Buckwheat groats, a.k.a. kasha, is by all accounts a humble food, a comfort food, a peasant food. To me, it’s a direct link to my parents' Soviet roots. When I was very young, my recent-immigrant mom would serve my sister and me kasha for breakfast. The smell was unmistakable, deeply toasty, perfuming the house as pervasively as brown rice, percolating coffee or stovetop popcorn would. She'd toast the grains in a hot, dry pan before cooking them in water to expert fluffiness, then scoop some into shallow bowls, top with milk, and serve. It was kind of like cereal, but so much better—the kasha warmed the milk through and infused it with nutty, earthy flavor. It was our soul food, even though I didn't know the term at the time.
In the course of my life, the dish ended up being a Proustian one. It didn’t linger long in my childhood breakfast repertoire and belonged to a very specific period that I might call “pre-assimilation,” which lasted until I was around six years old, coinciding with the time that I started to bring lunch to school. While I don’t remember ever wanting to phase out buckwheat with milk, I suspect that what came between my DK (during-kasha) and PK (post-kasha) years was a yearning to eat the way other people did. You’d think this would have mostly to do with being the child of immigrants. While that certainly played a part, the food-shaming that was doled out by my peers had more to do with having a health-obsessed mom who packed raw green peppers in my lunch (which, full disclosure, I loved) than eating “foreign” food. In the era of Fruit Roll-Ups and Planters Cheez Balls, food that was healthy was foreign enough.
My desire to conform was coupled with a ravenous appetite for junk food, a side-effect of getting none. I’m confident that the PK transition was marked by major whining at the grocery store, begging for cereals that I really wanted (anything with sugar, especially Crispy Wheats ‘n Raisins, whose very persuasive commercials featured gobs of honey baptizing plain flakes and the characters from the Wizard of Oz), followed by a reluctant acceptance of the ones that my mom would actually buy (anything without sugar). What took buckwheat’s place on the breakfast table were pre-Whole Foods artifacts like puffed rice, puffed millet, puffed corn, and Weetabix. I still loved kasha with milk, but I didn’t miss it.
What I only learned later on is that kasha is a divisive food. If you don’t have Eastern European roots, chances are you won’t understand its appeal. (You still might not even if you do.) The “grain” is actually a fruit seed that’s related to rhubarb and sorrel, and it elicits responses that run hot or cold, as well as reluctant praise. In an affectionate Saveur essay on kasha varnishkes, an Ashkenzai Jewish staple of buckwheat groats cooked with plenty of onions and tossed with bowtie pasta, the author Phillip Lopate writes, “Kasha itself, let's face it, tastes like nothing, or like nothing with a little dirt thrown in.” And this is a tribute.
Kasha varnishkes enjoy their place in the pantheon of Catskills mess halls and milchig delis, even if a breakfast of kasha with milk never caught on in the New World. But kasha looms large in the Soviet psyche, and there are plenty of Russian phrases to attest to this. ”You can’t make kasha with him” denotes an encounter with an invincible enemy, since in Russia, you can make kasha (Russian for porridge) out of pretty much anything. “You can never ruin kasha with butter” means the more of something you add, the better it will get. “Cabbage soup and kasha, that’s our real food” speaks for itself.
The actual term for buckwheat in Russian is “grechka” or “grechnavaya kasha,” which, according to the food historian Gil Marks, refers to the Greek monks who cultivated buckwheat or the Greek traders who sold it. It was only when Jewish settlers arrived to en masse to the US in the late nineteenth century that buckwheat groats entered the American food lexicon. It’s in Yiddish that buckwheat are simply referred to as “kasha,” which is how we arrived at the shorthand in use today.
Though I haven’t eaten kasha for breakfast since I was a child, ironically, buckwheat seems to be enjoying a moment, thanks in part to its inherent gluten-freeness, a growing interest in alternative grains and the fact that it lends itself well to the ever-popular bowl treatment. When I asked my mom why we stopped eating kasha for breakfast anyway, she informed me that she still does. It only seemed right then, to ask her for her recipe.
Mom’s Breakfast Kasha
Many American Jews coat buckwheat groats in egg before cooking them, which supposedly prevents the grains from sticking together and getting mushy (you can probably thank the recipe on the side of the Wolff’s Kasha box for the prevalence of this method). But my mom, Anna Gershenson, cooks hers the Old World way, first toasting the groats in a dry pan, then cooking them in water for maximum fluffiness.
- Yields: Makes 2 1/2 cups
Boil 2 cups of salty water.
Place 1 cup of buckwheat groats in a sieve and shake to get rid of the chaff. Examine the groats for any impurities, removing any that are discolored.
Place the groats in a large straight-sided skillet and toast them over a medium flame, shaking the pan occasionally to warm them through, taking care not to burn.
Add the boiling water to the skillet, reduce the flame to the lowest heat, cover with a kitchen towel and a lid to keep the steam in.