Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Amaranth

I first encountered amaranth greens in my community garden in Brooklyn – what I thought was a gigantic weed (it can grow to over six feet tall) with red leaves and a huge seed head was actually a type of red amaranth, used in cooking primarily for its tasty leaves. In our garden we tend to have an informal rule to keep the plant from spreading: we cut the flower heads off before the tiny seeds disperse throughout the entire garden. One year, someone forgot to do this and we had towering amaranth in multiple beds come summer. It is a striking plant, grown ornamentally as well as for food, and (if you can find it), delicious to boot.  

A Brief History

Amaranth is native to North and Central America, where Native American hunting and gathering tribes once gathered wild species of the plant. It is thought that amaranth was first cultivated in Mexico, along with beans, squash and corn; Edible: A Directory of Edible Plants says that archeologists have dated the plant’s domestication to 4000 BCE in Puebla, Mexico.

Amaranth was an important crop for the Aztecs, who used the grain as both food and in religious rituals and who also ate the leaves of the plant as cooked greens. According to Elizabeth Moran, author of The Sacred as Everyday: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art, the Aztecs reportedly required their subjects to provide amaranth grains in tribute to their rulers. They also baked amaranth into cakes that were formed into images of their deities, which were then broken apart and consumed, in what Moran says was “a symbolic sharing of the ‘flesh’ of the deity.” The obvious association with the Catholic religious communion ritual and the Catholics’ desire to stop “idolatry” caused the invading Spanish to ban amaranth cultivation, although it hung on in some parts of Mexico.   

The grain was also a staple crop for the Incans (and indeed, grain amaranth is also known as “Inca Wheat”); called kiwicha, the seeds were used extensively as food in the Andean highlands. Though it is unclear when and how (or even if some species of amaranth are, in fact, native to parts of Asia), amaranth spread to Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, where it has become a staple crop, grown in these places mostly for its leaves. It is now cultivated all over the globe, some species for their leaves (called “vegetable amaranth”), some for their seeds (“grain amaranth”) and some as ornamentals.

Factual Nibbles

  • There are hundreds of names for the many species of amaranth, including: African spinach, bush greens, callaloo, Chinese spinach, golden grain of the Gods, Indian spinach, Joseph’s coat, yin-choi and love-lies-bleeding – among many, many others.
  • Several types of amaranth were used as food coloring, imparting a red or pink color to some ceremonial food and drink in Central and North American native foodways. Today, “amaranth” in the food-coloring world refers to the synthetic Red Dye No. 2, which was banned in the US in 1976.
  • The Oxford Companion to Food says that the word “amaranth” comes from the Greek amarantos (“unfading”), because it was thought that the plant was immortal (I’m guessing because the seeds are soooo tiny and scatter everywhere in the garden).

Cultivation

Amaranth is, appropriately enough, in the Amaranthaceae family, and includes many, many different species grown as an annual for grain, as a vegetable or as an ornamental. The most common cultivars of vegetable amaranth (grown for its edible leaves) are usually called “Chinese spinach” (Amaranthus tricolor) or “Chinese amaranth”; other species grown for their leaves include A. viridis (duck’s spinach) and A. hybridus (common pigweed). Cultivated grain amaranth species are primarily A.cruentus, A.hypochondriacus and A.caudatus (the latter is known as “Inca wheat”). Amaranth plants get huge – some cultivars growing over six feet tall. Most form giant seed heads with colorful flowers (usually in reds, purples, yellows and oranges); their seeds readily disperse in the garden. Some amaranth cultivars have very colorful leaves, as well.

Seasonality

Amaranth greens are in season in the summer through mid-fall. Amaranth seeds can be found year-round in health food and some larger grocery stores.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of vegetable and grain amaranth in the US is minimal, as it is such an uncommon crop here. (*Check out our rule of thumb, below.) However, some species of amaranth are actually invasive weeds; these are generally referred to as “pigweed.” One species, Amaranthus palmeri, has become resistant to glyphosate (aka, Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) in several states in the US. The way that this happened is basically this: farmers grow genetically engineered (GE) crops, like soybeans and corn, which have been designed to be resistant to glyphosate (Roundup). Farmers spray the fields with the herbicide, and over time, the weeds become resistant to the chemical (here’s the super nerdy explanation on how exactly this happens), which results in the need for more, and sometimes different, herbicides. The “superweeds” created out of this process are difficult to eradicate without increased applications of herbicides, and in some cases farmers have had to go back to manual or mechanical weed removal.

Characteristics

Amaranth greens vary in color depending on the cultivar – some are bright green, others are variegated green-and-red or streaked with purple. Cultivated amaranth seeds are usually creamy white in color and are teeny, tiny. Amaranth greens are similar in taste to spinach, if not a bit heartier in texture. Amaranth seeds taste nutty and delicious when popped, and when cooked into porridge, become slightly gelatinous in texture (similar to chia crossed with cream-of-wheat).

What to look for

Look for amaranth greens that are perky, with no mushy, wilted or slimy black spots.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Amaranth leaves and seeds are super rich in protein, vitamins (especially Vitamin A), iron and dietary fiber. Amaranth seeds are especially nutritious – they contain high-quality protein that includes lysine, a critical amino acid that is not commonly found in vegetable protein, plus huge amounts of manganese, magnesium and phosphorus, along good amounts of Vitamin B6, calcium and folate. Consumption of amaranth grain has been linked to improved cardiovascular health, reduction of cholesterol levels, immune system health and possible anti-tumor activity.

What to Do with It

Young amaranth greens can be eaten in salads, while older, more mature leaves are better cooked (they get a little tough raw) – stir fried or tossed into any recipe that calls for cooked spinach. (The Today Show even calls amaranth greens the next kale.) The stems are also edible, but tend to be tough and are usually discarded. Amaranth seeds can be eaten as porridge, ground as flour and popped like popcorn (see recipe below).

Cooking

Use amaranth greens like you would any other tender green – sautéed with garlic, mixed in with grains or beans (like this black beans with amaranth greens dish), stir-fried, tucked into tacos or tamales or as a pizza topping. The veggie is popular in Caribbean cuisine, where it is called callaloo and is used in a dish of the same name. (As an aside – the word “callaloo” can refer to other greens, including taro leaves, in different parts of the Caribbean.) Indian cuisine also uses the leaves extensively (check out all of these Indian-style amaranth recipes, including an Indian-style amaranth leaf stir fry and crispy amaranth leaf balls). 

Amaranth grains are frequently made into a type of breakfast porridge (like this yummy looking banana-walnut amaranth porridge) and can also be made into a kind of risotto. Or combine the greens and the grain in this savory amaranth pancakes with greens dish (sub amaranth greens for the Swiss chard). Popped amaranth is good as a breakfast dish or as a snack and super fun to make. The popped grains are also used to make alegria, a traditional Mexican treat made with honey and popped amaranth (here’s a video how to make it with molasses instead of honey).

Storage

Fresh amaranth greens are highly perishable, but they will keep for a few days in your refrigerator drawer, wrapped in damp paper towels. Store amaranth seeds in an airtight jar in the fridge to keep them from going rancid (a good tip for any whole grain).

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Check out this Indian-style pickle made with amaranth leaves, which looks delightful and will keep for several weeks in the fridge. You can also blanch and freeze the greens – here’s how.

Recipe

Yogurt with Popped Amaranth Seeds, Pomegranate and Honey

This is more of a suggestion of a recipe, since quantities can be altered to suit your tastes. It is also infinitely variable – try chopped pears or segmented oranges instead of the pomegranate, or add a tiny pinch of cinnamon or cardamom to the topping. Even a few drops of orange flower water, should you happen to have any on hand, would be lovely. We like this dish as a dessert in our house (my three year old son goes crazy for popped amaranth – who knew?) but it is also fantastic for breakfast, and is protein-packed to boot. You could be extra fancy for company and make this into a parfait, layering ingredients in a tall glass or parfait dish.

Ingredients:
Greek or other thick, rich yogurt
Pomegranate seeds (read this for pro tips on how to easily extract the seeds)
Local honey
Amaranth seeds

Method:
1. To pop amaranth seeds: heat a heavy, wide-bottomed pot (I used a large Dutch oven) over medium-high heat until very hot. Have the lid to the pot at hand.
2. Add no more than 2 to 3 tablespoons of the seeds at a time. (Any more than that and it is very, very hard to keep them from burning – trust me on this.)
3. Place the lid on the pan slightly ajar – the lid is there primarily to keep the little buggers from flying all around your stovetop. Vigorously shake the pot for a few seconds – you will hear the seeds popping and you should smell a delicious, nutty aroma. If your pan was hot enough, the popping should happen very quickly. Take the pot off the heat and continue to shake, as the remainder of the seeds pop. Pour popped seeds into a small bowl. You’ll end up with little tiny popped amaranth seeds, which are white and puffy. Let cool.
4. To assemble the dessert: put a few generous dollops of yogurt in a bowl. Top with a few tablespoons of pomegranate seeds, a nice drizzle of honey and a tablespoon or two of the popped amaranth seeds. Serve immediately. 

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

Responses to "Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Amaranth"

  1. Deidre

    These segments are amazing! I have been trying to find a resource like this that tells me in detail about the food and this is better than imagined. I never realized how much I do not know about natural, wholesome foods. Please keep them coming.

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