Ancient and Not-So-Ancient Grains Find New-Age Cachet

“Not rice again!” Banish that complaint and boost your family’s nutrient intake with alternative grains. Most have been around for millennia; all are relatively unheard of on the typical American dining table. You may not find them in your supermarket, so look to health food stores, organic markets or the mail-order sources listed below.


A staple of the Incas and the Aztecs, amaranth dates back to 4,000 B.C. Technically the fruit of the plant, amaranth is eaten as a grain nevertheless.

Amaranth has a much higher quality protein than most true grains, boasting more methionine and lysine, two amino acids typically in short supply in grains. It also contains calcium, vitamins A and E, and insoluble fiber. After rinsing, amaranth needs to be toasted or boiled in order to make it digestible and to bring out its nutty flavor.

To prepare, cook one cup of amaranth in 1 ? cups of liquid for 35 minutes. Amaranth can be cooked as a cereal, or put into puddings or casseroles. For baking, it must be combined with other grains (? amaranth, ? wheat), as it contains no gluten, needed for the leavening process.


This distant cousin of wheat dates back 6,000 years to ancient Egypt. Kamut drew some notoriety for a while as King Tut’s wheat. Its nutritional virtues were recently rediscovered. The kernels are large and rice-like, with a buttery flavor. Kamut is higher than wheat in protein, magnesium, potassium, folate and iron. It is also a good source of B vitamins.

To prepare, soak whole berries overnight, then cook like rice. Kamut flour can be used in baked goods, but to provide gluten’s structure, mix it with other flours (1/3 kamut, 2/3 wheat). For convenience, look for kamut in prepared foods in health food stores.


Pronounced KEEN-wah, the Inca’s sacred staple is one of the best grain-like sources of protein. Quinoa’s flavor is more delicate than that of other grains, and its tiny bead-like granules cook up fluffy and light, expanding to four times its uncooked size. Yet it cooks in half the time of rice.

Not a true grain, quinoa is a vegetarian’s delight, owing to its excellent protein quality, providing all the essential amino acids. It contains significant magnesium and is a surprising source of iron.

To prepare, combine one cup of quinoa with two cups of liquid, then boil or steam for 10 to 15 minutes.


Spelt is a primitive relative of wheat, dating back 10,000 years to the Middle East. There is some controversy over whether people allergic to wheat can tolerate spelt. In celiac sprue, a severe intestinal disorder, spelt is forbidden because of its gluten content.

Until recently in the U.S., spelt was primarily used as feed for livestock. But people are now catching on to the benefits of this nutrient-dense grain for themselves. It is a good source of protein, thiamin, riboflavin, copper, iron, magnesium, zinc and soluble fiber.

To prepare, steam one cup of pre-soaked spelt in one cup of liquid for 50 minutes. Enjoy spelt’s sweet, nutty flavor and chewy texture by substituting it for rice in pilafs and other recipes.


If you’ve eaten Ethiopian cuisine, you’ve had your hands literally all over teff. Teff flour is used to make injera. This cloth-like pancake serves as a base for native Ethiopian dishes; when torn, the bread can be used to mop up food.

Teff’s high nutritional value is due to the bran coating and the layer just under the bran remaining intact after refining. This preserves the oil, minerals, vitamins and protein. Teff also contains respectable amounts of calcium, iron, thiamin and soluble fiber.

To prepare, cook one cup of teff in three cups of water for 20 minutes. Teff’s sweet molasses taste can be enjoyed as porridge, in pilafs or as flour used in batter for pancakes.


Pronounced, tri-ti-CAY-lee, this hybridized grain is a cross between rye and wheat. Technically not ancient, triticale is actually new in agricultural terms, dating back a mere 200 years.

Triticale is high in protein and is a good source of B vitamins, vitamin E, copper, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc.

To prepare, presoak triticale overnight to reduce cooking time. Cook one cup of triticale in 2 ? cups of liquid for 40 minutes. Cooked, chewy whole berries can be served in pilafs or casseroles. Cooked triticale meal can be made into porridge.

Where to get Uncommon Grains

  • Arrowhead Mills: (806) 364-0730
  • Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods: (503) 654-3215
  • King Arthur Bakers: (800) 827-6836
Updated July 22, 2004


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