History of Quinoa

Red QuinoaQuinoa (pronounced Keen-wah) is an ancient food that is just now becoming well known in North America. It has been cultivated in the elevations of the South American Andes since at least 3,000 B.C. and has been a staple food of millions of native inhabitants. The ancient Incas called quinoa the “mother grain” and revered it as sacred.

Each year at planting time it was traditional for the Inca leader to plant the first quinoa seed using a solid gold shovel! Quinoa was used to sustain Incan armies, which frequently marched for many days eating a mixture of quinoa and fat, known as “war balls.” Beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, there was a 400-year decline in the production of quinoa. It became a minor crop at that time and was grown only by peasants in remote areas for local consumption, and treated with contempt by those who were not indigenous.

The Quinoa Plant

Quinoa is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant. Beets, spinach, Swiss chard, and lamb’s quarters are all relatives of quinoa. The leaves are lobed or toothed and triangular in shape. The young leaves are also edible and make a pleasant vegetable similar to spinach. A quinoa leaf salad is generally more nutritious that most green salads.

The quinoa plant grows from 4 to 6 feet high and has many angular branches. The flower heads are branched and the seeds look much like millet, with large clusters of seeds at the end of a stalk. It is often substituted for grains such as rice because of it’s cooking characteristics. Quinoa will grow in a variety of conditions but favors a cool, arid climate and higher elevations.

Quinoa grains range in color from ivory to pinks, brown to reds, or almost black depending on the variety. There are over 120 species of Chenopodium, but only three main varieties are cultivated; one producing very pale seeds, called the white or sweet variety; a dark red fruited variety called red quinoa; and a black quinoa.

Quinoa has a characteristic that is all it’s own: as it cooks, the outer germ around each grain twists outward forming a little white spiral tail which is attached to the kernel. The grain itself is soft and delicate and the tail is crunchy which creates and interesting texture combination and pleasant “crunch” when eating the grain. Quinoa has a fluffy consistency and a mild, delicate, slightly nutty flavor that is almost bland.

Nutritional Value of Quinoa

The quinoa seed is high in protein, calcium and iron, a relatively good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins. It contains an almost perfect balance of all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development in humans, making it a source of complete protein.

It is exceptionally high in lysine, cystine and methionine-amino acids which are typically low in grains. It is a good complement for legumes, which are often low in methionine and cystine. The 6-7% fat of quinoa is relatively high when compared to grains, but it has a low sodium content and is a valuable source of both starch and fiber.

Quinoa also contains albumen, a protein that is found in egg whites, blood serum, and many plant and animal tissues. The seeds are gluten-free which makes this a nutritious and flavorful alternative grain for those with gluten sensitivity.