There once was a time in the west when rice was considered a bit of a foreign food. When it was cooked at home, instead of being eaten at the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, it was only ever white rice boiled almost to death and served rather wet with a sort of gloopy sound. If you were lucky enough to be born into an Italian family, risotto might have been part of your weekly culinary fare. For most WASP’s out there, this was also some kind of foreign muck.
Today we consume grains from all over the world, it is a gift given by the history of immigration. However even now, there are grains being served up in fancy shmancy establishment with the word ‘organic’ all over the menu that you may never have heard of.
Purple barley, for example.
We are all familiar with normal cream coloured barley. Lemon barley water and a handful of barley thrown into a stew are older than The Magna Carta, but purple barley- ironically as with all ancient grains- is very modern.
Originating in Tibet where it has been eaten for thousands of years, and brought to the United States and Europe in the early 20th century, purple barley has a VERY distinct bright purple hue and is lower in gluten than wheat. It is also high in fibre, like most unaltered grains, packed with iron, has more zinc than lentils and 3 times the Vitamin B of its cream counterpart.
It takes about an hour and a half to cook if it isn’t soaked beforehand, and most recipes call for it to be mixed with other grains as it is very chewy. Purple barley will turn the water it is cooking in purple, so unless you want an all purple meal, best cook the other things separately.
Or have you tried Amaranth?
This is another modern-but actually ancient-grain that was cultivated 8000 years ago by the Mexicans. It was a staple food of the Aztecs, and was used as an integral part of Aztec religious ceremonies. The cultivation of amaranth was banned by the conquistadores upon their conquest of the Aztec nation. They wanted everyone to eat corn instead. So everyone had to eat corn or be put to death. The Conquistadores were a bit like that. Since that time it had been considered a weed.
That was until researchers discovered that the grain is jam packed with iron, calcium, magnesium and protein. It also has an unusually high level of the amino acid lysine. Lysine prevents and treats herpes infections and cold sores (handy) and it also increases the intestinal absorption of calcium and eliminates its excretion by the kidney, suggesting that it might be helpful in osteoporosis. Amaranth is a very good grain to have in your cupboard, whatever the conquistadores think. It’s much faster cooking than purple barley, only about 20 minutes and it will be a bit porridge-y at the end. It is also used a bit like corn and can be popped and mixed with honey, molasses or chocolate to make a popular treat in Mexico called “alegría” (meaning “joy”). Hang on!!! An amazingly nutritious grain covered in chocolate. What were those crazy Spaniards thinking?
And what is all the fuss about quinoa?
This word (which I pronounce as ‘keen hwa’ and I am assured that this is correct) is one of the more popular new/old grains hitting tables these days. It has been under cultivation for 4000 years, although there is evidence showing it was used for cattle by farmers as far back as 7000 years ago. It also hails from South America, although the Spanish didn’t seem to hate it so it didn’t go into hiding as a weed. Quinoa is gluten free, very high in protein, is Kosher (yes really, in December 2013, the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, announced it would begin certifying quinoa as kosher for Passover as an alternative to leavened grains, which are banned at Passover. Who knew?), and has large doses of Vitamin B, iron, magnesium AND Vitamin E. It is sometimes called a ‘super-food’. ‘Cause it’s super. Quinoa is easy to cook and has a very pleasant, slightly nutty and chewy taste and texture. You can get quinoa from dry in the packet to the table in less than 20 minutes. Apparently, NASA are considering including quinoa on the menu for long-duration human occupied space flights. An ancient food once again on the move in a modern world to explore new frontiers.