Buckwheat is a plant cultivated for its grain-like seeds, and also used as a cover crop. To distinguish it from a related species, Fagopyrum tataricum that is also cultivated as a grain in the Himalayas, and from the less commonly cultivated Fagopyrum acutatum, it is also known as Japanese buckwheat and silverhull buckwheat.
Despite the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, as it is not a grass. Instead, buckwheat is related to sorrel, knotweed, and rhubarb. Because its seeds are eaten and rich in complex carbohydrates, it is referred to as a pseudocereal. The cultivation of buckwheat grain declined sharply in the 20th century with the adoption of nitrogen fertilizer that increased the productivity of other staples.
Although buckwheat is treated like a cereal crop, it is not a grass. The grain-like fruit of buckwheat is what is harvested and eaten, after the hard outer husk has been pulled away. The plant thrives in poor growing conditions and matures quickly, two things which have made it a popular choice of crop around the world. In addition to making flour from the buckwheat harvest, people also crack it into groats and steam or boil them in puddings and porridge
. Buckwheat is also planted as a cover crop for beekeeping, since it produces a high volume of flavorful nectar.
To make buckwheat flour, the plants are mowed and allowed to dry before threshing to remove the inedible outer husk. The fruit is allowed to dry out completely, to prevent it from going rancid. It is ground, typically with the outer bran, which is high in fiber and other nutrients. The bran turns the resulting flour a rich brown color, with dark flecks. Then, it can be packaged for sale on its own, or blended with other flours.
Individuals with gluten intolerance should be careful about where they purchase their buckwheat flour. It is often made in facilities that process wheat, and contamination is possible. It may also be blended with wheat as a filler, so shoppers should make sure to seek out products that are clearly labeled as “gluten free.” Plain buckwheat flour can be used in an assortment of foods including pancakes and traditional Japanese soba noodles.
For people who are not limited by dietary restrictions, mixed flours with buckwheat included can be used in baking bread
, muffins, scones
. For breads, no more than half of the total flour should be buckwheat, as it can have an impact on rising and dough performance. The rich flavor complements many foods, and can elevate a dish from the mundane to the interesting. Inclusion of buckwheat will also make a dish more nutritious, since it is high in fiber, amino acids, protein
, niacin, and vitamin B, among other things.
The fruit is an achene, similar to sunflower seed, with a single seed inside a hard outer hull. The starchy endosperm is white and makes up most or all of buckwheat flour. The seed coat is green or tan, which darkens buckwheat flour. The hull is dark brown or black, and some may be included in buckwheat flour as dark specks. The dark flour is known as blé noir (black wheat) in French, along with the name sarrasin (saracen).
Buckwheat noodles have been eaten by people from Tibet and northern China for centuries, as wheat can not be grown in the mountain regions. A special press made of wood is used to press the dough into hot boiling water when making buckwheat noodles. Old presses found in Tibet and Shanxi share the same basic design features. The Japanese and Koreans may have learned the making of buckwheat noodles from them.
In India, on Hindu fasting days (Navaratri, Ekadashi, Janmashtami, Maha Shivaratri etc.), fasting people in northern states of India eat items made of buckwheat flour. Eating cereals such as wheat or rice is prohibited during such fasting days. However, since buckwheat is not a cereal, it is considered acceptable for consumption during Hindu fasting days. While strict Hindus do not even drink water during their fast (observing Nirjal Upwas), others just give up cereals and salt and take a meal prepared from non-cereal ingredients such as buckwheat (kuttu). The preparation of buckwheat flour varies across India. The famous ones are kuttu ki puri (buckwheat pancakes) and kuttu pakoras (potato slices dipped in buckwheat flour and deep-fried in oil). In most of northern and western states, buckwheat flour is called kuttu ka atta.
Buckwheat noodles play a major role in the cuisines of Japan (soba), Korea (naengmyeon, makguksu and memil guksu) and the Valtellina region of Northern Italy (pizzoccheri). Soba noodles are the subject of deep cultural importance in Japan. In Korea, guksu (noodles) were widely made from buckwheat before it was replaced by wheat. The difficulty of making noodles from flour with no gluten has resulted in a traditional art developed around their manufacture by hand.
Buckwheat groats are commonly used in western Asia and eastern Europe. The porridge was common, and is often considered the definitive peasant dish. It is made from roasted groats that are cooked with broth to a texture similar to rice or bulgur. The dish was brought to America by Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish immigrants who called it kasha, and they mixed it with pasta or used it as a filling for cabbage rolls, knishes, and blintzes, hence buckwheat prepared in this fashion is most commonly called kasha in America. Groats were the most widely used form of buckwheat worldwide during the 20th century, eaten primarily in Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, called grechka in Ukrainian or Russian. The groats can also be sprouted and then eaten raw or cooked.
Buckwheat pancakes, sometimes raised with yeast, are eaten in several countries. They are known as buckwheat blinis in Russia, galettes in France (savoury crêpes made with buckwheat flour, water, and eggs are associated with Lower Brittany, whilst savoury galettes made without eggs are from Higher Brittany), ployes in Acadia, and boûketes (which are named after the buckwheat plant) in the Wallonia region of Belgium. Similar pancakes were a common food in American pioneer days. They are light and foamy. The buckwheat flour gives them an earthy, mildly mushroom-like taste. In Ukraine, yeast rolls called hrechanyky are made from buckwheat. Buckwheat flour is also used to make Nepali dishes such as dhedo and kachhyamba.
Farina made from groats are used for breakfast food, porridge, and thickening materials in soups, gravies, and dressings. In Korea, buckwheat starch is used to make a jelly called memilmuk. It is also used with wheat, maize (polenta taragna in northern Italy) or rice in bread and pasta products.
Buckwheat is a good honey plant, producing a dark, strong monofloral honey.