by Ilanit Tof
© copyright 1999-2001 Ilanit Tof, all rights reserved
It is getting cooler here in Melbourne as we approach winter. I was discussing buckwheat with some macrobiotic friends and when I talked about cooking some they gasped in disbelief.
"Buckwheat!? In this climate?" they cried, aghast. Although it doesn't snow in Melbourne and we don't get sub zero temperatures, it is still a temperate climate, with cool winters. I think that with the advice of a more yin "Standard Macrobiotic" diet, and fears of becoming too yang, some people are becoming wary of eating buckwheat unless there is a blizzard outside and frostbite warnings on the radio. And this from people who happily consume dark miso, umeboshi and fish, without the same trepidation. Foods much more contracting than this pseudo grain, whose closest botanical relative is rhubarb.
My question: Is this justified?
According to Paul Pitchford in Healing with Whole Foods (1993) "the properties of buckwheat are: Neutral thermal nature; sweet flavour; cleans and strengthens the intestines and improves appetite. Is effective for treating dysentery and chronic diarrhea. Rutin, a bioflavonoid found in buckwheat, strengthens capillaries and blood vessels, inhibits haemorrhages, reduces blood pressure and increases circulation to the hands and feet. Rutin is also an antidote against x-rays and other forms of radiation.
Some of these actions are certainly contracting in nature, some are activating, while others seem expansive. He goes on to say that "Buckwheat is used externally for skin inflammations, eruptions, and burns."
In Macrobiotic Home Remedies, Michio Kushi and Marc Van Cauwenberghe state that "Buckwheat retains a water-type floating energy. That means that it counteracts fire-type energy. For this reason buckwheat has been well-known to reduce high blood pressure."
Perhaps it has some more yin or cooling properties. Or perhaps it has this effect by being contractive, but not necessarily warming. Pitchford says that "Insects do not attack it, and like ginseng, buckwheat will die when grown with most chemicals."
It is resilient. It grows in coldest Russia. But also in northern New South Wales, a warm part of Australia. It is versatile, hardy and adaptive to its environment. A little like Quinoa, another non-grain that is now being eaten as one. In macrobiotic circles quinoa is generally regarded as one of the most yin grains, whereas buckwheat is the yangest. On what basis is this classification made? We have seen some of the pitfalls in making classifications based on digestive or post-digestive effects. What other criteria can we use?
Colour? Quinoa is white, but also comes in a red/black variety (if you haven't tasted black quinoa, you haven't lived!) Buckwheat tends to be completely grey, but there are also almost white varieties. Size? Buckwheat is larger than quinoa, millet, amaranth and teff. Growing conditions? Well it seems to thrive in coldest Russia, warm NSW and China. Quinoa also thrives in barren soils, and at high altitudes. Post digestive qualities?
Buckwheat seems "heavier", more filling, whereas quinoa is lighter. Chinese medicine views quinoa as warming and a kidney yang tonic. And buckwheat as cooling. In Ayurveda, buckwheat is recommended for Kapha conditions as it is thought to be a diuretic, hot, light and dry and "lighter" than oats, wheat and rice. Chinese medicine cautions against buckwheat for individuals with weak spleen qi.
Pitchford provides the caution: "Not recommended for those with heat signs such as high fever, thirst, red face, deep-red tongue colour, and high blood pressure, or those with wind conditions including dizziness, disorientation, nervousness, spasms, or emotional instability."
Not recommended for high blood pressure? But wasn't this one of the conditions for which he recommended it earlier? Perhaps this is due to its drying qualities. Liver wind which encompasses the symptoms described above, can be instigated by too much dryness AND it can be another cause of high blood pressure. Perhaps it is warming but in a completely different way to foods such as ginger or scallions which have direct warming properties. Perhaps it is warming in the same way that salt can be, by activating the yang reserves. The "yang" nature of salt is one that students familiar with the modern Chinese medicine view of food find the most difficult to grasp about macrobiotics and has prompted many to dismiss the validity of macrobiotics because of it. In the second edition of Healing with Whole Foods, Pitchford states that "salt manifests a cooling, strongly descending nature... it brings forth an opposite, yang, warming nature in the deep, internal and lower parts of the body."
Here we get into many of the problems of using yin and yang as a system of classification and some of the internal inconsistencies that is creates. Many students are unsure of what criteria would make certain items yin or yang, since there are so many stages at which the evaluation could be applied. In my opinion, one of the most useful when regarding choice of food is what is the effect on the being who consumes that substance. In macrobiotic terms, spices and citrus are both regarded as yin, however they obviously have very different energetic qualities. However when we look at how they affect a human being they both have expansive effects. The former more energetically, since it liberates energy and increases circulation, and the latter more physically, with its expansive effect on somatic tissue. Both seem to affect mental/spiritual processes expansively.
Many of these views come from traditions other than macrobiotics. However these cultures have been using these and other foods for many years and observing the effects of them on people. It may shed some light on modern experiences of foods to see how different cultures viewed a food, how their views differ or confirm one another and most importantly ask "why?"
Macrobiotics is all about asking "why?" It is about transforming the Self and learning to be independent. Questioning what we eat, how we classify what we eat and how it affects us is all part of that.
There has been a shortage of medium grain brown rice here the last few weeks. Yesterday, I put some buckwheat in with the long grain rice to give it a sturdier, more substantial feel. It has invoked my will, fired my sense of activism, my enthusiasm for discourse. Perhaps it is quite yang after all... And if it is a strong, warming, contractive activating food, is this a reason to use it so warily?
As Kaare Bursell has said on his wonderful web page:
http://www.alchemycalpages.com when discussing the warming aspects of ginger compresses, most chronic diseases may have their roots in internal coldness. Since most chronic diseases have a metabolic lack of function at their core, this seems accurate.
Fred Pulver, on his informative web page http://www.macrobiotic.org/ Discusses initially using animal products for individuals weakened by a chronic or long-term illness. Does anyone see a possible use of our friend, buckwheat...?
Perhaps different varieties of grains have different properties, something that requires greater awareness. I was thrilled to discover that there are around one hundred varieties of millet. Sadly most are used in only aviaries. Lesley Tierra in The Way of Herbs(1992) confirms my own experience when she states "The buckwheat in China is cooling while the variety found in the United Sates seems to be more warming." When I was in California, the buckwheat I ordered from Goldmine Foods was much smaller than the variety I use here in Australia, most of which comes from China. Tierra has similar ideas about millet.