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Russia’s Secret Weapon

By March 3, 2014January 7th, 2023Cuisine, Eastern European

Russians are tenacious. Russians are strong.  Russians can withstand cold winters and hot summers.  Where do they get their fuel?  What’s their secret?  


I was recently enmeshed in dense research and writing about Russian history, and I was struck, as I always am, by the sheer tenacity of the Russian people! Century follows century featuring war, famine, revolution, and other catastrophes. The Russians just keep on trucking. How ever do they manage it?

buckwheat in a green bowl

The answer may lie in their regular consumption of buckwheat. This hardy grain has been a staple of Eastern Europeans since ancient times, and Russians can lay a particular claim to buckwheat: the region surrounding Lake Baikal is the first recorded area where buckwheat was regularly cultivated. Long appreciated in Asia, buckwheat appears mostly in noodle form in that region, as opposed to Eastern Europe where buckwheat kernels, called “groats” are toasted, then boiled with water and eaten either as porridge or as a side dish in place of rice or potatoes.

From the steppes of Central Asia and the plains of Siberia, buckwheat made its way West via historical trade and invasion routes, under the name “Saracen Wheat” to honor the Moors of Southern Spain. Buckwheat’s short growing season and ability to thrive in poor soil made it an affordable lifeline for much of Europe’s poor agrarian population. It was the Dutch who christened the hardy grain in honor of the Holy Scripture, which they believed had survived similar adversary throughout the centuries. They called the equally tenacious grain, “boek weit,” or “book wheat,” and were the first to bring it to the New World where it enjoyed widespread popularity 19th Century, but is largely ignored today. This is a shame since buckwheat packs a powerful nutritional punch: “It delivers more protein than rice, wheat, millet, or corn…but contains no potentially problematic gluten,” writes best-selling dietitian and author, Dr. Nicholas Perricone, MD, in his bestselling diet/nutrition book The Perricone Weight-Loss Diet: A Simple 3-Part Plan to Lose the Fat, the Wrinkles, and the Years puts buckwheat at the top of his list of grains and pulses for his patients.[hr]

Buckwheat packs a powerful nutritional punch.

Buckwheat is a versatile constant in Russian cuisine. I first encountered it in St. Petersburg in the late 1980s, when food supplies were sketchy and unreliable. My friend Asiya and her mother had buckwheat or “gretchka” as the Russians call it, with almost every meal. During my frequent visits to their hospitable apartment, I came to enjoy and appreciate the grain, not only for its nutty flavor but also for the amount of energy it imparted. One serving of gretchka set one up for a long day. Is it any wonder that Russia’s miracle food makes and appearance at almost every meal? Buckwheat porridge for breakfast is followed by buckwheat as a side dish to meat, pairing particularly well with both game and offal. The real match made in heaven, however, is buckwheat and that other great Russian staple: mushrooms! Buckwheat and mushroom casserole is a perennial Russian favorite, being to a Russian émigré what little cookies are to Proust: the taste of times gone by.

buckwheat nouvelle


Buckwheat and Mushrooms


  • 375 ml (1-1/2 cup) uncooked whole buckwheat groats
  • 500 ml (2 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 large yellow onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 large egg
  • 60 g (2 oz) dried mushrooms (try a mix of chanterelle, morel, and shitake, cleaned and cubed)
  • 250 ml (1 cup) Madira, white wine, or boiling water
  • 120 ml (1/2-cup) sour cream
  • 120 ml (1/2-cup) heavy cream
  • 10 ml (2 tsp) fresh nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped fresh parsley


  1. Place the dried mushrooms in a non-reactive bowl and cover them with the Madeira or boiling water. Make sure the mushrooms are completely submerged in the liquid. Set aside to soak for at least 50 minutes.
  2. Heat a Dutch oven over medium high heat, and toast the buckwheat groats, using a wooden spoon or spatula to make sure the grains receive even access to the heat. Toast for 3-4 minutes, then add the egg, lightly beaten to the groats and stir to coat for 1-2 more minutes. Add the stock, reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer for 15 -20 minutes. When just a bit of the liquid remains, remove the pan from the heat and set aside covered to finish cooking. You should wrap it up in a blanket and cover it with a pillow as Russian grannies do, but a free burner on the stove will do in a pinch!
  3. Melt one pat (2 Tbl) of the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet. When bubbling, add the mushrooms. Sauté for 7 minutes, until the mushrooms begin to release their liquid, and then re-absorb it. Set aside.
  4. Use a slotted spoon to remove the re-hydrated mushrooms from the Madeira and place them into the bowl or skillet with the sautéed fresh mushrooms. Carefully strain the remaining liquid through a clean cloth and set aside.
  5. Pour the sour cream, heavy cream, and half of the mushroom liquid into the buckwheat and mushrooms. Stir to combine.
  6. Reduce heat to medium low, and bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, stirring often to prevent the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The consistency should be that of porridge. When the liquid is halfway absorbed, cover and cook on low heat for 10-15 minutes until the liquid is completely absorbed. If you need more liquid, add the remaining mushroom liquid in small amounts until you achieve the desired consistency – moist, not liquid, like poultry stuffing.
  7. Garnish with parsley to finish.


If you wish to make this meal vegetarian, use chicken stock instead of vegetable stock.  You can omit the dairy, using vegetable or olive oil instead of the butter.   Without the meat or cream, this dish is ideal for the period of Great Lent.


This classic Russian dish does well as a hearty garnish, stuffing, or on its own as a vegetarian main course. So, give it a try. Who knows…it might just advert your next catastrophe!

Maria Speck’s marvelous work, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & Moreis my first port of call whenever I’m embarking on an adventure with whole grains. Packed with cogent advice, excellent recipes, and step-by-step cooking instructions, this is a must-have for anyone interested in getting more grains into their diet.


Are you fond of buckwheat?  I like mine with tahini and tomatoes, and I did think I was the only person in the galaxy to feel that way, but it seems not.   How do you take your miracle food?

Hit the comment button below and weigh in with your thoughts, your recommendations, and your recipes!


This post was originally published by Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock


  • Arnaud Carasso says:

    From the time it was not easy to find certain typical ingredients of the french, italian or swiss (my country) kitchen in the next Gastronom in Moscow, I played with translations.
    One of them is what I call gretchkotto s opiatami, a russian risotto ai porcini. The receipt is exactly the same but replacing all ingredients: the rice by buckwheat, porcini by agarics, parma cheese by rossiskyi and using crimean white wine and mushroom bouillon added progressively while cooking until the consistency is reached.. Smetana can be added at the end.
    Less sophisticated than yours, the fun of the receipt resides in the translation. (Tradutore – tradittore).
    My GRW (Gorgeous Russian Wife) loves it.

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