(Chenopodium quinoa – Family Chenopodiaceae)
Quinoa is not a true grain, even though it is used as such. It is the fruit of an herb from the goosefoot family and thrives in areas where there is very little rain, high altitudes, thin cold air, hot sun, or poor soil. Yet, in spite of these many adverse climate conditions, quinoa thrives, growing to heights of six feet or more. Native to Peru, quinoa was once a cherished food of the Inca, and later banished by the conquering Spanish.
Of all the foods found in South America, it was quinoa that disturbed Pizarro the most – mainly because it was used in their religious ceremonies. Pizarro felt the highly sophisticated Indian culture represented a threat to Spanish colonization. To bring the Incas under his control, he banned the growth of quinoa, making it illegal to grow even a small amount of the grain. Instead, he had them plant vegetable gardens, which promptly shrivelled at the first blast of icy winds from the Andes. Next, Pizarro decreed that the Indians should become more “civilized” and ordered them to grow barley in order to make the European beer. He also imported livestock so that the Incas would learn to eat meat and discard their vegetarian ways. But, the cattle languished in the fields, the sheep lay down with the llamas, and the Incas quietly ate mushrooms instead. After years of raiding the altiplano, where Pizarro suspected that quinoa was secretly growing, he developed weak lungs and a cough that turned his once booming voice into a whisper. Realizing his defeat, Pizarro left Peru forever, leaving the mountain mushrooms to dry up in the valleys and the quinoa seed to sprout once again all over the land.
Quinoa originated with the Incas like amaranth did with the Aztecs and blue corn with the Southwest Indians of America. A relatively “new” grain on the American market, quinoa first made its appearance about twenty years ago ,despite its being a mighty staple of the past. It is now grown in Canada and the US, but continues to grown on the altiplano of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. However, the acreage has gradually dwindled. Like amaranth, quinoa is one of the group of pseudocereals whose starchy seeds can be ground into flour or eaten whole in soups, while the leaves are eaten like spinach. Quinoa flourishes at high altitudes where cereals cannot ripen, making it an ideal staple grain of the Andes. The most important contribution quinoa makes is in its nutritive content. It is a very good source of iron, B vitamins, vitamin E, and phosphorus. This superior grain is also exceptionally high in lysine, something not found in other grains, making quinoa an excellent choice to combine with them. Together with its high protein (15%), fat, and mineral content, called the “Mother Grain” for good reason, quinoa is also very rich in calcium, fiber, B vitamins, and iron. Since quinoa contains a high amount of oil, it and all its forms, should be kept cool and used rather quickly, that is, within a month or so of purchase.
All quinoa are not created equal. There are three main varieties whose textures, flavour, and colour differ substantially. The best one is known as ‘altiplano’. This is a pure strain grown in the altiplano regions of Bolivia and Peru in terraced fields high in the Andes approaching the 12,500 foot level. There, climatic conditions produce a remarkably sweet and succulent seed that is pale ivory in colour. It is also the most expensive. The second best grade is called ‘valley variety’. Like the altiplano species, it is also mountain-raised in parts of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, but only at the 7,000-10,000 foot level. Over 1,000 types of quinoa are grown in these areas, and differ dramatically. Valley varieties often contain a mixed bag from several hundred different farmers; therefore, obtaining one flavour and one texture, is impossible. The third grade is called ‘sea level’ for obvious reasons as that is where it is grown in Chile. The seeds are a darkish tan and the flavour is somewhat bitter.
There are about 1,800 varieties of quinoa, with a range that varies greatly in colour: white, pink, orange, green, red, purple, or black. The Aymara Indians of Bolivia still use all of the plant. Quinoa can be eaten whole as rice, or milled into flour, toasted, and ground for making tortillas. The leaves are eaten as a vegetable or used to feed their animals. The stalks are burned as fuel, and the water left from rinsing the seeds is used as shampoo. Quinoa has a natural insect repellent called saponin; and, if the grain is not washed thoroughly before using, it tends to taste bitter. Most quinoa on the market today has been prewashed, which is a good thing because the grains are so tiny that they can easily slip through most sieves. There may also be tiny black specks scattered throughout the bulk grain. These are the grains of the “wild quinoa” and should not be removed but cooked along with the rest of the light coloured seeds.
Forms of Quinoa include the following:
Whole Grain: It cooks completely in about fifteen minutes and can be used in any recipe to add bulk, flavour, and nutrients.
Flour: It is very low in gluten and cannot be used alone in making bread, but makes a wonderful addition to quick breads.
Pastas: They usually include another grain, usually wheat; but there are wheatless varieties of spaghetti, rotelle, shells, elbows, and macaroni. Most are available in health food stores.