For thousands of years, grains have fed the world. A staple in nearly every cuisine, they’ve embraced the roles of nourishment, religious icon, currency and more. Of late, grains also have been feeding an increasing number of customers. And as items like basmati pilafs, barley risotto and Israeli couscous become more common, a race for newer, eye-catching varieties has begun.
Gleaming white grains have typically been seen as the ideal; grains draped in bran layers of deep brown, vibrant purples, reds and shades of black were usually discarded. But thanks to an increasing focus on authenticity—and the ongoing quest to serve something that’s new—richly hued grains are appearing in ethnic dishes, creative salads and distinctive side dishes.
Black Quinoa: (Pronounced KEEN-wah) Considered “the mother grain” by ancient Incas, quinoa contains all eight essential amino acids. Ranging in color from buff to black (pictured is a blend), these seeds are flat, pointed ovals. When cooked, its texture becomes light, springy and crunchy, with a mildly sweet and earthy flavor that lends itself to salads, desserts, and South American dishes.
Black Barley: Dating back thousands of years, barley was once the most important grain in Europe, and has been used as medication, money and a standard of measurement. Now, different varieties of barley are used in soups, stews, cereals and non-alcoholic drinks. Hulled barley is the most nutrient-dense variety, for only the inedible outer hull has been removed and bran layers remain intact. It takes longer to cook, but retains a more earthy, hearty flavor.
Spelt/Farro: Native to southern Europe, spelt is an easily digestible cereal grain. With a slightly higher protein content than wheat, spelt usually is tolerated by people with wheat allergies. With a sweet, nutty flavor, spelt can be used as a rice substitue, ground into flour, added to soups and stews, or soaked, simmered and tossed with a vinaigrette to create a side dish or salad.
Red Thai Rice: This pretty, sanguine grain grows among prized jasmine rice plants in Thailand, and was considered more or less a weed. When cooked, red rice is slightly chewy with a grainy, nutty flavor. Use in place of jasmine or other long-grain or brown rice.
Chinese Black Rice: This rice is grown in northern China and is traditionally eaten as a breakfast porridge. The firm, non-sticky grains cook relatively quickly and produce a tender mouthfeel. The rice’s nutty taste and striking appearance lends itself to colorful vegetables and strong, meaty flavors.
Gobindavog: Unlike the others, this needle-shaped, medium-grain rice is a gleaming white. Often referred to as “Baby Basmati,” it’s tiny and delicate. Originating from Bengal and Bangladesh, this grain has a delicate, slightly sweet flavor, and cooks non-sticky and firm, yet tender. Good for puddings, pilafs or simply as a rice substitute.