Here’s a favorite childhood memory: my little brother and I making buckwheat pancakes on a weekend morning, before anyone else was awake. By the time the house came to life, we’d have a huge plateful ready. Wheat pancakes just weren’t the same. With wheat, you wanted more and more, but two or three buckwheat pancakes gave real satisfaction that would take a kid far into a long summer day.
Japan also holds buckwheat in high regard. There, I saw buckwheat made into some of the world’s most gorgeous noodles and served up with black sesame seeds and a citrusy vinegar during the hottest days. These soba noodles are prized as a refreshing food that cools a body off while keeping it well-powered.
In the Alsace region of France, I came across yet another remarkable gastronomic form of buckwheat. Alsace has changed hands between Germany and France several times in its history, and the region blends traditions from both to create savory egg crêpes from buckwheat. They complement the hearty, rustic meat-and-potato fare of Alsace, with which they are cut long and used like toasty noodles. I don’t eat much meat, though, and love these crêpes instead with things like rutabaga au gratin, or thick marinara complete with olives and red wine, or even just as a simple wrap with mâche greens and any of the hundreds of goat’s, sheep’s, or cow’s milk cheeses France offers. So buckwheat makes for all kinds of great food — but how about its nutrition?
Wheat is a Grass, Buckwheat a Fruit
What’s the difference between wheat and buckwheat? Only about a planet’s worth. Despite their similar names, wheat and buckwheat come from totally different plant families. Wheat is a grass, in the same family as barley, rice, and other grassy grains. Buckwheat, on the other hand, shares a family with rhubarb, so it’s not even a grain.
Buckwheat groats are technically the seed of the buckwheat plant. Essentially, buckwheat is a fruit. You can grind it into an aromatic and nutritious flour or boil it up into a roasty-smelling sort of porridge — ever heard of kasha? — that’s great for breakfast.
One huge difference between buckwheat and wheat is that buckwheat contains absolutely NO gluten, so anyone avoiding wheat or gluten is safe (and well-nourished) with buckwheat. This matters if you suffer from gluten intolerance. I recall talking with a clinician who was helping a wheat-sensitive patient and his mother weed out the wheat-containing foods in his diet. They discovered a multitude of hidden wheat ingredients in so many foods, as thickeners and other additives.
Regenerative for the Soil
There are other significant differences, too. Wheat has been cross-bred with other grains for centuries. In recent times, commodity wheat has been subjected to sophisticated genetic modification at the molecular level, and the result of this manipulation is stunning.
You know how humans have two copies each of 23 chromosomes, one set from each of our parents? Contrast that to wheat, where modern commercial varieties can carry six sets of chromosomes, all mixed together in a complicated genome that’s five times larger than that of a human. This is an enormous amount of jumbled genetic data, so perhaps it’s not surprising that wheat can cause an immune commotion in some people.
So what’s the difference between wheat and buckwheat? Only about a planet’s worth … Commodity wheat has been subjected to sophisticated genetic modification at the molecular level, and the result of this manipulation is stunning.
Part of the reason for all of these genetic changes to wheat was to make it exploitable as a cash crop that could grow profitably as long as you gave it plenty of farmland, agricultural chemicals, and piped-in water. This is another place where buckwheat — and especially its eastern cousin, Himalayan Tartary buckwheat — really shines.
Himalayan Tartary buckwheat is able to grow in tricky terrains and harsh climates, such as high up in mountains. Buckwheat is tough and hardy, and actually uses these disadvantageous conditions to stock up on beneficial phytonutrients like quercetin, rutin, fiber, and buckwheat’s own specialty called 2-HOBA, along with a respectable payload of protein, minerals, and vitamins.
Now, get this difference: buckwheat actually makes soil better after it grows there. It improves the health and quality of the earth that nourished it. Compare that to modern wheat, which tends to leave soil depleted of nutrients and heavily laden with chemical residues. And if that’s not enough for you, scientific evidence also suggests that when you eat buckwheat, it has a milder effect on blood sugar than if you eat wheat.