Tartary Buckwheat: History and Uses

CULTIVATION

Like common buckwheat, Tartary buckwheat spread both east and west from its birthplace in southwestern China. It has been cultivated in temperate and sub-tropical regions around the Northern Hemisphere, primarily as a subsistence crop. During the 20th century, Tartary buckwheat virtually disappeared as a crop in Europe and North America. Impressed by its high nutritional value, researchers in recent years have promoted the revival of the species as a “functional food.”

From their initial domestication in southwestern China, common (or “sweet”) and Tartary (or “bitter”) buckwheat have traveled together southward into the Indian subcontinent, eastward to Korea and Japan, and westward to Europe and North America. More recently, common buckwheat has also become a commercial crop in Brazil and Australia.

In Chinese, common buckwheat is called tian qiao; Tartary buckwheat is ku qiao (Scheucher, 2004) or ku chi mai (GRIN). While Tartary buckwheat has all but disappeared from many of the areas to which it had been introduced, it remains a significant crop in its native country. In China in 2004, according to Zhao and co-authors, over 300 varieties of Tartary buckwheat were being grown on 1.0 to 1.5 million hectares, distributed mainly in provinces south of Yangtze River.

Nevertheless, with the recent influx of commerce and modernity in China’s Yunnan Province, cultivation of Tartary buckwheat has declined even in its ancestral home (Saunders Bulan et al., 2017). Those authors sought to identify farm and farmer characteristics that influenced trends in the area planted to the species. They surveyed 230 households in seven major production areas within the province—capturing diversity in elevation, wealth, ethnicity, and access to markets. Along with questions about farming practices, household demographics and economics, farmers were asked how the area they planted to Tartary buckwheat had changed over five years. Reduced cultivation of Tartary buckwheat was associated with older, poorer farmers on smaller farms, with less access to markets and fewer dietary uses of buckwheat. Government policies were effective in promoting buckwheat cultivation in some areas, and promoting alternative crops in others. Reduction in planting was evident among the Yi ethnic group, despite the significance of Tartary buckwheat within that culture.

Scheucher wrote in 2004 that buckwheat still played an important cultural and nutritional role in parts of Tibet, although its cultivation was mostly limited to sloping, sandy or infertile ground. It can be grown to elevations as high as 4500m. In the Tibetan language, common buckwheat is called gya bra; Tartary buckwheat is called bra bo. Traditional varieties of both species, which often included seeds of the other, were broadcast in late June. In addition to rodents and maggots, August hail storms and September frosts could sometimes reduce yields. Crops were hand-pulled in mid-September, air dried on roofs and in courtyards, and threshed with wooden flails. Seeds were ground in hand-powered stone mills. Flour was mostly used within the household, but sometimes sold or bartered for yak oil. Straw was used as winter fodder (Scheucher, 2004).

According to Baniya et al (2004), buckwheat is an important staple food in mountainous areas of Nepal. Both common (mithe) and Tartary buckwheat (tite) are cultivated, mainly by Tibeto-Burmese and lower caste people. Above 2000m, different ecotypes are planted from mid-May through mid-July, and harvested from mid-July through the end of September. In the mid hills (1000-2000m), early plantings occur from mid-January through mid-March, with harvests from mid-March through mid-May. Late season plantings occur from mid-July through mid-September, with harvests from mid-September through mid-November. In the sub-tropical climate below 1000m, buckwheat is planted in November and harvested in February.

Norbu and Roder (2001) reported that both “sweet” (common) and “bitter” (Tartary buckwheat) were traditional crops of Bhutanese peasants. Buckwheat was grown in shifting cultivation on higher and drier slopes—terrain not suited to growing rice. The area under cultivation had declined in recent decades, even as dishes containing buckwheat had started to appear in cities as restaurant fare.

USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) states that in Pakistan tartary buckwheat is called “duckwheat,” and in India it is called kaspat (Hindi). Because Tartary buckwheat is frequently sown with common buckwheat, India has not collected separate yield or acreage statistics for the former species. Rana et al. (2012) reported that in India the cultivation of both species of buckwheat has shrunk over recent decades. Those authors reported that their cultivation is currently limited to highlands, where they are grown under low-input conditions. Besides an arc of northern India, from Kashmir and Jammu in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the extreme east, buckwheat is also grown sporadically in the Nilgiris and Palani hills in the southern part of the country. According to Maikhuri (1997), who studied changing cropping patterns along an altitudinal transect in the Garwal Hills of the Central Himalaya between 1970-74 and 1990-1994, the 82.5 percent decline in the area planted to Tartary buckwheat was attributable to increased cultivation of cash crops such as potato and kidney bean.

According to Udesky (1988), the earliest historical reference to buckwheat in Japan is about 1300 years old. However, archeological pollen samples indicate that its introduction was much earlier. Yutaka et al.(2004) reported that the consumption of Tartary buckwheat in Japan dates only from the 1990’s, although that species had long been present on the island of Hokkaido. These authors claimed that its common name there, ishisoba—meaning “stone buckwheat”—indicated that Tartary buckwheat was considered inedible. Its seeds were a contaminant in common buckwheat, to be removed prior to the consumption of the latter. The authors found that pure and mixed plantings of the two species produced total yields that were roughly equal, with the proportions harvested from mixed plots approximating the proportions (by weight) of the seeds that had been planted. However, shattering of Tartary buckwheat was observed to be much greater than that of common buckwheat (cultivar ‘Kitawasesoba’); therefore, even if seed lots of the latter were thoroughly cleaned of Tartary buckwheat, the latter species would likely persist in the region where common buckwheat is being cultivated.

According to Ikeda (2002), buckwheat had reached Europe (Slovenia) by the 15th century if not earlier. Common buckwheat has been grown across Asia and Europe, including the countries of Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, France, and Italy. The parallel dissemination of Tartary buckwheat can be inferred from the proliferation of names for this species:  grečicha tatarskaja and tatarka in Russian; tatarischer Buchweizen in German; sibiriskt bovete in Swedish; sarrasin de Tartarie in French; grano saracens siberiano in Italian; alforfón de Tartaria in Spanish; and fagopiro da Tartaria in Portuguese (GRIN). The English names—“India-wheat,” “India buckwheat,” and “green buckwheat”—may reflect English contact with the crop in the Indian sub-continent or else in Europe.

Bonafaccia and Fabian (2003a) reported that until the 1980’s small quantities of Tartary buckwheat were still being grown in in parts of Central Europe, particularly in the Alpine region. They believed that the only area of Europe where the species was currently cultivated for human consumption was the cross-border region of Islek (northern Luxemburg, the Westeifel in Germany, and the German-speaking area of Belgium along the border). Brunori and co-authors reported in 2010 that in Italy, Tartary buckwheat was being grown in only “a few Alpine valleys.” Their research was part of a government effort to encourage its cultivation at higher elevations in southern (Calabria) and central regions. According to Fabjan et al (2003), as late as the 1970’s Tartary buckwheat was cultivated in parts of Slovenia (i.e., Gorenjska, Dolenjska, and Zgornjesavinjska dolina). However, at the time of their writing, it occurred there only as a weed in common buckwheat. Ten years later, as the health benefits of Tartary buckwheat products have become better known, Vogrincic and co-authors reported that the species was being grown in Sweden, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Coe (1931) wrote that buckwheat arrived in North America with Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley. New York and Pennsylvania became major growing areas in the United States. In Canada, buckwheat cultivation has become centered in Manitoba. According to Coe, Tartary buckwheat was cultivated in several areas, with Maine, New York, and the mountains of North Carolina noted. That species might have migrated down the Appalachian Mountains after having been established in Maritime Canada by 17th-century Acadian immigrants from France.

TRADITIONAL CULINARY USES OF BUCKWHEAT

In many cultures, buckwheat flour—mixed with water and often with cereal flour—has been formed in a variety of shapes and boiled and/or fried.  Whole kernels serve as ingredients in many dishes, and are also boiled for tea.  Cooked greens are sometimes eaten as well.  Neither common nor Tartary buckwheat seeds contain gluten, the characteristic protein of the wheat family.  However, due to intentional mixing with wheat flour or incidental contamination with kernels of wheat or its relatives, not all buckwheat products are gluten-free.

In China, most buckwheat is utilized as flour, although dishes are also prepared from groats.  Flour (sometimes blended with wheat flour) is mixed with water and the pasta-like dough is then formed into various shapes.  These include a cat-earlobe shape (mao-er-duo), a pig’s-ear shape (earzhuerduo), a shell shape (chaomai-ke), and noodles (mien) (Ikeda, 2002).

In China, according to Wei et al. (2017), noodles have been produced at least since late Neolithic times (3900 B.P.). Remains of noodles–perhaps made from millet flour–were discovered at an archeological site in Qinghai Province associated with the Qijia culture of that era. Chinese noodles can be roughly categorized as “cut,” “hand-extended” (i.e., pulled), or “extruded”–depending on the method by which they were made. Some experts believe that the Qijia noodles were extruded with tools similar to a simple hele lathe. (A contemporary Bhutanese example of an extruder is shown HERE. ) Wei and co-authors speculate that cut buckwheat noodles were actually the earliest type in China.

Those authors reported that, in northern Shaanxi Province, cut buckwheat noodles remain popular. Flour of Artemisia desterorum is added to the buckwheat dough to improve its viscosity and smoothness. Dough is rolled to a thickness of 10mm and cut in strips 2-3 mm wide. Cut noodles are boiled and eaten in mutton soup. Extruded buckwheat hele noodles are also consumed with soup, or dressed with sauce, or fried.

Lin (2004) listed the traditional uses of Tartary buckwheat in China:

1.  E-luo-ba-ba:  Mill, screen, mix, and shape.  Then steam for a green color and delicate fragrance.  Or boil with meat.  Delicious!  Or simmer to produce a greenish yellow color, sweet flavor and fragrance.  Or bake till crisp and delicious.

2.  E-zha:  Soak, dry, fry, and mill.  Steam for a sweet and delicate fragrance, and a very refreshing taste.  Or boil for a delicate fragrance, and a slightly bitter taste.

3.  E-ge:  Make flour, mix, and shape.  Boil for a delicate fragrance.  Or steam.

4.  Tartary buckwheat tofu:  Prepare flour; make a paste with water and white alum; then boil, cool, and shape.  This tofu has a yellowish green color, is a bit sour, quenches thirst, and drives away summer heat.

5.  Yizi:  Soak, boil, inoculate, and ferment.  Store in a wine jar.

6.  E-zi:  Mix with oat and corn; then mill, boil, and pour into an earthen jar.  Inoculate, cover with a lid, and seal with mud.

According to Scheucher (2004), Tibetans mostly used buckwheat for making flat breads, which sometimes contained wheat flour as well.  Common buckwheat flour is sometimes soaked overnight in barley beer, mixed with a bit of sugar, and baked in a greased pan.  Buckwheat flour can also be fermented with yeast prior to baking.  After cooling, the dish can be sprinkled with sugar and served as a dessert.

Kano et al. (2004) have listed these simple recipes for Tartary buckwheat flour in Tibet:

1.  Roti:  Mix the flour with boiling water; form into a round stick; bake; and serve with yak butter.

2.  Dhido:  Mix the flour into boiling water; season and serve.

3.  Momo:  Prepare pancakes from flour; wrap around a filling (e.g., vegetables and beans) and serve.

Although young greens are consumed in Bhutan, buckwheat is grown there mostly for its grain, milled into flour. Popular buckwheat dishes include buttered griddle cakes called khuli. Thick pancakes of kneaded dough called teyzey are roasted in a frying pan or directly on the fire, then served with a pounded mixture of chili, garlic, salt, and cheese. Another unleavened circular bread is called keptang, in which the dough is made from buckwheat flour and either water or fermented grains. A smaller variant, la zey, is made with dough of buckwheat flour, distilled alcohol, and sugar. La zey is traditionally baked in the hot ashes of the hearth (Norbu and Roder, 2001).

Choydam is uncooked dough served with a pungent onion relative, radish leaves, and chili sauce. Kontong are small triangles of kneaded dough that are cooked to firmness in boiling water.

Puta are buckwheat noodles, cooked in boiling water, strained and rinsed. These are served in a hot sauce of mustard oil, crushed garlic, chili, and salt, usually garnished with bits of fried egg and freshly chopped onion leaves. Phob are hand-rolled noodles fried in hot oil (used in religious rituals).

In Bhutan, buckwheat is also used to produce alcohol, which, when distilled, is called ara. Menchang is a medicinal ara distilled from a combination of sweet and bitter buckwheat (Norbu and Roder, 2001).

In India, consumption of buckwheat is still popular among hill people—as chillare (unleavened bread) or ghanti (wine).  Beyond the hill country, buckwheat flour (kuttu ka atta) is used on fast days when cereals and pulses are not consumed (Rana et al., 2012).

In Japan as in China, buckwheat is generally associated with noodles—the crop, seed, and prepared food all sharing the name soba.  Buckwheat noodles are also a popular dish in Korea.  According to Ikeda (2002), the Japanese prepare noodles (soba-kiri or soba-men) by cutting strips from a thin sheet of dough made of flour and water.  Wheat flour, yam tuber, or eggs are sometimes added as binding agents.  The noodles are cooked in boiling water, drained, and rinsed with tap water prior to serving.  (As is true of Japanese cuisine in general, the preparation of soba has become highly refined, with mastery achieved only after intensive study. Sonoko Sakai is one classically-trained chef who works to explain Japanese methods and recipes to American cooks. ) Dattan soba refers specifically to noodles made of Tartary buckwheat. The preparation of a dish that incorporates dattan soba is described by Sonoko Sakai HERE.

Udesky (1988) wrote that buckwheat noodles appeared in Japan only around 400 years ago, and prior to that, buckwheat was consumed as dumplings.  Dumplings can be made by pouring boiling water into buckwheat flour, and beating the mixture until a smooth ball forms.  Alternatively, a mix of flour and water can be beaten in a heated pan.  Dumplings are sometimes re-boiled prior to consumption. Besides noodles and dumplings, other Japanese recipes that incorporate buckwheat include various cookies, bean-gum-filled buns, tea, and groats served with mushrooms.

While variations on these basic dishes are found wherever subsistence farmers have grown buckwheat, some cultures expanded their usage.  Buckwheat flour has also been used in leavened breads, other baked goods, and beer.  As mentioned above, whole buckwheat groats can be roasted as kasha, boiled for tea, or used as an ingredient in stews or other recipes.  Nor are seeds the only edible organs.  In some cultures, the greens of immature plants are also consumed.  Flowers can be dried and used in tea.

The buckwheat crepe is a well-known French dish (particularly in Brittany), with a Russian equivalent in the blini.  In Slovenia, a buckwheat cheesecake (ajdova zlevanka) is traditional fare.  According to Vogrincic et al. (2010), hard-boiled Tartary buckwheat mush was one of the traditional staple foods in that country; however, the authors found no information there about making bread from Tartary buckwheat.  In Italy, especially the northern region, traditional buckwheat recipes included polenta, a pasta called pizoccheeri, and a dumpling dish called sciat (Ikeda, 2002).  We have found no reference to Tartary buckwheat recipes from that country.

GLUTEN FREE?

Neither common nor Tartary buckwheat contains gluten, the distinctive proteins of the wheat family (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, etc.).  Mixed with water, those proteins form a fibrous mass perfect for trapping the carbon dioxide gas in rising bread dough.  Compared to wheat flours, buckwheat flours produce denser, weaker, and crumbly breads.  To increase elasticity, wheat flour is often mixed with buckwheat flour when making noodles or breads.  Therefore, many commercial baked goods that contain buckwheat also contain wheat proteins.  Those suffering from coeliac disease, wishing to avoid gluten in their diets, must ascertain whether “buckwheat” products are in fact wheat-free.  Angelica Mill does not add wheat flour to the buckwheat flour we sell.  Nevertheless, our buckwheat crop is sometimes contaminated by a few seeds of volunteer wheat or rye plants.  Because those grains—particularly wheat—are similar in size to tartary buckwheat kernels, our cleaning operations cannot reliably remove every kernel of the former.  Therefore we do not claim our Tartary buckwheat flour to be gluten-free.  Many people who do not suffer from coeliac disease nevertheless find that wheat products don’t agree with them.  In those cases, we recommend that consumers experiment with our Tartary buckwheat flour in small doses, to gauge whether trace levels of gluten that it might contain cause them digestive unease.