Ancient grains on the menu

By Aaron Jourden
The emergence of quinoa as a near-mainstream ingredient has no doubt fueled chefs’ and diners’ desires to discover the many other types of ancient grains. Although many ancient grains are relatively unknown to consumers and are just now penetrating leading chain and independent menus in Canada, the latest data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor is further proof that quinoa is an established and growing menu trend as indicated in the chef survey.

As chefs continue to experiment with other types of ancient grains, we expect to see significant menu growth of these other varieties over time.

Contemporary uses of ancient grains

Quinoa: year over year comparison of this ancient grain

There are certainly chains and independents making use of ancient grains in a variety of novel and traditional ways.

For diners who may be seeking out the good-for-you aspects of ancient grains but may not know which of these grains to look for in particular, using the term “ancient grains” as a catch-all term for one or more grains is a great alternative.

Breakfast-and-brunch specialist Eggspectation (with locations in Ontario and Quebec) encourages its guests to “eat yourself healthy” with its Scheherazade Salad, composed of ancient grains tossed with apricots, sliced almonds, fresh mint, spices and cinnamon, and served with balsamic-glazed chicken.

Vancouver’s Rogue Kitchen Wetbar also features ancient grains as part of a healthful composed salad. The three-unit chain’s Arugula & Beet Quinoa Salad features baby arugula, yellow and red beets, quinoa, ancient grains, pine nuts, almonds, tomato, cucumber and feta in an agave vinaigrette.

Multitasking abilities

Chia is touted for its richness in omega-3 fatty acids, fibre and antioxidants. Chia seeds are fairly easy to incorporate into a number of preparations, including smoothies, salads and sauces.

A chia-tamari-maple dressing helps punctuate the “First Canadian box” at Toronto’s Kupfert & Kim, where the mantra is “wheatless” and “meatless.” The boxed meal contains quinoa, tempeh, kale, pomegranate seeds, rainbow radish, purple cabbage, white cabbage, carrots, beets, roasted yam, pea sprouts, sunflower seeds and black sesame seeds.

More than just an ingredient for beer, barley has traditionally had a place in cereals, breads and soups. Restaurants today are expanding the role barley plays on the menu beyond these conventional preparations.

For example, at The Rebel House tavern in Toronto, guests can experience barley in an-upscale-meets-rustic twist on risotto, using barley instead of rice. The neighbourhood tavern’s Truly Canadian Barley Risotto is simmered with grilled vegetables and mushrooms in a tomato-and-white-wine sauce with basil, garlic and Parmesan.

Farro favourites

Used by the ancient Egyptians and Romans, farro is an ancient grain with a toothsome bite and nutty flavour that is also now gaining popularity.

The River Café in Calgary, a chef-driven restaurant focused on local and seasonal ingredients, offers an entrée of birch-marinated sablefish complemented by farro, cipollini petals, toasted-oat dashi and seaweed salad.

Bulgur wheat, a high-fibre grain popular in the Middle East, is now becoming more common in Canada even though it contains gluten. With a chewy texture and sweet, nutty flavour, bulgur wheat is a great addition in salads and sides as well as meat and veggie entrées. Restaurants can also incorporate bulgur and a number of other grains into meatless burger patties.

Guests visiting longstanding Victoria restaurant John’s Place will find Spock’s Vegan Wrap nestled among the menu’s many meaty diner favourites. The wrap features a vegan patty made of garbanzo beans, baked yams, bulgur, flax seed, red onion, oatmeal, seasonings and sunflower seeds.

The singular rise of quinoa has demonstrated the potential that ancient grains have to become culinary stars in their own right. Which of these grains in particular will be the next to break out as a star is debatable. But there is little doubt that chefs will continue to experiment with ancient grains and consumers will continue to seek them out, whether it’s simply a desire to try new flavours and textures, part of an exploration into new ethnic cuisines, or for health and dietary concerns.

About the author

Aaron Jourden is Editorial Manager for Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm. Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. The company’s services include publications and digital products as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry. Visit for more information.

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