For good or ill, everybody's down on gluten. No doubt, the 21st century has seen a startling rise in intolerance to wheat, with instances of coeliac disease quadrupling in the last 50 years, affecting 1 in 100 Australians according to coeliac.org.au. That’s a problem, given how much of the stuff appears in the modern diet, with contemporary wheat varieties hybridised to yield more gluten than ever before.
Gluten’s villainy has, however, generated an interest in ancient grains; crops forgotten by the world at large as it perfected that triumph of the industrial age: Wonder White bread. Grains such as amaranth, buckwheat, chia, spelt and quinoa are all very popular at the moment. [fold]
Ancient grains are also finding favour for their often-higher nutritional value, delivering more protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals than their straight wheat counterpart.
One of Sydney’s foremost advocates of these unusual varieties is Redfern restaurant, Nourishing Quarter. In its tiny space next to The Norfolk hotel, Nourishing Quarter offers ultra-vegetarian Vietnamese fare with a Latin American inflection. Part owner Liam Forward became interested in ancient grains when he was diagnosed with diabetes in his early forties. “It was hell,” says Forward. “I was a very unhealthy vegetarian. You’d think that vegetarians would be knowledgable about nutrition, but I wasn’t. It was more about ethics.”
With a group of friends, Forward began investigating alternatives to his favourite foodstuffs. “We said, what the hell? We can’t eat rice, we can’t eat white bread. We can’t eat pasta and we love pasta!” he recalls. “Some of the foods that we found that were made with these ancient grains weren’t to our liking. So we innovated.”
At Nourishing Quarter, Forward uses a number of ancient grains, blending varieties for texture and taste. “It’s not just using the grains, it’s about the process application,” Forward explains. “Once you’ve got on that bandwagon, the multitude of uses for any of these ancient grains is never-ending. All people know what to do with it now is to sprinkle them on salads. But you just need to use your imagination.”
What follows is a few of Forward’s favourite ancient grains:
Quinoa, in its red, white or black variety, is at the top of Forward’s list. Grown all over the Andes in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, its original cultivators, the Incas, called it the ‘mother grain.’ And, if that’s not enough, 2013 is the International Year of the Quinoa, as declared by the United Nations (really).
Forward explains that white quinoa is easiest to cook (and digest), while the red and white variations take a little bit longer.
“Nutritionally, the difference between all of them is in terms of fibre,” says Forward. “And it’s got nine essential amino acids, which no other ones have.”
Nourishing Quarter uses a quinoa blend as a replacement for white rice, in curries, or even in bread. “A lot of people are using quinoa flour in corporation with rice flour or even wheat flour,” he explains. “We actually use other kinds of rice flour or tapioca flour. You cannot use it on its own. It turns into a rock. Through experimenting, you can make a pizza base, you can make bread - but it can be a bit more stringy.”
However, quinoa’s burgeoning status as a ‘superfood’ has had some troubling effects on its traditional growers, with recent reports indicating that its popularity overseas saw Andean peoples exhausting their own supplies for export. Forward acknowledges the concern, but hopes we’ll begin to see some local production, with a group in Tasmania currently experimenting with a crop. “In Australia, we must get involved, and hopefully encourage consumers to be aware of it,” he says.
Another grain that’s regularly used at Nourishing Quarter is buckwheat, originally cultivated in Eastern Europe as ‘kasha’. Low in fat and high in Vitamin B6, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, copper, phosphorus, zinc, iron and magnesium, it’s pretty good gear.
While it’s great in its wholegrain form for salads and sides, Buckwheat works particularly well ground down to a flour. Diners might be familiar with buckwheat if they’ve come across ramen. “Buckwheat is already manufactured in noodles,” says Forward. “We use it like a barley. It taste similar to barley.”
Forward is particularly amped about chia seeds - probably because he’s been eating rather a lot of them. “They’re a beautiful grain, really miraculous,” he enthuses. “You take three tablespoons a day, and you’ll see for yourself, it’s natural Berocca. It keeps some people up at night.”
Chia, used by the Aztecs for its nutritional value, and by ‘80s children as a grassy pet, is rich with Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, protein and fibre. Research has found that it’s particularly good for the heart when the grain’s milled into a flour, but it’s also used in juices and sweets. At Nourishing Quarter, the team presents chia in Vietnamese spring rolls, in a sago pudding, and even in the salad dressing. “I cannot say enough about chia,” says Forward.
Another South American wonder is amaranth, a gluten-free grain that was among the first to be cultivated by humans. Extremely high in protein, amaranth is often used as an alternative to rice.
At Nourishing Quarter, the chefs prepare amaranth in conjunction with quinoa in much the same way you’d prepare a risotto, stirring so as not to burn it. “In terms of cooking application, it’s very sticky. You can’t cook it like a normal rice,” explains Forward. “However, Nourishing Quarter incorporates it with other grains. The stickiness will stick to other grains, and it dries up enough to be a component.”
Forward is particularly fond of amaranth for its ability to take on other flavours while delivering its concentrated protein hit. “Because it’s got no taste of its own, the taste of chocolate or whatever will infuse into that grain,” he says.