Food & dining

Super six seeds are powerhouses of protein and more

Nutty tofu with green pumpkin seed coating on brown rice risotto cake at Walnut Grille.
Nutty tofu with green pumpkin seed coating on brown rice risotto cake at Walnut Grille.

So tiny, yet so healthful. Edible seeds, with chia and hemp on the top of the nutrition list, are nothing like the chia seeds of the ’80s, when they were mostly used to sprout “fur” on clay figurines. Long before Chia pets, ancient Aztecs and Mayans ate the seeds for energy and strength.

We’re just catching up.

The super six — chia, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, flax, and sesame — are tiny powerhouses of protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Sprinkle them on salads, stews, and soups for crunch, grind them to thicken sauces or whir into spreadable seed butters, blend into smoothies, bake with oats for a chunky granola, add to muffins, scones, and breads, or simply munch straight out of the bag. Seeds fall into that blessed category of vegan, gluten-free, and nut-free, which has given their status a big boost. They’re not without calories and fat, but these are healthy fats, and nibbles make you feel satisfied longer than other snacks.


Americans are late to the table when it comes to seeds. In Mexican cuisine, pepitas, or green pumpkin seeds, might be ground to thicken a mole sauce. In the Middle East, tahini, which is sesame seed paste, is key to making hummus, and dukkah, an Egyptian toasted nut, seed, and spice mixture, is used for dipping bread or vegetables. The oil from pressed sesame seeds seasons stir-fries and dressings in many Asian cultures, with the seeds a delicate garnish. We can thank American hippies in the ’60s for popularizing sunflower seeds in trail mixes called “gorp.”

“In my world, seeds add a lot of nutrition and vitamins and protein,” said Siva Kumar, Indian-born chef and co-owner of Walnut Grille in Newton Highlands.
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At Somerville restaurant Sarma, chef and co-owner Cassie Piuma says, “Personally, I’m really into pumpkin seeds.” The chef grinds pumpkin seeds to thicken sauces and soups, and instead of breadcrumbs for coating, she uses chickpea flour and finely chopped pumpkin seeds. To sprinkle on squash fritters, Piuma makes a sweet-salty-crunchy crumble with the green seeds, sesame, fried garlic, chile powder, and demerara sugar; it can just as well bring an intriguing note to pureed or sauteed vegetables, salads, and grain dishes.

Chia, the current darling of the seed world, offers a delicate crunch along with protein, fiber, and antioxidants. (If you become a fan, keep floss handy.) The seeds develop a gelatinous consistency when soaked in liquid, which is called chia gel. It’s added to smoothies to boost their nutritional value, says Brett Fermeglia of Life Alive Urban Oasis & Organic Cafe in Lowell.

Hulled hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, have a mild nutty flavor and soft texture, and may be the least well known of the six. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant, but you won’t get high on the seeds. Considered a complete protein, hemp seeds contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, fiber, and vitamins and minerals.

At Walnut Grille in Newton Highlands, chef and co-owner Siva Kumar incorporates the nutritious gems into various vegetarian and vegan dishes. He spreads pumpkin-seed cilantro pesto on veggie quesadillas; sprinkles sunflower, hemp, or flax on steamed greens; and coats large triangles of tofu with nuts and pumpkin seeds. He dusts sliced portobellos with hemp seeds, pan-fries the rounds, and serves them with hemp-seed gravy. Desserts change daily, but there’s usually a pudding made with white chia and rice or fruit.


“In my world, seeds add a lot of nutrition and vitamins and protein,” says Kumar, who was raised vegetarian in Chennai in south India. “The basic thing is they taste good.”

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at