Get Your Freekh On

Ancient grains and seeds are finding their way back into the mainstream


Photograph by Joe Vaughn


The phrase “everything old is new again” certainly applies to food. Overheard recently in a trendy, top-rated restaurant: “Hey, is that red quinoa you’re enjoying? This farro salad is fabulous.” As more of us look for protein alternatives to meat, ancient grains and seeds are becoming more popular as part of a mainstream diet. Tasty, versatile, and varied, many of these throwbacks are the high-protein, high-fiber, zero-fat ingredients recommended by physicians and dietitians. 

As gluten-free menus have increased in popularity, so has the incorporation of these ingredients into recipes that are healthy, filling, and delicious. Many chefs are using quinoa, the most popular of them, as an integral part of their menu offerings. Farro, a Tuscan favorite, is frequently a primary component in soups and salads. Eating like the ancients is easy, nutritious, and a bit adventurous.  

These heirloom ingredients are varied in flavor and texture, and they can add a satisfying crunch to dishes or a sweet note to breads and desserts. Yes, some of them may sound exotic and perhaps unusual, but don’t let your lack of familiarity prevent you from being adventurous. Give at least one or two a try — you will be pleasantly surprised. Here are 10 of the “new” throwbacks.

1. Amaranth: Gluten-free and crunchy, it’s popped like popcorn and mixed with honey or molasses to make a popular treat in Mexico called “alegría” or “joy.” Aztecs used it in their religious ceremonies. 

2. Farro: Earthy, nutty, and very filling, it was once popular with Roman legions, and found in Egyptian tombs. Farro is also known as emmer wheat. Fiber-rich and low in gluten, it is frequently used in Tuscan soups and salads. 

3. Teff: Rich in calcium, these tiny seeds are grown worldwide. Traditionally made into injera, a flatbread used in Ethiopian restaurants, it’s mild, light, and slightly sweet. 

4. Millet: It’s not just for bird feeders any more. The four most common varieties of this gluten-free grain are: pearl, foxtail, broom corn, and finger. Roti, an Indian flatbread, is made from finger millet. It’s sweet, nutty, and easily digested.

5. Quinoa (KEEN wah): The most popular of the “comeback kids,” this is a gluten-free, complete protein (contains all the essential amino acids) from the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia. Actually a seed, it comes in white, red, and black. Its nutty flavor makes it very versatile. 

6. Chia: More than just a pet in a clay pot. A staple in the ancient Aztec diet, these seeds are available in black and white, and it’s full of omega-3 fatty acids and high in fiber. Grind chia and add to a smoothie for lots of gluten-free, antioxidant protein. 

7. Spelt: Sweet, nutty, and chewy describe this type of wheat. It is primarily used in baking after its very hard outer shell is ground into flour, and it makes hearty, delicious bread. Originating in Iran about 6,000 years ago, it’s now very popular in Europe. 

8. Freekh (FREAK-eh): Yes, “freak-eh.” This is green wheat harvested early and roasted. With up to three times as much protein as brown rice, it’s low on the glycemic index and boasts plenty of fiber. Smoky in flavor with a barley-like texture, it’s great in pilafs and soups.

9. Kamut: This is actually a brand name for an ancient, recently revived wheat known as khorasan wheat. It’s always grown organically. Legend has it to be the “Prophet’s Wheat” that the Bible-era Noah brought with him on the ark. Sweet and buttery, kamut works well in pilafs and salads. 

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