By Caroline Best
Lake Baikal in the mountainous regions of east Siberia is the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. The marginal lands surrounding it were among the earliest areas where buckwheat, a fruit seed belonging to the rhubarb family rather than a true grain, was first cultivated; it thrives in poor soil and matures more quickly than any other cereal crop. From Siberia, buckwheat gradually made its way west, carried by nomads travelling along ancient trade routes until it reached Europe, where it was embraced as a life-sustaining crop by the North Slavs and other agrarian populations.
Kasha, which is simply roasted buckwheat groats, is part of almost every meal in traditional Russian cuisine. The food’s almost sacred status in the nation’s culture may be traced to the pagan traditions of pre-Christian Russians, who identified it as a gift from the Mother Goddess. Kasha did not need to be baked as a bread, was easily cooked and could feed many people at once. It was a ritual food that was eaten to celebrate marriages, births or the end of a blood feud. In a land of great forests, kasha was a fine complement for wild mushrooms – hunting for them was an obsession among the Slavic peoples, comparable to fishing in its need for patience, care and luck.
Kasha was inexpensive, healthy, full of protein and a source of great vigor; as kawa, or porridge, it served as the breakfast of Russia and the food that fed the marching armies of the Tsars. The Russian Primary Chronicle, the country’s oldest known history, relates the tale of how kawa saved Prince Vladimir the Great and his people when they were besieged by a hostile Turkish tribe. Vladimir’s subjects prepared their kasha porridge with honey and offered it to their enemies who ate it and exclaimed, “Our princes will not believe this marvel, unless they eat of the food themselves.”
Vladimir, the 10th-century ruler of a kingdom that included large parts of modern Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, was originally a pagan and built a temple in his capital of Kiev that was dedicated to six different gods and goddesses. But following the martyrdom of two Christian missionaries by his subjects, he was moved to send envoys abroad to investigate the major religions of the time. They returned from Constantinople, the centre of Orthodox Christianity, in awe, saying “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth … We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” Impressed by this report, Vladimir accepted the rites of the Orthodox Church and was baptized in 988 CE.
As the centuries progressed and the small Principality of Moscow expanded to become Tsarist Russia, the Orthodox Church solidified its position by recasting the pagan customs of the common folk into Christian traditions. Buckwheat, the cultural super food of the Russian peasant, played an important role in this process. Under the strict Lenten rules enforced by the Orthodox faith, the daily diet for half the days of the year was vegetables, mushrooms and a grain, which in most villages would be roasted buckwheat. Echoing earlier rituals, kasha served as the baptismal covenant meal, signifying that a family would raise their baby in the rites of the church. For a boy, the kasha was cooked with the meat of a rooster; for a girl, with the meat of a hen. There was great truth in the Russian peasant proverb “Buckwheat is our mother.” It was to its bounty that they ascribed the formation of their nation’s folk soul – tenacious, strong and able to withstand cold winters and hot summers.
Recent decades have brought a revival of interest in this easily grown and gluten-free pseudo-grain, which is an exceptionally rich source of dietary fibre and vegetable protein. Buckwheat also has many useful medicinal properties since it is the greatest food source of the flavonoid rutin, which helps regulate blood pressure and reduce cholesterol. In addition, buckwheat can lower blood sugar levels, is claimed to prevent the spread of some cancers (particularly hormonal ones) and improves bone health. Despite these virtues, buckwheat has been neglected over the last century in favour of corn and wheat. Yet this enduring staple crop of Eastern Europe, which has never been genetically modified, now promises to become an important component in a more sustainable model of world agriculture.
Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.
Cook potatoes sufficient to prepare 2½ cups mashed. Salt and flavour generously with butter, oil, milk or cream, according to your taste. Set aside.
Combine 3 cups all-purpose flour with 1 tsp. baking powder
Add 1 cup of the mashed potatoes to the flour and mix in. Then add ½ cup ice-cold water and knead into a smooth dough. Let rest on a board dusted with flour, while preparing the filling.
Sauté ½ cup chopped onions in butter or oil until they start browning.
Prepare 1 cup cooked, crumbled bacon (vegetarian or otherwise).
Stir onions and “bacon” into the remaining mashed potato.
Cut dough into 4 pieces. Roll a section as thin as possible. Cut into a dozen rectangles. Place a heaped tablespoon of the filling into the centre of each rectangle and fold in the ends of the dough, pinching them together. Place the knishes, fold side down, on a generously oiled baking sheet. Bake until golden, about ½ hour in a 350° oven.
While the knishes bake, the kasha can be prepared. Kasha (roasted buckwheat) can be bought in most health food stores or supermarkets. To 3 cups boiling water, add 1 tsp. salt and 1 and ½ cups kasha. Simmer 15- 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. While it cooks, sauté 2 onions in butter or oil. When the kasha is cooked, stir in the onions. Serve with knishes and sour cream.