Ancient Grains, Bright Future

Ancient grains are the ultimate soul food.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Ancient grains are the ultimate soul food.

My Reading Room

At Mana, a plant-based food outlet in Hong Kong’s Central, chef Andy Yeung is spreading hummus across one of its signature items, a teff flatbread.

Teff is a gluten-free grain the size of a poppy seed with a nutty flavour profile. Naturally high in calcium, iron and protein, the grain – which originates from Ethiopia where it is a national staple – can be used to substitute wheat in many dishes, such as pasta or pizza, or as with Mana, in flatbreads. Teff is one of four ancient grains on the conscious food cafe’s menu, along with quinoa, chia and buckwheat.

A stone’s throw away, at Green Common, a green food deli and grocery store, products which include millet, amaranth and khorasan wheat are in products lining the shelves, and its bowls of Noodle Zen, a veggie take on dan dan noodles, feature quinoa.

As far back as 2014, in a survey taken by researchers Mintel, 44 per cent of respondents said they had eaten ancient grains in the last three months. Since then, global appeal has boomed and mainstream eateries now regularly sell pots of another well-known ancient grain, chia seeds, on breakfast menus. Those front runners appear to open the floodgates for alternative grain options, and it’s clear why.

Consumers looking to revive the spirituality of eating have something to believe in with ancient grains. History is marked with food traditions, centrally linked with the idea of coming together to share sustenance. Many ancient food practices required particular thought and care when it came to production, preparation and consumption. But as modern science meddles in mainstream food production, and conglomerates distribute those products on a global scale, not only is a link to heritage broken, so is consumer trust.

“Over 80 per cent of commodity grains, corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton, have been genetically modified, and the most worrying part is that GMO foods are not required to be labelled. That means consumers are not being given the right information to many food sources,” says Peggy Chan, executive chef of Grassroots Pantry, a Hong Kong restaurant producing healing, nutritious dishes. “Even if we want to consume GMOfree foods, we most likely will not know, unless it is foods made small-batched, artisanal and labelled as organic,” she says.

In a Hindu diet, which prescribes that all foods belong to one of three groups that each affect the body and its functions differently, the pure, fresh, sattvic foods deemed best for us include whole grains, seeds and nuts, fruit and vegetables. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many ancient grains also come with high nutritional values unmatched by their processed counterparts.

Yet today, even with the rise of conscious eating, finding bread that uses unprocessed whole grains can still present a challenge. The majority are still made using processed wheat and a host of additives, and the smattering of seeds many sport on top hardly evens the balance. It’s difficult to eat mindfully when you have no idea of what you are chewing. Ancient grains, which can also include sorghum, einkorn, farro, wheatberry and spelt, among others, offer a purer path.

Produced in small batches by dedicated producers, ancient grains remain in their true form because they have existed outside of big business. “This is a plus because this means agricorps have yet to taint, or conglomerate, small ancient grain businesses,” Chan says. She believes it is down to chefs and food purveyors to let producers and customers know that ancient grains bring a much-desired diversity to the table, and would like people to know more about those who are farming them.

At Green Common, quinoa remains the top-seller because it is well known compared to other grains in its category. But with global suppliers like Bob’s Red Mill’s Ancient Grains series becoming available, and an estimated 6.3 million Ethiopian farmers growing teff, this could soon change. Mana’s Yeung is keen to see high-protein hemp and spirulina enjoy time in the limelight.

Most ancient grains are adaptable as substitutes in our favourite meals. Quinoa, says Yeung, can be an easy, natural replacement for rice. Whole farro in place of traditional rice creates a rich, chewy risottolike dish when prepped with greens and pine nuts. Millet, a seed, can be as creamy as mashed potato, and tastes great as pestodrizzled stuffing with butternut pumpkin. Or try these fantastic, nutty, shiitake teff gnocchi, courtesy of Grassroots Pantry. This is a bite of soul food in its truest sense.

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Grassroots Pantry’s Shiitake Teff Gnocchi

As hearty as traditional pasta dumplings with double the helping of goodness.

Serves Four.


For the teff flour mix: 80g teff flour 30g brown rice flour 30g sorghum flour 20g tapioca starch 160g teff flour mix 450g potatoes 30g nutritional yeast 150g roasted shiitake stems pinch of pink salt and black pepper water to combine.

Roasted shiitake stems: 150g shiitake stems sunflower seed oil (for frying).

Suggested accompaniments: sage shiitake mushroom broccolini cashew bechamel cream.


1. Combine teff flour, brown rice flour, sorghum flour and tapioca starch together in mixing bowl and stir well.

2. For the roasted shiitake stems: peel the stems from the shiitake heads and reserve the heads for final part of the dish. Deep-fry the shiitake stems in oil at 170°C for three minutes until golden brown. Chop into small pieces. Place in oven to seal off excess liquid at 160°C for five to eight minutes and then cool.

3. Place potatoes in boiling water and boil for 20–25 minutes until tender. Cool and peel. Mash potato flesh in a bowl.

4. Create a well using the teff flour mix. Pinch mashed potatoes with flour to combine. Knead in nutritional yeast and shiitake stems and salt and pepper.

5. Dust baking sheet with teff flour.

6. Roll dough into logs on a floured surface and cut into lengths of two centimetres. Roll each piece towards the back of a fork to create dents in each gnocchi. Place on baking sheet.

7. Prepare large stockpot with salted water and bring to a boil.

8. Boil the gnocchi in batches for about three to four minutes, or until it floats to the surface.

9. Remove gnocchi with slotted spoon and cook with your favourite pasta sauce or pan-fry with sage.