But then I grew up. I moved across the world. I graduated, I inherited her old pots, and bought my own bag of rice. And when I started cooking, I asked her questions, such as why do I have to soak the rice? Her answers were always the same - because it will cook faster. Because it allows the grains to open up, to taste better. Because that is the proper way to do it.
By now, I was living far away from my family with no mother to stand next to me as I cooked, so I turned to the closest tutor I could find: The Food Channel. I spent hours watching those cooks dicing vegetables deftly, stirring soups, layering flavors, and I memorized their methods, their systems, their rhythms. I soon found myself pouring rice directly into the pot, like I saw the celebrity chefs doing on television. Why should I soak my grains? I asked myself. No one on the Food Channel soaks their rice. And just like that, I swept aside my traditional Palestinian roots, and set out to be more modern, more efficient, more American.
In my mind, that was that.
Years later, after the birth of my second child, I started to feel a little crumpled around the edges, not out right ill, but a little sickly. I suffered from many small maladies, the kinds of strange little problems that make you think about your health and your age. I started to wonder if this was it, if my health had peaked and now I would start suffering from a slow decline in health. This depressing question led me on a hunt to learn about how to nourish my body as fully as possible, as I had a hunch that my health was inexorably linked to my diet.
Can you imagine my astonishment when I learned that almost all traditional cultures treated their grains in some way? That for most of history, people around the globe realized that grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are hard to digest and that unless we treat them in some way - by soaking, fermenting or even sprouting them - they will not build our health, but in fact detract from our health? How could I have missed this, I asked myself, given how much time I had spent pursuing healthy habits and nutritious meals for most of my life? How could I not know something like this, something that apparently all people have known for all time?
Except that my mother had, in some fashion, taught me to do this. And I, in my hubris, had walked away. It was time for me to start listening to my mother, to start remembering the ancient wisdom of my people, and return to the old ways, to the ways that my people had nourished themselves and their children for hundreds and even thousands of years.
Nuts and Bolts of Phytic Acids
We now know what the problem is with grains, nuts, seeds and legumes - they are all high in antinutrients, specifically phytic acid, which blocks our digestive track from being able to absorb nutrients from foods. Phytic acid is nature's clever little storage system for plants - it functions as a phosphorous store, or an energy store, that plants draw on when conditions are right for germination. In order to be able to effectively digest foods that contain phytic acid, and to unlock its phosphorus stores, animals need to have a supply of the enzyme phytase in their digestive track. Ruminant animals do have the necessary gut bacteria to produce phytase, so they can digest these foods. Nonruminant animals do not have the enzyme phytase. Phytic acid passes through them without breaking down at all (producing phosphorus-rich manure). Humans fall into the category of nonruminants: we do not have the necessary enzyme phytase to break down phytic acid.
Not only are we unable to benefit from the phosphorus in these phytic-acid rich foods, but the phytic acids have another pesky attribute: they bond with minerals, particularly zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and niacin. This is the problem: when these molecules bond, they are rendered unavailable for absorption, which means that just because you eat something that contains a mineral does not mean that your body has absorbed it. Ironically, phytic acid is most concentrated in the hull of grains, so the more "whole" the grain, they higher the levels of phytic acid. People who eat a diet rich in untreated grains are at greater risk for nutritional deficiencies, especially if their diet depends upon grains for these important trace minerals.
Unless you eat a grain-free diet (and many do), it is impossible to avoid phytic acid completely, but by treating your grains, as traditional cultures did, you can reduce the amount of phytic acid in your grains. Cooking your high-phytic foods will reduce levels of phytic acid, and soaking them prior to cooking will reduce levels even further. Sprouting these foods will also reduce the phytic acids, as you effectively unlock the storage mechanism in the plant. Finally, fermenting the grain (introducing a lacto-bactillius culture, such as a sourdough starter for bread) will also break down phytic acid because, like the ruminant animals, these bacteria produce the enzyme phytase.
My mother taught me to simply soak grains in room temperature water, but other sources suggest that a warm environment is even more helpful (use warm water, place in a warm spot in your house), and that adding a little acidity to the soaking water helps break down the grains further. You can use lemon, vinegar, yogurt, kefir, whey - anything acidic - and add a tablespoon or two of this to your warm water. Then cover them, and let them go for half a day or longer. When they are sufficiently soaked, you can rinse them, if you like, and then continue with your recipe.
Soaking tenderizes grains, and this will reduce your cooking time for all of your recipes. Not only that, but since this soaking does soften the grain, you will be amazed at how well you grains will now cook up, because you don't have to cook them to mush to soften them anymore. Your lentils will be tender without falling apart, your grains of rice will be soft without breaking down into mush, and your morning pot of oatmeal will cook up in mere minutes. Even if it does take a little planning to soak a grain, I think you will find that the payoff is quite substantial, both to your health and your enjoyment of food.
There are many, many resources out there that treat this subject extensively, providing tips, charts, and recipes. Other ways to treat your grains include fermenting (hence my love of sourdough bread) and sprouting, and there are many resources on those topics as well.
Soaking Grains: Top 5 Questions - from my favorite traditional foods blog, Nourished Kitchen. This post explains the ins-and-outs of soaking grains.
Soaking Grains, A Traditional Practice - from the food blog, Cheeseslave. A helpful look at how grains have been treated throughout history.
Traditional Foods Basics: Treating Grains - from another favorite food blog, GNOWFGLINS, which focuses on "God's natural organic whole foods, grown locally and in season." This post is their primer on the subject and contains many links to recipes for soaked, fermented or sprouted grains.
Nourishing Traditions Cookbook - the cookbook/informational text by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, which is a manifesto of sorts for the traditional foods movement.
*Soaked Vermicelli Rice - a basic rice recipe, with soaked rice and fried noodles
*Authentic Hummus - with soaked chickpeas
*Lentil Rice Pilaf, or Mujjadara - with soaked lentils
*Lemony Lentil Soup - with soaked lentils
*Traditional Foods Basic, Part 1: Eat (Good) Germs