Jewish Soul Food: Kasha Varnishkes

pink and white buckwheat flower
Fagopyrum Bloom by Bernhard Friess (2014) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

One of the cool things about working at an educational garden is that we have an amazing variety of edible plants, including all types of grains. While these grains are considered annuals and have to be reseeded each spring, some plants like the hardy amaranth and buckwheat return as indefatigable “volunteers” without any human assistance. When my supervisor pointed out the beautiful flowers of the buckwheat plants, I exclaimed, “I love buckwheat! Kasha Varnishkes are one of my favorite foods of all time.”

To which she responded, “Kasha what?”

“Kasha Varnishkes,” I replied. “You know, kasha with bowties? My grandma taught me to make it. It’s like Eastern European comfort food. I’ll make it and bring it in to work!”

(This office at the garden is inhabited by serious foodies who delight in cooking and sharing food with other people who work there, so this was a work-culturally appropriate offer.)

triangular buckwheat seeds
Buckwheat seeds by Ervins Strauhmanis (2010) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Kasha (or buckwheat groats) are made from ground and roasted buckwheat seeds, then prepared in a similar fashion to rice.
Instead of gathering, hulling, roasting and grinding the funky triangular seeds, I buy mine in a convenient box at the grocery store:

wolff's kasha

(There are even directions on the back of the box.) An important note: Kasha tastes much better if one coats the groats in egg and then toasts them briefly in the pan before adding boiling water. I’m not sure what chemical reaction is going on (browning?) but it definitely improves the flavor. Also, toasting kasha exudes a very slight, not-unpleasant aroma reminiscent of wet dog. (This odor seems to dissipate with the addition of sauteed onions and complete cooking of the kasha groats with water). Add cooked egg noodle bowties, salt and pepper to to taste and voila!

Pan of Kasha and bowtie noodles
Kasha Varnishes by Anne Feldman (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Kasha varnishkes is my go-to side dish, comfort food and potluck dinner contribution. It’s a recipe I’ve memorized, and could probably make in my sleep (though if you saute the onions instead of using onion soup mix flavor it, you get lot of pans dirty in the process.) I brought it to potluck dinners as a student at Biosphere 2 in Arizona (my fellow students thought it was pretty exotic!) and made it as a gluten free side-dish for the Isabella Freedman Thanksgiving Shabbat Dinner. It’s one of maybe 4 dishes I can make really well. It’s usually served hot, but I personally think Kasha varnishkes tastes better the next day after sitting in the fridge.

I brought my version of Kasha Varnishkes to the office for taste-and-tell. I even brought the box in (we can use it in the garden with our tours with kids) to show people what it was. It’s kind of fun being the one to bring in an “exotic” dish. It’s funny, because I would list Kasha as being the food I most closely link to my sense of home and my relationship with my grandmother. I was trying to explain this, but couldn’t quite capture it in words. One of my co-workers recognized the dish and she supplied the description: “It’s Jewish soul food.”

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly!”

Tangents for this post:

Wikipedia entry on buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Mark Bittman’s Kasha Varnishkes Recipe


4 thoughts on “Jewish Soul Food: Kasha Varnishkes

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