice. Allow to stand for 30 minutes, or until the seeds form a gel consistency.

2) Add acai berries and grapes and process on high until smooth. Add more orange juice to thin the drink, if desired.

3) * Acai is a ‘new’ healthy berry with loads of antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties from an Amazon palm tree. Brazilians take it in a kind of slurry every day. Now available here in frozen form at natural food stores. I have also seen the juice for sale. The flavour of the berries is an unusual blend of chocolate and blueberry. Great for use in smoothies because you can add it to the blender still frozen.

Toronto author Nettie Cronish (Nettie’s Vegetarian Kitchen, New Vegetarian Basics, and The Idiot’s Guide to Being Vegetarian in Canada) uses fair trade quinoa in her Quinoa Chili, below.

(Serves 6)


  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 Japanese eggplants, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder and dried oregano
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp salt and pepper
  • 2 cans (28 oz) diced tomatoes and liquids
  • 2 green onions, sliced

1) In a skillet over medium heat, roast the rinsed quinoa for 5 minutes or until fragrant and the quinoa begins to pop. In a small pot bring 2 cups water and salt to boil. Cover and simmer over medium heat 15 to 20 minutes, until the water has absorbed. Remove from the heat, stir and let stand covered 5 minutes.

2) Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic 5 minutes or until softened. Stir in green pepper, eggplant, celery, chili, oregano, paprika, salt and pepper. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring often.

3) Stir in the tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the quinoa and green onions.

Judith Finlayson, author of The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook (Robert Rose, 2008) offers this advice about the following recipe, adapted with permission from her latest book. “A steaming bowl of this tasty cereal gets you off to a good start in the morning and will help to keep you energized and productive throughout the day.”

(Makes 8 servings)


  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp salt, optional
  • 1/2 cup long- or short-grain brown rice, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup millet or teff
  • 1/2 cup spelt berries
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 all-purpose apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped pitted soft dates, such as Medjool
  • Milk or non-dairy alternative
  • Maple syrup
  • Chopped toasted nuts, optional

1) In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring water and salt, if using, to a boil. Gradually stir in rice, millet, wheat berries, vanilla and apples and return to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer, placing a heat diffuser under the pot, if necessary, until spelt berries are tender, about 1 hour. Stir in dates. Serve with milk or non-dairy alternative and maple syrup. Sprinkle with nuts, if using.


Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University,
Article by Michael Whiteman-Jones, ‘Modern Market Rediscovers Ancient Grains’.

Guelph Food Technology Centre,
An article that answers the question, ‘What are Ancient Grains and what value do they bring to baked goods?’  Winter 2007 The Canadian Organic Grower – ‘Ancient Grains: A Wheat by Any other Name’, by Av Singh.

ConAgra Mills,
Gives descriptions and pictures of some of the Ancient Grains it uses in its products.


Crocker, Pat. The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible. Toronto: Robert Rose publisher, 2007.
Finlayson, Judith. The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook. Toronto: Robert Rose publisher, 2008.
Greene, Bert. The Grains Cookbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 1988.
Wood, Rebecca. The Splendid Grain. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1997.

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