Thursday, October 25, 2012

Kasha: Ancestral Super Food

A slender rectangular box of "Wolff's Kasha" was one of the more elegant packages in the kitchen cupboard of my youth, and the one which was never allowed to run out.  Kasha was a beloved staple in our household but few non-ethnic Americans were familiar with it then. Today, kasha is enjoying a moment of popularity among the health conscious and has been elevated to "super food" status.  My Eastern European ancestors did not know about super foods per se, but kasha was a mainstay in their diet and it sustained them through cold northern winters for many generations.

The buckwheat plant has been cultivated for over 4000 years. It thrives in cool climates with short growing seasons, hence its ubiquity in northern regions of Europe and Asia.  Russia, China and Ukraine are top cultivators of buckwheat, producing thousands of tons of buckwheat seed annually which is eaten whole or transformed into flour, noodles and other products.

In spite of its name, buckwheat is not in the wheat family and it is not even a grain. Rather, it is derived from the seeds of a flowering plant. Buckwheat groats are the hulled seeds of the plant, which when toasted are called "kasha".  Buckwheat is high in protein, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. It contains no gluten, making it an ideal food for those who are sensitive to gluten containing grains. Buckwheat appears to assist in stabilizing blood sugar in people with type II diabetes, and also has cholesterol lowering properties.

One of the best characteristics of kasha (other than its uniquely delicious flavor) is that it requires only fifteen minutes to cook, and is very easy to make. All that's needed is a heavy pan with a lid and the ability to boil water! Kasha doubles in volume when cooked and keeps well in the fridge for several days, so consider making extra to have on hand for a quick meal.

Fifteen Minute Kasha:

1 cup kasha
2 cups fresh water
1 pinch sea salt
a few drops of olive oil

Place water, salt and olive oil in pan and bring to a boil. Add the kasha, stirring briefly. When the kasha begins to boil, lower the flame, cover and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, cover and allow to rest for five or ten minutes before serving.

Serving suggestions: Serve kasha as you would rice or any cooked grain, with steamed, stir fried or roasted vegetables. Add to a bowl of soup or legumes, or serve solo with a splash of tamari sauce. Heat leftover kasha with some nut milk or soy milk, add a little sweetener or dried fruit and serve for breakfast or any time of day for a warming, healthy and nutrient packed meal.

Note:  If you find only raw buckwheat groats in the market, it's easy to turn them into kasha by toasting them yourself.  Heat gently in a heavy iron skillet over a medium flame, stirring with a wooden spoon until fragrant and golden. Remove immediately from the pan and cool thoroughly before storing. 

If you are visiting Russia or Ukraine, note that the term "kasha" is used there to refer to any cooked cereal, not just buckwheat groats.