September 05, 2021

Great Grechka!

Great Grechka!
Grechka on sale. Photograph by luigig on Flickr

In May, the Russian Federation temporarily banned the export of grechka, also known as buckwheat, from June 5 to August 31. There are rumors that the ban may be extended. This is a sad time for lovers of the grain, with its rich and hearty enticements!

The first time I tried it, I wanted to spit it back out. It tasted of earth and mineral, nutty, with a texture of mush and an inexplicable rubbery bite. Cooked longer than what I’m now accustomed to, the grechka – served alongside pureed potatoes and ground meat cutlets – seemed like the filler food on the plate. Nineteen at the time, I recall pushing it around the edges of the meal, as a child does, hoping it would disappear before I offended my host family.

Not great as far as first impressions go, but you’ll have to blame my American palate – any aversion I had to the mash was short-lived. When one travels across Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, grechka, also known as buckwheat, is both unavoidable and a delight. You find it in restaurants and canteens, hotels, and homes; it is served for breakfast with milk, plain, or with a savory spin for lunch and dinner. Frankly, it’s damn good.

grechgka for breakfast
Grechka is good any time of day, but I love to have it for breakfast. Add a tomato and onion salad with a little vinegar, salt, and oil, and you have a fantastic sauce for the grain to soak up. | Photograph by Haley Bader

The grain falls under the general category of kasha, a Russian word loosely translated as “porridge.” When a young girl asked President Vladimir Putin what he eats for breakfast, he admitted that kasha is a part of his ration, joking that the fewer teeth you have, the more you love it. Buckwheat holds a place so profound in the imaginations of Russian citizens that it has even been used to adorn the eyebrows of Instagram influencers.

Grechka is an all-purpose grain great for filling bellies, even when a family cannot afford much else, and nourishment for Russians facing famine, economic crises, war, and other disasters. Alongside salt and toilet paper, it is the first product to disappear from Russian shelves in times of emergency. Grechka is recommended for children, the elderly, as a workout meal, and has even hit some Western markets as a superfood.

Buckwheat grain | Photograph by Ervins Strauhmanis on Flickr

In 1920, the American journalist Marguerite Harrison traveled to post-revolutionary Russia to learn about the social progress of the Bolsheviks (and, frankly, to spy). She describes in her book Marooned in Moscow how she crossed the Polish front covertly and stayed with Russians of many backgrounds. En route to the city, she visited the village of Krupki, a brigade headquarters, for nearly a week – and encountered grechka, more timeless than politics.

Marguerite took dinner and supper with officers who had set up a mess in an old schoolhouse. “The former meal consisted of a meat soup, meat cutlets, with potato soup or kasha, the Russian national dish (a cereal, usually whole wheat, buckwheat or millet), tea, with occasional marmalade. Supper was soup kasha, tea, and sometimes bacon.”

The buckwheat flower | Photograph by Jim Morefield on Flickr

The grain’s presence in Slavic lands allegedly dates back about one thousand years, when Greek monks spread buckwheat alongside Christianity. Other sources cite its origin in the Himalayas or Altai, though the Greek monks of Kievan Rus were supposedly the ones who cultivated the crops. The connection to the Greeks remains in linguistic traces, where Greece (Gretsiya) morphed to grechka.

A staple of the Russian diet, grechka has several preparations, including a Christmas-time dessert. I learned my favorite in Moldova: heat up a few tablespoons of sunflower seed oil in the bottom of a skillet, then pour in the dried buckwheat. Sautée until the kernels are somewhat brown and aromatic, then add diced onion, perhaps some chopped green pepper and shredded carrot, two parts water, and let it boil. Decrease the fire to low, cover the mix with a lid, and let cook until just soft, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. Do not disturb! Some like to leave it to sit another ten minutes or so after it has finished cooking.

Decadently fatty grechka mixed with meat |
Photograph by at8eqeq3 on Flickr

Unlike with rolled oats, I find the bite of the grechka to be part of its charm. Cooked in this manner, the fragrances of the vegetables compliment the nuttiness of the buckwheat well, with just enough fat from the sunflower oil to give it a feel of decadence. Russians, apparently, also love it with butter… Hence the expression, kashu maslom ne isportish: “You can’t spoil kasha with butter.”

In May 2021, the Russian Federation temporarily banned the export of buckwheat from June 5 until August 31 – not a strange decision in pandemic times, considering how vital grechka has been for the Russian people when in dire straits. Officials explained that the measures were set to ensure food security and keep prices stable. These are lingering issues, as the cost of cereals have risen by a third since last year, when companies responded to the weakening ruble by sending their grechka abroad.

But lovers of grechka and those curious to try, do not despair! The grain is still available in many markets outside of Russia, particularly in health food stores and always in Eastern European shops, if you’re hankering to give it a try.

Grechka, nice and simple | Photograph by Alora2010 on Flickr


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