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The Vast, Vibrant World of Grains Deserves Your Attention

Five grains we love that will add more carbs to your cooking repertoire.
By Khushbu Shah and Margaret Eby
March 01, 2021
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Most American pantries are filled with a few staple grains like wheat, rice, and barley—maybe a little quinoa and farro—but those are just a tiny fraction of the vast variety of amazingly delicious grains eaten throughout the world. Some are crunchy and nutty, others starchy and satisfying, and still others bring heartiness to your plate.

Introducing new grains into your diet is an opportunity to pack in robust textures and add satisfying depth to your meals (while also offering a nutritional boost by way of protein and fiber). Looking for something chewy and pleasingly starchy? Grab some sorghum for a bright salad. For an earthy twist on silky pasta dough, turn to teff. For speedy weeknight meals that come together in just minutes, make a quick batch of polenta-like fonio or transform finger millet into a stack of tender roti. And for dessert, pop some amaranth and toss it with sweet syrup, dried fruits, and nuts for a Rice Krispies–style treat.

Grains
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

The biggest advantage to all of these grains is just how versatile they are. There isn't only one correct way to use them, and they're incredibly forgiving to cook. Each of these grains is also just as hardy as it is hearty. All are more adaptable and less resource-intensive to farm than many go-to grains like wheat and rice—meaning that you'll likely see more of them in the future as the climate continues to change.

Drawing from the wide world of grains is an easy way to add nuance, character, and flavor to your repertoire. Once you start exploring all the ways they can shake up your meals, you'll never think about grains as humdrum again.

Sorghum

Sorghum and Albacore Tuna Salad with Preserved Lemon
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

"I like to call sorghum the grain of the future," says Roxana Jullapat, the co-owner and baker of Los Angeles restaurant Friends & Family. Jullapat, a Los Angeles native of Thai and Costa Rican descent, unearthed sorghum's potential while working on her first cookbook, Mother Grains, an exploration of the grain spectrum for professional bakers and grain-curious novices. "Sorghum is incredibly sustainable. It is very nutritious; it's a high-yield crop; and it can be grown in harsh, dry environments—which is what a lot of farmland is under threat of becoming."

Sorghum has been around for millennia. Its origins as a foodstuff trace back to southern Egypt, and it was first domesticated in Ethiopia and Sudan before spreading to the rest of Africa. It likely came to the United States through enslaved people from West Africa. Here, sorghum plantings are usually for one of three purposes: livestock feed, sorghum syrup, or sorghum grain. Sorghum syrup, made from the corn-like stalks of the sorghum plant, is a linchpin of Appalachian cuisine, used as a molasses-like sweetener for pies and biscuits.

The grain is what Jullapat focuses on. You can use it ground into flour, as an ingredient in gluten-free baking, or whole in kernels, which can go sweet (they can cook into a hearty, starchy breakfast porridge) or savory (as in her Sorghum and Albacore Tuna Salad with Preserved Lemon). "This is the starchiest grain out there," Jullapat says. "It gets creamy, like arborio rice, and very thick." If you're going to use them as a salad base, wash the grains before cooking to remove extra starch, and cook them with abundant water, like pasta. Once cooked, spread them on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil so the grains don't stick together as much, she advises. "One great thing about these grains is they love vinaigrette, so you can be generous."

Where to Get It: Look for Bob's Red Mill sorghum, available at health food and specialty stores, amazon.com and bobsredmill.com.

Fonio

Beef and Fonio Meatballs with Sweet Potato Stew
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Chef Pierre Thiam is a fonio evangelist. Not only has he given a TED Talk about the importance of the grain and written The Fonio Cookbook, but he's also been instrumental in making fonio more widely available in the United States. "We began distributing officially in 2017, and at the time we were just at one Whole Foods, a new one opening in Harlem," Thiam says. The grain quickly gained popularity among shoppers; now you can find Thiam's Yolélé Fonio in every Whole Foods in the country.

It's easy to see why: Fonio is a nutritious, versatile grain, and it's very forgiving, to the point that in the Bambara community, a Mandé ethnic group native to a wide swath of West Africa who uses fonio as a staple, there's a saying that translates to "fonio never embarrasses the cook." In a pot of simmering water, fonio will cook through in five minutes or less, just enough time for the grain to absorb the liquid it's cooked in. "Too much water, and it becomes a wonderful porridge, more like grits or polenta," Thiam says. "With less water, you have a very fluffy couscous-like grain with a nutty taste. It's also a generous grain. One cup of raw fonio is up to four cups cooked."

Fonio has deep roots in Africa but became less widespread after the imposition of colonial powers in the late 19th century. Today, fonio is largely cultivated and consumed in the Sahel region of West Africa, an arid swath south of the Sahara that includes parts of Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, and Sudan. Fonio requires very little water and grows incredibly quickly. A fonio plant is ready for harvesting in two to three months, depending on the variety. "The most important thing to me is the fact that consuming fonio is one way of supporting those small farmers that are growing it in one of the poorest regions of the world," Thiam says. Besides that, it makes a great addition to meatballs.

Where to Get It: Pick up Pierre Thiam's Yolélé Fonio at Whole Foods or order it from yolele.com.

Millet

Ragi Roti
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Millet does not refer to a singular grain, but instead to a family of annual grasses. As one of the oldest cultivated crops—there are mentions of the grain in ancient Greek texts and the Old Testament—millet is eaten in many parts of the world. It remains most popular in countries throughout Africa and Asia like Nigeria and India. In the West, it tends to be used for birdseed or animal fodder, as Westerners have not yet realized how flavorful and versatile the grain truly is.

There are several types of millet that are beloved across the globe (including teff), but one of the most delicious and common varieties is finger millet, also known as ragi throughout many parts of India. It's an ingredient that Chitra Agrawal always keeps on hand. Agrawal, author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn and owner of Brooklyn Delhi, an Indian condiment company, says ragi is especially valued in the South Indian state of Karnataka. "The flour is used in a rustic and hearty dish called ragi mudde, or ragi balls, that is traditionally prepared in rural areas, providing farming families with hearty sustenance for the day."

At home, Agrawal likes to transform hearty ragi flour into a comforting pile of roti—savory, crunchy rounds with cumin seeds, curry leaves, and shredded coconut cooked into the batter—that she serves with a bit of yogurt and tomato achaar (recipe at left). It's a dish inspired by the ragi roti her mother would make for her, and it's now a recipe she makes for her children.

In addition to its nutritional value (it's rich in fiber) and versatility (it lends itself not just to roti but also to comforting porridges, crisp dosas, and even hearty cookies), the grain is also one of the hardiest and most resilient crops humans can plant. Millet is drought-resistant and low maintenance, and it grows very quickly compared to other grains. (While wheat and rice take nearly half a year to mature, millet is ready to eat in just 60 days.) Don't let their quick maturation rate fool you; millet plants also tend to have very impressive crop yields. This means more millet for everyone—and that is a very good thing.

Where to Get It: 24 Mantra organic ragi flour is available from amazon.com.

Teff

Teff Tagliatelle with Niter Kibbeh
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

To call teff a staple of the Ethiopian diet is, frankly, an under-statement. The grain, a type of millet, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the country's protein intake. "Teff is Ethiopia's most widely farmed crop, grown by an estimated 6.5 million Ethiopian farmers," notes chef Yohanis Gebreyesus in his James Beard Award–winning cookbook, Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa. It's a crop farmers have been growing for millennia; it was first domesticated around the Horn of Africa nearly 3,000 years ago.

Teff is as resilient as it is versatile. The grain thrives during droughts but can also grow well if the soil is waterlogged. In 2006, as teff started to gain popularity around the world, the Ethiopian government placed a ban on the export of the raw grain due to fears it would spike teff prices and drain supply. The ban is now partially lifted, but to meet rising demand for the nutritious grain, teff is now being grown in the United States, namely in the Pacific Northwest.

In Ethiopia, teff is most commonly milled into flour and used to make injera, the tangy fermented flatbread that is a pillar of Ethiopian cuisine. But Gebreyesus notes that teff flour is also a stunning addition to pasta dough, imparting a slight nuttiness to his teff tagliatelle, which he tops with the Ethiopian spiced clarified butter known as niter kibbeh (recipe above). Though teff pasta might seem like a surprising concept, it's one that culturally makes a lot of sense to Gebreyesus. "The selection of pasta in Addis Ababa supermarkets is the largest of any product, probably due to our history with Italy in the 1930s." But, he notes, teff doesn't always need to be milled into a flour to be consumed. "The tiny seeds can also be cooked and eaten as whole grains," says Gebreyesus. When simply boiled in salted water until tender, teff grains turn wonderfully fragrant with a gentle underlying sweetness, making for a satisfying salad base.

Where to Get It: Order whole teff grains and teff flour from Berhan Grains (berhan.co), an Ethiopian-Canadian family-run business that imports teff from Ethiopia, Djibouti, and South Africa and mills it in Barrie, Ontario.

Amaranth

Cafe de Olla Allegria
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Amaranth is one of nature's best magic tricks. Though it looks like a grain, feels like a grain, cooks like a grain, and can be used exactly like a grain—it is actually a seed. Like quinoa and buckwheat, amaranth is considered to be a pseudocereal. But regardless of its technical status as a grain or not, it's a powerhouse of nutrition and flavor: It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. This is almost shocking given its size. The amaranth plant itself is giant and majestic—it can grow to be nearly nine feet tall, with broad leaves that make great greens for stir-frying and an abundance of flowers in vivid hues of red, purple, and gold. Amaranth seeds, in contrast, are almost microscopic; they look like a pile of beads.

These tiny grains, which taste both earthy and nutty when cooked, grow in many parts of the world, due to amaranth's resilient nature. It requires a low- moisture environment and can thrive at a variety of elevations. Amaranth greens are especially popular in China, India, and parts of West Africa and the Caribbean, but the seeds have long been consumed in South America and Central America, where the Aztecs referred to amaranth as the "food of immortality."

While the Aztecs would most often consume amaranth during ceremonies, today in Mexican cuisine, amaranth is often popped like popcorn and sprinkled on salads or used to thicken soups and stews, says Esteban Castillo, author of Chicano Eats: Recipes from My Mexican-American Kitchen. He loves how versatile amaranth is, and he often throws a handful of the grain into smoothies and other dishes for crunch.

Castillo's personal favorite use—and the way amaranth is most commonly consumed in Mexico—is to make a traditional candy called alegría. Popped amaranth is tossed with syrup, dried fruit, and nuts to create what is essentially the love child of a Rice Krispies treat and a brittle (recipe at left). It's a simple sweet and an easy introduction to amaranth—and from there, the possibilities are endless. "I think we've only begun to scratch the surface of the many things we can do with the seed," says Castillo.

Where to Get It: Look for Bob's Red Mill amaranth, available at health food and specialty stores, amazon.com and at bobsredmill.com.