2021 December-January Analysis Featured

Just a spoonful of fenugreek – the nutritional potential of Georgia’s ancient wheats and spices

Georgia’s traditional food staples have a chance to prove their worth on global agricultural markets if they can demonstrate their utility in the looming challenges of feeding larger populations and weathering climate change

Marigold petals, also known as calendula, are commonly used in Georgian dishes involving walnut-based sauces, such as bazhe

The traditional foods of the Caucasus have come into focus with the current global quest for healthy, resource-lite and sustainably grown fare.

It’s certainly not the khachapuri and mchadi that star in tourist ads which are getting the attention, but the wide array of fruits and vegetables, the heritage wheats and millet, walnuts, and kefir as well as herbs and spices such as calendula, blue fenugreek, berberis, and caraway that have been used for centuries by Georgian cooks.

Research now tells us that so many health essentials can be sourced in Georgia. What is more, these heritage grains have high immunity to crop diseases and pests, reducing the need for pesticides. Their wide variety offers plants that can grow in differing territories and climates without the need for massive chemical boosters.

Reminders of the perils to come if the developed world continues its present ways of feeding its burgeoning population are now being published almost daily. November’s COP 26 Climate Change Conference created new waves of fear about sustainability and the World Health Organization has heightened them with warnings of the impact of pollution and over-production on dangerously depleted soils.

The lack of sustainability in current approaches to food production is highlighted in a study by Donald Davis and his team of researchers in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, which states: “Efforts to breed new varieties of crops that provide greater yield, pest resistance and climate adaptability have allowed crops to grow bigger and more rapidly,” reports head researcher Donald Davis, “but their ability to manufacture or uptake nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth. There have likely been declines in other nutrients, too,” he says, “such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B-6 and E.”

A diet that revolves around meat and dairy, which is on the rise as the developing world catches up with the west, will also “take a greater toll on the world’s resources than one that revolves around unrefined grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables”, notes a study from the University of Nevada, where scientists have intensified their efforts to learn what they can about ancient diets.

Yet one of the most successful transitions of the 21st century has been that of kefir, an ancient food which has been revived for its health properties. Thought to have originated in the northern Caucasus, it differs from other fermented products. While most yogurts contain only four to six different culture strains, kefir boasts up to 61 different strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. It can be produced from whole, semi-skimmed or skimmed pasteurized cow (the most common), goat, sheep, camel or buffalo milk.

Not quite buttermilk, kefir is basically milk cultured by an odd-looking, living organic collective of yeasts and bacteria. Studies published by Cambridge University Press’s Nutrition Research Review show kefir “to be effective in improving digestion, reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, preventing cancer, improving immunity, and reducing asthma and allergies”.

Unlike modern grains such as wheat, corn, and rice, ancient grains have never been processed through hybridization or genetic modification. With exotic-sounding names like teff, einkorn, emmer, amaranth, millet, quinoa, black rice, black barley, and spelt, these grains are grown just as they were a thousand years ago. “Generally speaking, they offer more protein, fiber, and vitamins than modern grains,” says Debbie Krivitsky of Massachusetts General Hospital in a Harvard Health Publishing article.

Georgia is famous as a source of ancient wheat varieties. “Until the 1960s, 14 species of wheat and 144 varieties were registered in Georgia. This was 62% of species registered in the world. At present, this number, especially of varieties, has deteriorated dramatically,” states the Gardens of Biodiversity report from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization. Yet, Georgia’s organic organization Elkana and Lali Meskhi, chair of the Georgian Wheat Producers’ Association, admit that domestic production is limited and overseas interest is mainly focused on buying seed for research and development.

However, these ancient wheats have properties that are badly needed now in that they can adapt to a wide range of environments and are immune to many diseases.

Georgia has petitioned UNESCO to place ‘Wheat culture in Georgia and culture of endemic wheat species’ on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

Elkana states in its publication The ancient wheats of Georgia that emmer, for example, which originated from the cold mountain areas of eastern Georgia, can thrive “in places where other crops could not perform” and is resistant to diseases and drought. Other varieties, such as einkorn, thrive in both humid and dry conditions, and all seem to offer health benefits.

Steps are now being taken to protect ancient Georgian wheat varieties, including nominating them for listing among Georgia’s Intangible Cultural Heritages. An action plan initiated by the Scientific-Research Center of Agriculture of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture envisages the creation of a geo-information base on the genetic resources of Georgian wheat stored in gene banks, research institutions, and farms in Georgia and abroad. The action plan envisages organizing conferences as well as restoring and promoting the traditions of the bread festival.

Millet, which also falls under the “ancient grain” category, is now more commonly used in developed countries as bird seed or animal feed but has been grown in Georgia for countless generations. It has a wide range of gluten free benefits and can be used in a variety of different recipes, including the Georgian dish of ghomi. Though ghomi remains very popular and foxtail millet can be found in the Samegrelo region of west Georgia, these days it is more commonly made with maize.

Millets are thought to have been introduced into the Caucasus region between 8,000 and 6,000 BCE from China. In addition to reports published by Nature.com that show “millets are nutritionally superior to large-grained cereals like wheat or barley, in terms of proteins, minerals, and vitamins,” research done by a team of biochemists at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada found that several varieties of millet contain “high antioxidant activity”.

Millets include varieties that are spring-warm weather crops and rain-fed summer crops, which do not need irrigation, notes the Nature.com study: “Millets require about half the water compared to wheat, and their cultivation does not require plowing due to their shallow roots. Thus, millets are very suitable for cultivation by semi-nomadic societies both in the past and still today, as they are low-investment agricultural crops.”

Walnuts are lauded for their ability to enhance cognitive functions, not just as the basic ingredient of delicious sauces or fillings for phkali. According to a paper published by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information entitled Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health, “several lines of evidence suggest that walnuts may reduce the risk of age-related diseases because of the additive or synergistic effects of their components with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Walnuts have a high content of antioxidants … [and] contain a high amount of n-3 α-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid that has a highly potent anti-inflammatory effect,” it states.

Other Georgian sauces include the juice of pomegranates, which Healthgrades.com says contain antioxidants with powerful anti-viral properties; they also contain a wealth of vitamins, including A, C and E, as well as folic acid. Use of cumin, an herb found in a variety of Georgian dishes[MB1] , dates back millennia, according to an article in Nutrition Today, and has been used to treat gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, and jaundice, as well as for hypertension, epilepsy, fever, childhood maladies, and gynecological and respiratory disorders.

Fenugreek is also widely used in Georgian cuisine and, says a Saudi Society of Agriculture Sciences paper, this spice is known for its medicinal qualities such as antidiabetic, anticarcinogenic, hypocholesterolemic, antioxidant, and immunological activities.

Calendula, Georgia’s saffron, says the report on Turkish-based research led by the Department of Biology at Selcuk University, has been cultivated as a food and medicinal plant since the Middle Age and is described as a source of biologically active compounds. The herb’s antifungal and antimicrobial properties “help prevent infection and heal injuries to body tissues. Calendula is also known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, which might help to fight cancer, protect against heart disease, and ease muscle fatigue.”

The Georgian cook’s larder is full of defenses against disease, but just one more! Plums, which take an important role in dishes such as kharcho as well as tkemali sauce. Plums are rich in potassium (a mineral which can reduce the risk of stroke) and fiber and belong to a select group of fruits which are low on the glycemic index, meaning that they can help manage blood sugar levels.

Alexander Pushkin wrote “Every Georgian dish is a poem”, but he did not realize it is often also a medicine.

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