A little earthy, a little nutty, a little bitter: The flavor of buckwheat can be intense. But roast buckwheat seeds, or mix buckwheat flour with other flours, and the taste is tamed.
It's a taste more of us are getting to know. The increase in the number of people eating gluten-free diets or more whole grains has been good for the buckwheat business.
"It's unbelievable," said John McMath, a director of Birkett Mills, one of the two major buckwheat-producing companies in the United States. "It's growing by leaps and bounds."
He says the mill, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, has had to push farmers to ramp up production to keep up with the demand.
McMath, who also heads the National Buckwheat Institute, ticks off a list of selling points. Besides being gluten-free, buckwheat is a nutritional powerhouse; it helps lower cholesterol; it can fight adult-onset diabetes: "That's a claim that has been scientifically backed," he said.
It grows well in poor soil and doesn't need fertilizer, herbicides for weed control or insecticides for pest control.
"Very often it's grown organically. It's a very ecological crop, a very unique crop," McMath said.
It's also not technically a grain or cereal, though it's treated as if it is. Buckwheat is the seed of a plant that's part of the rhubarb family.
At the grocery store, it comes in several forms. Buckwheat groats are the plant's hulled seeds. Kasha is groats that have been roasted. Groats and kasha are sold in different grinds, from fine to coarse. Buckwheat flour, the finely milled seeds, can be dark or light, depending on how much of the strongly flavored hull is included.
We tried those permutations in a variety of recipes, from kid-friendly mild pancakes to a clams-and-pasta dish that was a symphony of robust flavors. A bit leery after a run-in with some unfortunate restaurant flapjacks, we were pleasantly surprised by the results. We get it! And we're happy to join the growing ranks of buckwheat fans.