Chenopodium Quinoa is an ancient food that is becoming more and more popular and getting lots of press as a healthy and delicious menu option. Quinoa is packed with protein and important vitamins, so even if you're a confirmed carnivore, you should take a look at this nutritious relative of spinach. Who knew? (And why did Pizarro forbid its cultivation?)
How to pronouce "Quinoa"
In my family we say "KEEN-wah" but "KEEN-oh-ah" is also correct. Just don't say "KWEEN-oh-ah," please.
Where did Quinoa come from?
People have been cultivating Quinoa in the Andes in South America for at least 3500 years, and maybe as long as 7000-8000 years. Until Pizarro and his conquistadors arrived in the mid-16th century, Quinoa, along with potatoes and maize (corn), was a staple food of the local Incan people. The Incans called Quinoa chisaya mama, or "mother of all grains," and the emperor ritually sowed the first seeds of each year's crop using golden tools. Then Pizarro showed up and as well as converting the locals to Christianity, he converted them to farming less nutritious European wheat and barley and prohibited them from farming Quinoa and from practicing their ancient Incan religious rituals.
What is Quinoa, really?
Quinoa is really the seeds of the flowers of a plant in the Chenopodiaceae family, closely related to spinach, lamb's quarters, beets, Swiss chard and goosefoot. It is not a grain. For this reason, Quinoa is an extremely useful food for people with celiac disease and others on special diets. Quinoa has a different ratio of protein to fat to carbohydates than do typical starchy staple foods like ordinary pasta, bread, rice, corn or bulgur wheat. The seeds can be ground and substituted for wheat flour.
What do you do with Quinoa?
While Quinoa is growing, the seeds are protected from birds or wildlife by a bitter, soapy saponin coating. This must be washed off before the Quinoa is edible. Any Quinoa that you purchase to eat has already been processed; you can rinse it again just to be sure and to remove any excess dust if you like. If you buy it in a package, rinsing is probably not necessary, but if you buy it loose, in bulk, where you put it in a bag yourself, rinsing it seems wise.
There are zillions of recipes online for how to cook Quinoa. Most cooking instructions give the ratio of twice as much liquid as raw Quinoa—in other words, one cup of liquid to one half cup of uncooked Quinoa. However one culinary expert declares she prefers her Quinoa cooked with three parts water to one part Quinoa. She says it makes it fluffier. I'll try it next time. Cook Quinoa with liquid for fifteen minutes or until the seeds are translucent or "curl." Fluff them up with a fork like you would rice.
Quinoa seeds can also be sprouted, exactly the same way you would sprout alfalfa or mung beans. I haven't tried this myself, but apparently it's really fast. Or, you can toast Quinoa in a pan before you cook with liquid for extra nutty flavor. Quinoa is also available as a flour or as flakes.
Quinoa can be used in any recipe where you would use rice or couscous. Cooked Quinoa can be added to muffins and soups like barley can. Why not serve stir-fry over Quinoa next time? Quinoa savory or Quinoa sweet? It's totally your choice. I've stuffed a turkey with Quinoa stuffing for Thanksgiving but there are recipes for Quinoa as a warm oatmeal-type breakfast concotion with raisins and cinnamon. I love hot cereal in cold weather, so that one sounds like it's worth a try.
Read this article about how Quinoa is now so expensive that Bolivians, who have been farming it, processing it and eating it since before it was fashionable, can no longer afford it! Almost all of the world's Quinoa sold today is grown in Bolivia or Peru.
"Quinoa is able to survive high altitudes, thin and cold air, hot sun, salty or sandy soil, little rainfall, and sub-freezing temperatures. In addition, all parts of the plant could be eaten, including not only the seeds that we buy in the store and that may also have been dried and ground into flour, but also the leaves and stems," raves the World's Healthiest Foods.
But why Quinoa?
Quinoa has almost an ideal combination of amino acids to support human life. NASA "discovered" Quinoa when it was searching for the perfect food to take on long-term space missions! It is easy to cook and much quicker than rice.
Quinoa is high in protein and fiber, low in fat, and contains no processed sugar.
Quinoa is higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc than wheat, barley, or corn, according to Purdue University.
Quinoa is healthier and less expensive than meat. Try it.
2013 has been declared "The Year of Quinoa" by the U.N. Get to know Quinoa so that you can celebrate along with the rest of the world.
What does Quinoa taste like?
Some people describe it as having a "grassy" flavor but Quinoa is more often described as "nutty." We prefer the flavor of Quinoa-corn pasta (which we order online) over that of ordinary wheat pasta. I never liked pasta before--now I love it. I think the best testimony is that my younger daughter doesn't like any of this "health food" that has entered her life as a result of her big sister's celiac disease. This daughter lives on junk food and white bread. She likes instant macaroni and cheese from a cardboard box and prefers cake mix to cake from scratch. This daughter, when we went to the grocery store after we moved to restock our pantry, picked out a box of Quinoa as her favorite comfort food!
Photo at top right of Quinoa in cultivation courtesy of Maurice Chédal and Wikipedia Commons. Photo at left of workers carrying harvested Quinoa is courtesy of Ancient Harvest Quinoa Corporation. Bottom photos: "Quinoa Flowering" and "Homegrown Quinoa" are courtesy of Christian Gaultier and Wikipedia Commons.
About Carrie Lamont
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.