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Ancient grains, sometimes also called heritage grains, have been gaining in popularity as an alternative to the monolith that has become wheat thanks to the fact that they have not been over-manipulated after decades of industrial agriculture. As such, ancient grains are GMO-free, far more nutritious, and still have a lot of the properties that made them popular diet staples so very long ago. In addition, many are gluten-free and can be used in many types of foods and as a substitution for white/wholewheat flour in baking. Either as a substitute or on their own, give these wonders of the ancient world a try and get in touch with humanity’s farming roots.
Known as the world’s smallest grain, teff originally comes from the horn of Africa. It is a traditional ingredient in Ethiopian and Eritrean. If you have ever had the pleasure of indulging in Ethiopian cuisine, teff is the star grain used to make injera, the delicious sourdough flatbread renowned for its spongy texture. Today it is also grown throughout the world. This tiny grain is high in fiber, iron, is a good source of protein and it contains all nine amino acids.* Teff has a large amount of calcium, which is why some say it is helpful in combatting PMS symptoms. Teff is known for having a nutty or molasses-y flavor. Teff is also gluten-free, and is used industrially to make GF beer. You can cook with either the whole grain, use teff to make porridge, or bake with teff flour (though it is not a 1-to-1 substitution ration with wheat flour).
Spelt, sometimes called dinkle wheat, was probably first grown in Europe. In fact, legend has it that it was given to the Greeks by the goddess Demeter. However it originated, spelt has been a key part of the average person’s diet in many European countries for thousands of years. Here’s why: on top of being a great source of fiber, spelt is highly nutritious: it contains a decent amount of protein, B vitamins and many minerals such as manganese, phosphorus and niacin that tend to be hard to come by. Spelt is actually related to wheat; it does contain gluten, though it can be a good alternative for people who are wheat intolerant as it has been far less modified. The flavor is not overwhelming and slightly nutty. While you can sometimes find whole spelt grains for use in salads, it is commonly sold as a flour, which can be used for baking pretty much everything, even though it is not a 1 to 1 substitute ratio for wheat flour. Spelt gluten is different from wheat gluten, so when making spelt bread, be mindful that over-kneading the dough can damage it and your bread may not rise much.
Originally cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas, amaranth is a pseudo-cereal, similar to quinoa, with grains around the size of poppy seeds. The key difference between this pseudo-cereal and other true cereal grains is that amaranth has much higher levels of protein. In fact like teff, amaranth can be considered a complete protein, as it contains all of your essential amino acids*. Amaranth is also a great source of fiber, calcium, iron and phosphorus. With its gorgeous deep pink and purple flowers, the plant wins the award for prettiest ancient grain. Fun fact: amaranth grows in the wild in our fair city- you can also find amaranth leaves in most local wet markets- the Cantonese love them in soups. Gluten-free with a mild, sweet and nutty taste, amaranth flour can be used in baking: just replace one fourth of wheat flour with it in your recipes. When popped, the grains can be used to make snack bars or to add crunch to granola. They also work well in salads.
Millet is more than just an ancient grain, it’s an ancient staple grain. In many parts of Africa and Asia, millet was the star of the daily diet show thousands of years ago. In fact, the remains of four-thousand-year-old broomcorn and foxtail (yes, that’s where the noodle bar in Sheung Wan got their name from!) millet noodles have been found in archaeology digs. Today, millet is known for being a common ingredient in bird seed but it is experiencing a revival due to its nutrition profile: it’s a great source of zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, B vitamins and calcium. It is also a gluten-free, high in fibre, unusually for a grain, has an alkaline effect on the body when consumed. Millet flour is often used to make Indian rotis, make your own by replacing one fourth of the wheat flour in a recipe. Millet is also eaten as porridge for breakfast, can be used in place of rice in a stir-fry and makes a great replacement for quinoa in salads.
Sorghum originally hails from Eastern Africa, though today it is grown all over the world due to its popularly- it ranks fifth for cereal production globally. Sorghum has the distinction of being one of the most efficient crops around in terms of turning sunlight into food, so it is especially valued in arid regions where other crops can’t grow. Like teff, sorghum is rich in B vitamins, iron and manganese and a great source of fiber, as well as antioxidants. A gluten-free grain, it is popular in health food circles because many claim that sorghum flour is the closest thing to wheat flour of any of the gluten free varieties, with a smooth texture and a mild flavour. Conveniently, you can use it as a flour substitute with a 1 to 1 ratio. Sorghum is also consumed as a sweetener in the form of sorghum syrup.
Where To Stock Up On Your Ancient Grains
The brand to know for all ancient grains is Bob’s Red Mill. The employee-owned company from Milwaukie, Oregon has become the go-to name in all things flour, grains, seeds, cereals and allergen-free baking needs. They offers whole grain teff, whole grain spelt & spelt flour, whole grain amaranth & amaranth flour, whole whole grain millet, whole grain sorghum & sorghum flour. The easiest place to get these is iHerb– just order from your sofa and wait for your healthy delivery. They offer free delivery to Hong Kong and their prices are unbeatable. Oliver’s Delicatessen, Just Green and CitySuper also have a decent selection of Bob’s Red Mill products.
*There are 9 essential amino acids that your body needs to function but that it cannot produce itself, which is why you need to ensure you are consuming foods that contain them.