An ancient food, revered for thousands of years in the South American Andes is gaining a new-found following among health-conscious consumers around the world. Quinoa(pronounced keen-wah) – for a long time considered “comida de pobres” or “poor people’s food” even in its native countries – is exploding in popularity as a nutritional superfood, gluten-free and high in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Supporting Inca Armies
During Inca times, quinoa was considered the second most important crop, after potatoes and before corn. They believed it was sacred and called it the “Mother of all Grains,” with the Inca king ceremonially planting each year’s first seed using a solid gold shovel. Their powerful armies conquered huge swathes of South America, marching for days at a time over high mountain ranges, sometimes eating nothing but a mixture of quinoa and fat called “war balls.”
Rise and Fall
After the Spanish arrived in the New World, quinoa was outlawed and replaced by wheat. Peasants in remote mountain regions continued to grow it secretly, but it retained the stigma as food for the poor long after the Spanish had left.
It was relatively unknown in the US until the 1980s, when scientists and nutritionists started researching indigenous crops which could be adapted to modern agricultural needs. In the past 20 years, it has grown in popularity from an obscure health-food item, to a widely-available product found in most supermarkets in the form of quinoa grains, flour, pasta, and cereal.
Now, with global demand up and the price of wholesale quinoa skyrocketing, poor farmers in developing countries like Peru and Bolivia are cashing in on this recently rediscovered crop. Some even believe quinoa could be the key to lifting struggling mountainous regions out of years of persistent poverty.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has identified quinoa as the only vegetable source that is a complete protein, meaning it has all the essential amino acids necessary for human health and development. It resembles the sort of proteins found in animal sources and has the same nutritional profile as milk.
Quinoa is an easily-digestible food, which is gluten-free, and an excellent source of several B Vitamins, along with most of the minerals needed by the human body – iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and copper.
Technically not a grain – it’s actually a seed about the same size as sesame seeds – it has a nutty and earthy taste, with a chewy texture. It cooks quickly, in about 15 minutes, and makes a great substitute for rice.