Food fashions come and go, and nowhere is this more evident than with the ancient grains. Once seen as givers of life itself, they have been shuffled off to the back of the cupboard for decades- maybe even centuries- but that is slowly changing. Chefs who like to stay one step ahead of the game are bringing back these humble crops. Controversial? Who cares?
With a general move away from carbs in some sectors of the community, it would be easy to dismiss grains as one of those parts of the food triangle it is best to forget, however, human evolution owes almost all it has to the humble grain.
The ability to cultivate grains is what lead to what we now consider civilization.
No wheat, no rice, no barley, not oats, no cities, no wifi, no online shopping. The timeline is irrefutable.
Yes, low carb diets have certain health benefits, in truth, just as many as vegan ones, or pescatarian ones, or Mediterranean ones, or, in fact, any diet where a sensible and considered approach to nutrition is involved.
To quote the Saws of old,” All things in moderation”, which is why ignoring grains completely would be a mistake.
Of course, the tendency to move away from gluten is very ‘on fleek’ as the kids say, even though a toasted crumpet with butter and the topping of your choice is a noted cure for anything that ails you. Except celiac disease. But I digress.
Ancient grains, the ones that have been around for millennia, are particularly fabulous. Firstly, they are often left alone in terms of engineering. Although our ancient forebears may have bred a few well performing plants together to attain a stronger yield, in terms of genes, they are much unchanged as nature intended. This makes them nutrient dense…as nature intended.
Secondly, because they fell out of favour for a long time, as things from the old days tend to do, they are quite often grown in smaller amounts with actual farmers, not mega-conglomerate farmers, responsible for their production. This means a boost for local communities and a sense of connection to the producer.
And thirdly, they are often very tasty, packed with goodness and fun to eat.
Take the aforementioned barley, for example. When I was growing up, barley was a cheap product added to soups to thicken them and to add some extra bits that weren’t meat, which was expensive.
Barley- hulled or pearled- was a poor man’s grain, but it had plenty of fans. In Asia, up until the 2000’s, ice-cold lemon-barley water was a popular way for locals and expats to beat the heat. Even today, Lemon Barley cordial is widely available in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, India and Indonesia. Mexicans love it, too. Barley Sugar sweets used to be all the rage as well, but then, suddenly, barley lost its buzz and it disappeared from plates and palates everywhere.
The good news is, barley is still very cheap and still available and if you haven’t tried it lately, it’s time you revisited this nutritional powerhouse!! If you have never tried barley, think of it as a chewy, slightly nutty rice crispy (or rice bubble for the Aussies). Barley is super absorbent, so if you are cooking it in a soup or stew, it will absorb some of the flavour. Half a cup of cooked barley contains 13 grams of protein and 17 grams of fibre, as well as decent amounts of niacin, iron and manganese. If you are looking for ways to add barley to your diet, it makes a great additive to salads and as an alternative to rice or potatoes. Hulled barley has a lot more fibre than pearled and has a bit more ‘bite’ in the mouth feel, pearled is fluffier but 100 grams still provides 62% of a woman’s daily fibre needs.
Another ancient grain to try is Teff. Like barley, this extraordinarily health packed wheat alternative has been used for thousands of years. Teff is tiny, 1/100th the size of a wheat grain, so it is often ground into flour and is a staple in places like Ethiopia where it is turned into a popular gluten free bread called ‘injera’ that accompanies most meals.
Teff may be small, but it has plenty to offer. Half a cup, or 100 grams, of teff will provide 12 grams of protein and nearly 40% of your RDA for iron. It also has a high fibre content, over 12 grams in the half cup. The taste of teff is earthy, nutty and slightly sweet and the flour can be used to make chocolate cakes and other sweet treats. Teff is not cheap, compared to other grains, and some sneaky producers add wheat flour to the mixture to pad it out.
If you are gluten free, make sure you check on the box to see that you are buying 100% pure teff or teff flour. The most popular way to use this tiny grain is in baked goods like gluten free cookies, brownies and breads. It makes a great porridge or sweet treat when added to coconut milk or any other nut-based milk as a smoothy.
But the trending grain to add to your staple’s cupboard is sorghum. In the United States, this grain is mostly used as animal feed, which is a mistake because as human feed, it is excellent. With 10 grams of protein and 6 grams of fibre per half cup, sorghum is another surprisingly good way to boost the quality of your diet with one simple ingredient. With a very mild flavour and a pleasant chewy texture, this much under-rated ancient.
Sorghum is gluten free and can be used in a wide variety of ways. As a flour it behaves in a way that is most similar to wheat flour, which makes it perfect for any kind of baking and as a coating for meat or as a thickener.
As a whole grain it can be used as part of a granola bowl, or in salads, as part of a casserole or stew, or in place of rice or quinoa. Amazingly, sorghum can also be heated and popped, just like popcorn!!