RENDERED 7: Buckwheat Pancakes

Four case studies in hardship, community, and tradition

Besides being supremely delicious, buckwheat pancakes have a particular history. In this month's essay, I retrace its steps to establish the movement of buckwheat across continents, and by looking at several examples of buckwheat pancakes, we start to see that they are more than just food: buckwheat pancakes connote adaptation and survival in harsh conditions, becoming food with a storied tradition. Each variation of the dish has a story to tell. These buckwheat pancake recipes have not only stood the test of time, but have become foods that represent comfort and tradition, and for some, proudly reflect regional identity.

Today, I'm looking at the story of common buckwheat, and four types of pancakes made from it: memil-buchimgae (Korea), kaletez/galette de sarrasin (Brittany, France), blini (Russia), and ploye (French Acadia).

"Buckwheat flowers." (Watercolor, colored pencil) Common buckwheat, or Fagopyrum esculentum (not to be confused with tartary buckwheat, its more bitter cousin). This is the buckwheat plant in its flowering state; the flowers will yield seeds that can be prepared in a variety of ways. It is an extremely resilient plant that can thrive in poor soil and cool weather, where even scrubby grass would struggle to grow. It has a very short grow season, making this a nutritious food source in regions where few other plants could dream of growing. If planted densely, it will smother weeds. Bees love it too: it produces a strong-tasting, premium honey. It is a pseudocereal, meaning it contains no gluten, so it cannot be used alone to make bread. Therefore, a quick bread (with or without leavening, alone or supplemented with wheat flour) is a practical solution. While there are numerous uses for the grains (porridge, noodles, et al.), today I'm looking specifically at a small fraction of the world's buckwheat pancake tradition.

Brittany, the northwesternmost region of France, is just a couple hours' drive from where I live, and there's one special spot that I particularly enjoy visiting.

On a cobblestone street, tucked into a converted home, there is a fantastic crêperie where I've been several times with my in-laws. You step down into what was once a living room, laden with sturdy, richly lacquered furniture. It's cozy as hell, and sitting at a table makes you feel like you're tucking in for a meal at Grandma's house. A woman with a careworn face takes our order, and shortly after, the food arrives. First course: savory buckwheat pancakes, or galettes de sarrasin. One of ours has been folded around a slice of ham and a sunny-side-up egg. Mine is rolled around a local sausage: the galette is a thin, lacy buckwheat pancake, crispy on the edges. I have yet to find better galettes than these.

Wash it all down with some carbonated, lightly alcoholic cider, drunk out of squat mugs, in the Breton tradition, and all is right in the world.

During my sister's first visit to France, we stopped in for a bite, and this verysame woman slid a small jar of homemade caramel au beurre salé over to my sister, and said with a wink: "To remember your trip by, Miss."

You know where I'm going with this... this month, I decided to look into buckwheat pancakes, not just in the Breton tradition, but elsewhere. What do they have in common? And how did they even get a hold of buckwheat in the first place?

Brittany, France: home of the kaletez, or galette de sarrasin. Brittany is the northwesternmost region of France. The Bretons have Celtic roots, and a regional identity that is palpable as soon as you cross the border. When you think Brittany and Breton food, you think: butter, crêpes, caramel au beurre salé (salted caramel), and galettes de sarrasin (kaletez in Breton: buckwheat "pancakes," or savory crêpes).

Starting at the end of the 15th century, the galette de sarrasin was eaten every day, the daily bread of the region. Tithing (the obligation to give 10% of your crop yield to the landowner) did not apply to buckwheat, and it took particularly well to the soil of the region, so it became a staple food of the population, who were mostly peasants. It fell out of favor for a time during the 19th century, but since then, it has seen a huge comeback.

"Galette de sarrasin avec du bon cidre." (Watercolor, pastel, colored pencil) A rendering of a typical place setting at a crêperie: buckwheat pancake, with a mug of crisp bubbly cider. And of course, you can't step foot in the region of Brittany (or Breizh) without spotting the regional flag, which I've remixed on the label of the bottle. Bretons take their regional pride seriously.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Hundreds of years before buckwheat made the journey westward to Europe, it headed east, through China and Mongolia to arrive at the Korean peninsula, then later to Japan.

Using archaeological findings from ancient human settlements, along with some sophisticated reverse-geneological studies of hybrid varieties, the movement of buckwheat can be traced from its origin point, presumably southwestern China and the Himalayan region. It was probably cultivated there 5,000 years ago, from around 2600BC in Tibet, and it may have reached Japan as early as 1500BC.

Written records first mention buckwheat in China in the 5th and 6th centuries, then in Japan around 800AD. But for it to be written about, it had to have been eaten long before. Analyses of pollen from carbonized grains at an archaeological site in Nabatake, Japan (just across the sea from Busan, Korea) suggest that people there were munching on buckwheat during the early Yayoi Era (from 300BC).

For as much as smarty-pants researchers know about this plant, though, new findings could totally change this timeline.

In Korea, there is a well-established jeon or buchimgae (savory fried pancake) tradition.

On a rainy day, it's said that the pitter-patter of bubbling oil sounds like the raindrops outside. And while I could polish off an entire pajeon by myself, it's usually meant to be shared. It's said that this association between rain and jeon comes from rural farmers--when the rain prevented outdoor work, you would mix together what ingredients you had on hand with some flour and water, and fry it up into a cake, washing it all down with some fermented rice wine (makgeolli).

When I lived in Korea, these were among my favorite meals (of course, I ate an extraordinary amount of delectable food, and in the future, I plan to write more about it, so stay tuned...) With friends, on shitty dates, and eventually with the guy who would become my husband, I ate mountains of these crispy pancakes. We sat at low tables in socked feet, drinking rice wine from metal bowls, ogling sizzling platters of fried pancakes as the rain poured outside. Batter ladled over kimchi, vegetables, ground-up mung beans, seafood, you name it. Served sizzling hot, they are absolutely heavenly. And nearly universally so--it's hard to find a bad jeon.

Korean cuisine, like in other countries, often reflects regional cooking with local ingredients. Korea is a mountainous country. In northern provinces of Korea (Gangwon-do [S. Korea], Pyeongan-do and Hamgyeong-do [N. Korea]), where short growing seasons and cool weather might hinder the growth of other crops, buckwheat is a more accessible option. And it is here where memil-jeon (or memil-buchimgae), or buckwheat pancakes, can be found. Onto the requisite hot oiled cooktop, batter made from a mix of buckwheat flour and wheat flour is poured on, evened out, then topped with kimchi, green onions, mushrooms, what have you. It may then be folded or rolled up, and served up hot and fresh.

And of course, they're best when enjoyed with good company--a yummy snack shared to comfort you through the rainyday blues.

"Memil-jeon." (Ink, colored pencil) Served flat, or as pictured here, rolled around a tasty filling. If you're looking for a good recipe to whip up some Korean pancakes, you can't go wrong with the queen of Korean cooking, Maangchi. And here is a recipe for Korean buckwheat pancakes--it's written in Korean, but a quick Internet translation will do you right.

Of course, buckwheat didn't travel in just one direction. From its origin point, it spread north, east, and westward. There are various theories as to how it got to Europe. First, it went through modern-day Tibet, Nepal, and Pakistan, where its path would have intersected with the Silk Road.

After that, the theories diverge... It may have travelled through the Caucasus region to Russia, then westward to Poland, Germany, Belgium, and France. Or, from Caucasus and Asia Minor, it could have gone through Greece and further west, eventually to France. It might have been brought westward with Crusaders returning home. Another thought is that it was brought to Europe through Venice, which would explain its name in Italian and French (grano saraceno and sarrasin, respectively). Saracen was a term used by western Europeans to refer to Muslims, Arab peoples, or even more generally, anyone from the East beyond the Mediterranean.

However buckwheat made its way from Asia to Europe and Russia, it quietly migrated along, and sprouted up in cold and/or mountainous regions. Perhaps because of its nature as an Ol' Faithful, a nutrient-rich food source that was a viable option to get through tough times.

Now, let's talk Russian blini.

If you've had the luck to be invited to a swanky cocktail party, then you may have eaten blini, or Russian buckwheat pancakes, topped with sour cream and caviar. If, like me, you haven't had the pleasure, then perhaps you've tasted blini topped with melted butter, fish, mushrooms, or fruit and honey.

Traditionally made with buckwheat flour, blini are small pancakes leavened with yeast and cooked on cast iron. They are associated with Maslenitsa ("Butter Week" or "Pancake Week"), a week-long winter festival dating back to pagan times, celebrating the coming of spring. Their round shape and golden color symbolize the sun, and the arrival of longer, warmer days. They can be eaten alone, or used to make layered dishes like Kurnik Pirog (a layered chicken pie, a traditional wedding dish).

Delicious and easy to make, blini are a dish ingrained in Russian culture and language, via many everyday expressions (that I learned from this Russian blogger) such as “Go to mother-in-law’s house for blini” ("If you want to reconcile with someone, eat a meal with them.")

Our last stop on the Buckwheat Pancake Express brings us back to where we began, in western France. From Nantes, French "explorers" (or colonizers, depending on who you're talking to) set sail to the New World. In 1604, they landed in Passamaquoddy Bay, or Mi'kma'ki, home of the Mi'kmaq tribe. (That's on the border of present-day Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.) The French (a mix of farmers, fishermen, and "explorers") ended up setting up a colony on Nova Scotia, and early interactions between the Mi'kmaq and the French were peaceful: trade of goods and language ensued. The region from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia became known as Acadia (Acadie in French). It was named either after the Greek region Arcadia, or after the Mi'kmaq word algatig, meaning "camp."

From 1605 to 1755, British and French armed forces began fighting over this territory (that never belonged to them in the first place) and the people living in the Acadian region got caught in the cross-fire, Indigenous and French alike. The British ended up taking control of the region, and they proved heavy-handed in their efforts to squash rebellion and maintain control of the region during the French and Indian War.

In 1755, the British army took control of Nova Scotia and started Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Expulsion, in order to stymie any and all French resistance. French Acadian civilians were targeted and killed, deported to France, imprisoned, or forcibly relocated to the American colonies. Some Acadians fled and sought refuge with the Mi'kmaq; others relocated to Spanish-controlled Louisiana. Those Acadians who went to Louisiana were the ancestors of the Cajuns. Still other Acadians returned to France, and finding a less-than-warm welcome in Brittany, decided to return to Acadia once the war was over.

It was after this return that we see our last example of buckwheat pancakes: ployes. Buckwheat cultivation began in the 1780s in the upper Saint John River Valley (in Maine and New Brunswick). In the years that followed, wheat midges and a rust blight ruined the wheat crops, forcing people to rely more heavily on buckwheat (again, our hardy, swiftly-growing Ol' Faithful), and people started eating buckwheat pancakes every day instead of wheat bread. These pancakes are called ployes, and are still served up in the region today.

Ployes are leavened with baking powder, and resemble a crumpet: filled with holes and thicker than the galette de sarrasin, they are traditionally cooked through on just one side: if you flip it on the griddle, then it's no longer a ploye. The name might be from the French plier (to fold), as they are rolled up and eaten, or it could be named for the onomatopoeic sound of the batter being stirred. Ployes are the accompaniment of choice to a good, hearty chicken stew, or otherwise spread with creton (or French-Acadian meat pâté). A good way to fill up an empty stomach on a chilly day.

Not much is known about the Mi'kmaq before European contact. There is a lack of written records and archaeological evidence, exacerbated by rising coastlines which have submerged coastal sites. Even if there was a cooperative spirit that characterized Mi'kmaq-French relations, their society and cultural traditions were clearly affected by European encroachment. When the British set in, the installment of fisheries, the logging industry, and competition for resources diminished Mi'kmaq hunting territory, and displaced the Indigenous habitants. Combined with this, the damage caused by railway construction, and the establishment of churches and residential schools affected the people for generations, which caused deep wounds that resonate to this day.

Living in a cold climate with a short growing season and less-than-ideal terrain seems to be a running theme to these buckwheat pancakes. Be they memil-jeon, blini, galettes de sarrasin, or ployes, buckwheat has stepped in as a lifesaver, a nutritious alternative to wheat or other starches. More than that, each of these pancakes has a special significance--comfort, tradition, and survival through times of hardship.

Do you have a buckwheat pancake tradition? I only chose a few examples, but would love to hear about more.

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Be well, take care of your heart, and I'll see you next month.


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