What is buckwheat and why has it become so popular in recent years? First of all, buckwheat is not a grain, as often believed, but a seed. Its plant produces very pretty flowers that bees love; although not common, buckwheat honey does exist.
The buckwheat plant is extremely old, probably close to 8,000 years and it was first cultivated in South East Asia. As it can grow at a much higher altitude than wheat, it became a good food staple in the mountains of China, where what are now known as “soba noodles” probably originated. From Asia it migrated to Russia (which is still the top producer) and then to Europe. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that it became fairly commonplace in the States.
The tiny fruit is similar, in appearance, to the sunflower seeds and the darker hull can sometimes be found in the flour, in the forms of tiny black specks. Buckwheat staples are on tables all over the world, from the Japanese soba noodles to the Italian “pizzoccheri” of the Valtellina mountain region. Buckwheat groats, commonly used to make a sort of porridge, arrived in the States with the Russian and Polish immigration, under the name of “kasha” – in particular, Eastern Europeans used it to fill pasta and blintzes. Nowadays, it is the base for what have now become ubiquitous pancakes; by adding a small dose of leavening agent, buckwheat pancakes are fluffier than wheat ones. As a matter of fact, they have different names according to the country where you might eat them, but are pretty much the same dish: blinis in Russia, galettes in France, bouketes in Belgium.
And now to the reason why buckwheat is all the rage these days: with gluten having become such a powerful allergen, buckwheat is a good substitution; it contains no gluten at all and its nutty flavor lends itself to many applications.