What Is Buckwheat And Why Is It Used To Make Pancakes?
You might have noticed that buckwheat hotcakes are prominently displayed on our menu, as they are a European staple that doesn’t quite have the same traction here in the US. You might then wonder just what in the world is buckwheat, and why on earth would it be used to make pancakes?
Because it’s delicious and nutritious. Buckwheat and buckwheat cakes are actually a staple in global cuisine, not just as European breakfast fare…though buckwheat hotcakes are a fantastic way to start the day.
Just what is buckwheat?
Buckwheat Is Definitely Not A Grain
As we know, wheat is a cereal crop, a grain, much like other crops such as barley, rice and so on…but buckwheat is not. It isn’t a grain, it isn’t a cereal. In fact, it isn’t even related.
Cereal crops, you see, are all forms of grasses. Those grasses have seeds at the top of the stalk that are harvested, dried and then used to create the particular product that is desired. Rice stays as rice, of course, but wheat is often milled into flour, barley is malted and used for beer or whiskey production – or dried for use as food – but buckwheat is not among them.
Instead, buckwheat is a member of the Polygonaceae family, informally known as the knotweed family. This includes plants like sorrel, knotweeds and also rhubarb. The buckwheat plant produces a delicate white flour but also hardy, triangular seeds similar to beech nuts. The seed is much like a sunflower, with a hard outer hull and a single seed.
The seeds can be dried and pulverized into a flower. The earliest known evidence of buckwheat flour consumption dates to about 6000 BC in Southeast Asia, but it quickly spread as evidence of buckwheat consumption has been uncovered in northern Europe within a few hundred years of that date. It then spread all over Asia (including into Japan) and into Europe.
The crop’s many advantages made it quite popular for the longest time. In fact, NOT eating buckwheat and relying instead on wheat flour is something of a modern phenomenon.
What’s So Great About Buckwheat?!
Buckwheat has certain advantages over wheat flour in several dimensions.
First, it is a hardier plant with a shorter growing season, at 10 to 12 weeks. It also does well in nutrient-poor soil and – in fact – successful cultivation actually requires fertilizer be withheld.
Nutritionally, buckwheat is only marginally higher in total proteins than wheat flour, but most wheat protein is gluten and is therefore not very bioavailable. Buckwheat protein, however, is almost 90 percent bioavailable, so it is readily absorbed by the body. Along with the complex carbohydrates that make buckwheat flour a bit more complete nutritionally.
Additionally, buckwheat is gluten-free, so the flour and any products – such as bread, buckwheat pasta (wildly popular in Japan, Italy and elsewhere) and buckwheat hotcakes – can be readily served and eaten by those suffering from celiac disease or who might otherwise be gluten intolerant.
If it grows easier and is a bit better for you than wheat, why is it that buckwheat isn’t more popular?
Well, the thing is that other cereals were considered more delectable (wheat flour does make some amazing bread and cakes) and eventually, the agricultural revolution along with the invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer made growing wheat, corn, and barley far more tenable. Demand just started to drop away in the early 20th century as the other crops (which were also more profitable, it must be said) became more prevalent.
What Are Buckwheat Hotcakes Like?
That all aside…what are buckwheat hotcakes like? Are they still delicious?
You’ll notice they are a little denser, a little chewier than flour pancakes, though not by much at all. You’ll also notice a bit more savory flavor. You’ll also notice that they are hearty and delicious, especially with your favorite toppings!
In fact, buckwheat pancakes are eaten in dozens of countries around the world on a regular basis. They are part of the menu during certain religious festivals in India, and they are very popular in Japan. That country hasn’t relinquished buckwheat in lieu of wheat flour entirely, as buckwheat noodles – buckwheat soba noodles are quite popular for instance – are a common food item.
Buckwheat pancakes and crepes are also quite popular in most of Europe, which is why they are a staple menu item here at the Old European in Post Falls. We strive to give you an authentic European dining experience, which is why menu items like buckwheat hotcakes, abelskivvers and so much more are staple menu items!