A member of the Goosefoot Family, which includes beetroot and spinach as well as Pigweed (now found in many a farmers market as ‘purslane’), quinoa is a “pseudo-cereal” meaning that it can be cooked and eaten like grains.
The leaves can also be eaten and in fact it is also related to the common weed Lamb’s Quarters (which can also be a delicious addition to gourmet salads).
Over 120 different varieties of quinoa are known, but the most commonly cultivated and commercialised are white (sometimes known as yellow or ivory) quinoa, red quinoa, and black quinoa.
Quinoa does well in poor soils at high altitudes, which is why it thrives in the thin soil, extreme temperatures and low rainfall regions of the altiplano, or high plains in the Andes.
Quinoa has actually been known to increase its yields in times of drought, while other crops are failing, and can thrive on as little as three to four inches (75 to 100mm) of annual rainfall.
Quinoa seems to have been widely consumed in the Andes mountains regions of South America since around 3000BCE, because of its remarkable tolerance for different growing conditions, including very poor soil and extreme temperature changes.
This made it a mainstay food for the Inca Empire for whom it also became a sacred plant ‘chisaya mama’, or the ‘mother of all grains’.
At the time of the Spanish conquest it was the second most utilised grain in the Andes region after the ubiquitous maize. However it almost disappeared after the Spanish conquest because of Francisco Pizarro’s efforts to undermine the Incan culture by destroying the sacred quinoa fields. Only small pockets of wild quinoa survived in the inhospitable mountainous regions cultivated by the indigenous people.
Although the majority of people in the Western world have only known about quinoa in the last 5 to 10 years, in the late 19th century it was grown in England and plans were afoot to cultivate it in California.
However its taste didn’t appeal to the European palate of the day, which preferred other grains such as traditional wheat and barley. The English ate the leaves but fed the ripe seeds to pigs and poultry.
So despite the high hopes of agronomists of the time (who saw it’s potential to replace the potato) quinoa took more than 100 years to reach it’s current ‘super-food’ status. And even now many people find its distinctive taste unpalatable.
Quinoa is a complete protein – one of the only plant foods able to offer all the essential amino acids including lysine and isoleucine, in a healthy balance. Not only does it have a balanced profile of amino acids, the grain has an unusually high ratio of protein to carbohydrate. This is because the germ makes up about 60% of the grain. As a comparison, wheat germ comprises less than 3% of a wheat kernel.
It has a variety of antioxidant phytonutrients and flavonoids, and is a very good source of manganese. It also contains vitamin E tocopherols, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, folate, and zinc. Of all the grains it contains the highest amount of potassium.
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