Every time I take a trip to Eastern Europe, I come down with stomach issues. The oil-soaked food has a knack for throwing my body into a low-energy, light-headed funk, eventually forcing me to live off of cups of kefir, a fermented milk drink full of probiotics, as well as buckwheat—or grechka—for the rest of my stay. A recent weeklong journey to Kiev was no different: In a starving haze, I ignored a bad premonition, ordering a bowl of mystery soup drizzled with mayonnaise next to a closed shopping bazaar. Immediately afterward, I felt nauseated. Like clockwork, I bought two bottles of unsweetened kefir, and ordered buckwheat groats wherever I could find them. On my own, I would sometimes even mix the kefir and the buckwheat together. Within a few days, my stomach pain had subsided and I felt almost back to normal.
I’m not the only one reaching for packs of the brown, somewhat tasteless groats. People in the region, especially in Ukraine and Russia, have been eating buckwheat for centuries. It supposedly originated locally when Greek Orthodox monks brought the grain from Greece to Russia during the spread of Christianity. The ways it can be served are many: Buckwheat can be a sweet breakfast treat when paired with milk and sugar, or a savory dish topped with gravy and mushrooms at dinner. Buckwheat is so ingrained in Slavic culture that in Russia its rising prices, reflective of inflation, have caused widespread, fly-off-the-shelves panic.
As for my recovery after eating buckwheat, that wasn’t a total coincidence, either: There is a cleansing quality to the brown grain-like seed. In Russia and Ukraine, it’s long been hailed as a clean way to lose weight: Look up the term, and there will be more than a million results hailing its health benefits and even articles dedicated to the “buckwheat diet.” After all, buckwheat is considered one of the world’s most healthful foods. And despite buckwheat’s name, it’s not a wheat—and is related to the rhubarb family—meaning it is gluten-free.
“Buckwheat is nutritionally dense in vitamins and minerals—much more so than traditional grains such as rice and wheat,” says Vancouver-based nutritionist Mikaela Reuben. “One cup of buckwheat contains more than 110 percent of your daily recommended manganese intake. It also contains high levels of magnesium, copper, phosphorous, and zinc, all of which have their own health-giving effects.” In addition, according to Reuben, it has a “full nutrient profile” with all eight essential amino acids, it has a higher protein level than most grains, and it is packed with antioxidants.
Unlike other starchy staples, like potatoes or rice, buckwheat possess a low glycemic index, meaning it will not spike blood sugar. “Some of the specific carbohydrate molecules in buckwheat have actually been shown to balance blood sugar levels after eating,” Reuben says. In addition, like kefir, it “cleans out” the body. “Buckwheat is beneficial for digestive health because it is high in dietary fiber—carbohydrates that our body cannot break down,” she adds. “So it helps move food through our intestines to be excreted as waste.”
Buckwheat has also made waves on the other side of the Eastern Bloc. It’s a staple dish on Gwyneth Paltrow’s health-conscious Goop website, which offers a recipe for buckwheat and banana pancakes, while soba, or Japanese buckwheat noodles, is hailed as a hangover cure. There are many different ways of cooking it, too: Some people soak their buckwheat groats in water to sprout them, activating their enzymes. In 2009 study, germinated buckwheat was said to have better nutritional value than ungerminated buckwheat, thanks to the activation of dormant enzymes. There is also the raw version of the groat. “Raw buckwheat is an unroasted groat, which is dried in its natural state, preserving its naturally beneficial components,” says Kiev-based dietician Tatiana Fialkova. “There are 50 to 60 percent less nutrients in cooked buckwheat than in raw buckwheat.”
The takeaway? Next time, when reaching for that glass of detoxifying green juice, opt for a side of age-old buckwheat. Babushka would approve, too.
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