ANCIENT GRAINS ….For Life After WheatHabeeb Salloum December 1, 2003
Ancient grains are becoming more popular every day. Even though at present they are mostly unknown or used to feed birds and livestock, their nutritious qualities are gradually being recognized. Staples in one part of the world or another since the dawn of history, they have been for thousands of years the foundations of civilizations.
Due to the modern method of growing wheat, a growing number of North Americans are looking for replacement to their daily bread. The series of chemicals being employed in wheat cultivation has many consumers worried. Today’s wheat has about half the protein content of wheat grown some 100 years ago. The use of herbicides, pesticides, stimulant fertilizers and genetically modified seeds have led to an increase in health problems such as birth deformities and environmental pollution. Studies in the U.S. have found higher-than-average cancer mortality rates in residents of wheat-growing areas. Other studies have established that the number of people developing wheat allergies is on the rise.
Increasing public awareness of the problem, along with growing consumer demand for more healthful products, have led people to seek replacement for wheat products. Near the top of the replacement grains one should look at is brown rice, a very nourishing cereal. Virtually the only food for the poorer peasants of half the world, it contains almost all the nutrients needed for survival. In the Far East, it is the most important cereal and is practically synonymous with food. Over 90% of the globe’s rice supply is produced and consumed by a third of humankind in that part of the world.
Unlike white rice, which due to polishing loses almost all its minerals and vitamins, leaving it with nearly 90% starch content, brown rice has only the husks removed. Hence it retains the majority of its healthful elements. Brown rice contains calcium, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, linoleic acid, iron, phosphorus, protein, potassium, sodium, niacin, thiamine and a trace of riboflavin. Very palatable, it is easily digested and aids in the assimilation of other foods. When milled by hand, as is done by the farmers of Asia, it is a better source of protein than wheat.
Almost free of cellulose, brown rice leaves very little residue in the intestines. For diabetics, it is a good source of carbohydrates due to the fact that only a small amount of insulin is needed to assimilate its starches. Also, its vitamin B content of thiamine has, for hundreds of years, protected the peasants of Asia from the dreaded disease beriberi.
The only drawback brown rice has is that it takes longer to cook than polished rice and it is easily infected with weevils. Consequently, great care is needed when it is stored.
Like the white polished types, brown rice comes in three kinds: long, medium and short. It is much tastier than the white varieties and can be used in all recipes which call for the polished types. However, the cooking time should be doubled and the water content increased by a quarter to a third in volume.
Another relatively unknown grain which is making headway into the kitchens of health conscious North Americans is millet – a name given to a number of similar food grains which come in shades from white to yellow and green. Known as the “poor man’s cereal” because of its prolific yield, it was a staple in the eastern lands long before rice.
Today, it remains a staple in the Indian sub-continent and most of sub-Saharan Africa. Eaten for centuries by the Hunzakuts who live in the foothills of the Himalayas, its nutritional elements are believed to be the reason for the longevity of these people.
Like brown rice, in terms of mineral and vitamin content millet one of the richest grains available. It contains protein, calcium, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, iron, linoleic acid, phosphorous, potassium, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine. Exceptionally good as a complementary protein food, it goes well with dairy products and legumes. A healthful cereal, millet in all its varieties has a pleasant flavour and is a very appetizing grain.
It can be purchased hulled and comes whole, cracked or as a flour. In all its forms, it stores well for long periods of time without hardly losing any of its flavour or nutrients. Its flour, which blends well with that of wheat, is utilized in breads, cakes and puddings. The whole or cracked kernels can be made into a tasty porridge and is excellent when used in salads, soups or with any type of meat.
Somewhat better known in North America is the very distinctively flavoured buckwheat. People either hate or love this light and somewhat sweet cereal which has been cultivated in the Far East since prehistoric times. For millennia in China it has been utilized as a bread grain. In Europe, since its introduction it has been used to make porridge, especially in the Soviet Union where it is grown more than in any other country.
Almost as nourishing as millet, buckwheat contains calcium, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, iron, linoleic acid, phosphorus, potassium, protein, niacin, thiamine and a trace of riboflavin. For those allergic to wheat, it is an excellent food since it is not considered true grain.
Buckwheat is sold both whole (called groats) and as a flour. The groats (much more nutritious than the flour) are cooked in Europe and America as a breakfast cereal or used in casseroles, soups, stuffings and as a side dish with meat. The flour is sold in two forms: dark which retains most of the grain’s minerals and vitamins; and light which has lost much of the grain’s nutrients. Most people in America consume buckwheat as a flour in pancakes. However, buckwheat flour is also extensively employed in dumplings and puddings, usually mixed with that of wheat to tame its rather strong taste.
People in Europe, Canada and the U.S. are familiar with oats – a fine human food. Yet, in its lands of origin (the Middle East and North Africa) it does not have a long history when compared to other cereals.
On the other hand, in Europe it has been eaten for centuries and in Scotland it is one of that country’s chief staples. In North America, even though in the past it has been used chiefly to feed animals, its consumption by humans is increasing.
A nutritious grain, oats contain calcium, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, iron, linoleic acid, phosphorus, potassium, protein, sodium, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine. It has more fat than any of the generally consumed grains and people who have difficulty digesting wheat products or are allergic to wheat will find that oats are easy to digest and cause no allergic reactions. Furthermore, it has been found that the addition of this cereal to the diet reduces cholesterol.
Oats are usually purchased hulled (also called groats), rolled (kernels flattened out), or as a flour. Both the groats and the rolled make excellent baby food and breakfast cereals or can be used in casseroles and soups. The somewhat sweet flour, because of its low gluten content, is rarely employed in making bread. However it is remarkably good in cakes, cookies and other desserts.
QUINOA & AMARANTH
Gradually increasing in popularity are quinoa and amaranth – the ancient grains of the Aztec and Inca Indians. Believed by many to be the most nourishing cereals in the world, they are slowly creeping into the daily fare of a significant segment of the North American population. However, the wider acceptance of these cereals has been slower due to their price, which is five to six times higher than most other grains.
Quinoa has been grown in the Andes Mountains since time immemorial and was known to the South American Indians as the “mother of grain.” Besides corn and potatoes, it was one of the three staple foods in the Inca Empire.
The leaves of the quinoa can be eaten as greens. However; the plant is usually cultivated for its small glutinous seeds. Their above par healthful attributes were known to the Indians centuries before the discovery of the Americas.
Quinoa contains more high quality protein than any other grain. It is the best source of protein in the vegetable kingdom (16 to 20% as compared to 7.5 for rice, 9.9 for millet and 14 for wheat). Its protein is unique and complete – the best available in any food. A rich and balanced source of vital nutrients, its lysine and methionine essential amino acid balance is close to the ideal – similar to milk.
The seeds also contain an oil which is high in linoleic acid, fibre, minerals, starch, sugar and vitamins. Light and tasty, it is easy to digest – a good breakfast cereal and an ideal food for infants.
A delicious grain, somewhat like millet, quinoa is simple to prepare and very versatile. It can be substituted for almost any cereal. Often it is served like rice as a side dish or used in casseroles, chowders, croquettes, salads, soups, stuffings, desserts and as the main dish. Its lightness combined with a delectable taste, especially in cold dishes, makes it perfect as a summertime food.
Quinoa’s flour, a little paler than that of buckwheat, may be substituted for any other grain flour. The many uses of both the flour and grain of this wholesome cereal have helped it earn a reputation as “the super grain of the future”.
Amaranth, a grain with a venerable history, is also believed to have a bright future. When Cortez conquered Mexico he found that amaranth was at the centre of Aztec culture. It was the largest crop the Indians grew and was the nutritional base of their civilization. The Aztecs believed that it gave them mystical power and it was so esteemed as a food that they were willing to die for it.
Cortez tried to destroy their civilization by eliminating amaranth from the face of the earth. He is said to have decreed that anyone caught growing or possessing the grain would be put to death. Nevertheless, because of its incredible life-giving properties, the Indians defied Cortez and continued to cultivate it in secret. In subsequent centuries, this almost holy grain almost disappeared. Today, notwithstanding its virtual abandonment for hundreds of years, its cultivation has been revived.
This legendary grain of the ancient Aztecs is an excellent performance food packed with high energy complex carbohydrates. It is a polyunsaturated, non-gluten bearing grain with a balance of amino acids that surpass the compositional balance of cereals such as corn, rice and wheat. Amaranth’s protein (comparable in quality to all types of meats and dairy products without the saturated fats) when combined with wheat, produces a nearly perfect protein balance – 100 on a theoretical human need nutritional chart. Amaranth is also high in fibre, minerals and vitamins. It contains three times as much fibre and five times as much iron as whole wheat and more calcium than milk.
Amaranth’s unique nut-like flavour and texture of both its grain and flour add character to breads, breakfast cereals; cookie mixes; pancakes, pilafs, soups, stuffings and numerous other foods. It is a natural additive which give dishes a distinctive, nutty and sweet flavor and enhance the nutritional content.
All the grains mentioned may be purchased in bulk or packaged. Most are stocked in health food stores and in some supermarkets. It is always best to buy them in small quantities since a number like oats, do not keep well when stored for long periods of time.
Habeeb Salloum’s articles have been published in the Toronto Star, Backwoods Home Magazine, Forever Young Information Magazine, and Vegetarian Journal, among others. His most recent book Asian Cooking Made Simple – A Culinary Journey Along the Silk Road and Beyond is available at <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Asian-Cooking-Made-Simple-Culinary/dp/1591521343">amazon</a> at: <a href="https://tinyurl.com/zk3ueyv">https://tinyurl.com/zk3ueyv</a>