Less than twenty years ago, you would have had to travel to Bolivia or Peru to get a taste of quinoa. Maybe it was on offer in one of the bulk bins at the hippie food co-op; otherwise quinoa (pronounced KEEN WAH) was a nonentity on this side of the Tropic of Cancer. But these days, we gringos can't get enough of the stuff. With its high-protein promise and gluten-free badge, quinoa has become an it-girl ingredient, occupying every nook and cranny of the North American eating landscape, from restaurant menus to big-box store shelves. In less than a decade, the demand for this little ole seed from the Andes has exploded. Gone are the days of indigenous staple; say hello to a global commodity.
A Brief History
Although it may be best known as the beloved grain of the Incas during the pre-Columbian era (1200s or so), quinoa has ancient, prehistoric roots. Long before the Incans expressed their love for chisiya mama ("mother of all grains" in the Quechua language), quinoa, packed with nutrients, had been sustaining Andean mountain (aka altiplano) dwellers for millennia, as far back as 5,000 BCE. Although dates are imprecise, there is archeological consensus that the birthplace of quinoa is Lake Titicaca, an Andean mountain lake on the Bolivia-Peru border. Traces of quinoa have been found in tombs in Chile and Peru, as well as on hearths and tools in Argentina and Bolivia. Along with corn and potatoes, quinoa was a dietary staple of these indigenous hunter-gatherer civilizations.
During the Incan empire, quinoa was regarded as a sacred plant, and used in religious ceremonies. At harvest celebrations, the Incas would drink chichi, a "beer" made from fermented quinoa.
In the 1530s, Spanish colonists destroyed quinoa fields and banned all quinoa cultivation, consumption and worship, demanding that the conquered grow barley and wheat instead. Wild quinoa at higher elevations endured, and despite colonial efforts, the adaptable plant persisted through the ages as an indigenous foodstuff.
Quinoa has been the darling of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for nearly two decades. In 1996, the FAO classified quinoa as "one of humanity's most promising crops" both for its commercial versatility as well as its potential as "an alternative to solve the serious problems of human nutrition." The agency dubbed 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, continuing the theme that quinoa is a viable solution to food insecurity.
Intrigued by its nutritional prowess, NASA, in the early 1990s, considered quinoa as potential astronaut food for space missions.
After many years of debate among kosher authorities, quinoa is now considered kosher for Passover. Last year, the Orthodox Union ruled that quinoa is eligible for OUP (Kosher for Passover) designation, a symbol that appears on food packaging.
Botanically speaking, quinoa is known as Chenopodium quinoa. Although it acts and eats like a grain, quinoa is not a true grain (or grass) like wheat. It is the seed of a leafy plant in the goosefoot family, with beets, chard, spinach and lamb's quarters as close relatives. Like amaranth and buckwheat, quinoa is often referred to as a pseudograin or pseudocereal. It is highly adaptable and can grow both at sea level and extreme elevations. Although drought resistant, it has little tolerance for extreme heat. According to the FAO, there are more than 3,000 varieties.
Currently, Bolivia, Peru (and Ecuador, to a lesser degree) are the leading world producers, responsible for about 80 percent of worldwide production. According to the FAO, these three countries produced some 82,000 metric tons of quinoa in 2012. Although small-scale quinoa production is underway in Colorado and Nevada, the US imports far more quinoa than it it grows, taking about 45 percent of the global harvest.
But the quinoa playing field is poised to change within the next decade, maybe even sooner. With the help of a $1.6 million USDA grant, Washington State University is conducting multi-state trials of multiple quinoa varieties for its viability as a commercial crop in the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states in the mountain west. WSU breeder Kevin Murphy, who's spearheading these efforts, hosted a global quinoa summit last year in Pullman, Washington.
At the moment, virtually all of the quinoa eaten in this country is imported from South America. Quinoa's overnight popularity as a superfood has resulted in an explosion in imports; the distance from farm to table is arguably taking a toll on the environment, courtesy of the oil needed to ship it to market.
But several other interconnected issues are at play: On the one hand, increased demand has put more money in the pockets of farmers; on the other hand, prices for quinoa have quadrupled and fewer South Americans can afford to eat it.
Agencies like the FAO argue that quinoa in and of itself is an energy-efficient crop, easily adapting to various climates and resistant to drought. "The Bolivian National Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Innovation has ranked quinoa among the 21 seeds most resistant to climate change," (page 27), according to a 2013 FAO report.
Yet, quinoa's newfound status as global commodity means constant stress to land, resulting in soil degradation and selling off grazing llama to make room for more crops. Some companies are beginning to respond. For example, Alter Eco Foods, which manufactures fair trade quinoa and chocolate bars, now requires seven grazing llamas per hectare to ensure an ongoing layer of fertilizer.
To date, quinoa is not genetically engineered and much of what's commercially available is organic.
Although quinoa boasts a botanical treasure chest of thousands of varieties, there are just three types commercially available - white/ivory, red and black - for now. In Quinoa 365, co-author Patricia Green (who along with her sister Carolyn Hemming are known as "The Quinoa Sisters") recounts the quinoa she encountered in Bolivia, an artist's palette of colors - magenta, yellow, orange and green, to name a few.
Other than color, there's little textural or flavor differences among the three varieties in North American cupboards. Black quinoa might come off as a slightly crunchier, and red quinoa could be perceived as slightly sweet, but by and large, the flavor profile is nutty, sometimes grassy yet mild. Uncooked, quinoa (particularly the white and red varieties) looks like millet, which looks like bird seed. But when cooked, quinoa pops open, taking on the appearance of a tadpole. You'll notice a squiggly little comma or tail, or maybe it will remind you of a twinkling star. The cooked squigglies have both a fluffy and popped texture. A flavor chameleon, cooked quinoa will readily absorb an extensive portfolio of seasonings, from lemon to mustard, feta to pistachios, basil to curry powder. It's an ingredient meant for experimentation.
Quinoa flour is made from white/ivory quinoa, and has a powdery texture similar to that of rice flour. Quinoa that you grind yourself will be slightly more textured than its packaged counterpart.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Quinoa isn't just loaded with protein (12 to 16 percent, depending on the variety). It's a complete protein, It is the only known plant food that is a complete protein - meaning it contains all essential amino acids - without accompanying foods like beans.
One cup of cooked quinoa contains roughly eight grams of protein and five grams of fiber. It is rich in iron, folate, magnesium and zinc and a respectable source of calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids and a brain-boosting vitamin called Choline. It's gluten-free, hypo-allergenic, has a low-glycemic index - and it's safe for babies to eat. No wonder the Incans referred to it as the "mother of all grains."
In traditional medicine, quinoa has long been considered a panacea, treating sundry ailments, from wounds to toothaches, altitude sickness to urinary tract infections.
What to Do with It/Cooking Tips
For the uninitiated, quinoa cooks just like rice, but in a fraction of the time: Add to boiling water, cover and cook at a simmer, and in 15 minutes, it's done. (And yes, you can use a rice cooker.) From there, a world of culinary possibilities awaits. You can eat hot or cold, seasoned with your favorite vinaigrette, herbs and finely chopped vegetables (see recipe that follows to get started) and serve as a side dish or atop a bed of salad greens. It works great as a stuffing, tucked into peppers, zucchini halves, a roasted whole chicken or tortillas. Try it instead of rice for risotto or paella, and for kicks, use that leftover quinoa for "fried rice." Quinoa's got you covered at breakfast, too; this porridge has become a personal favorite on cold winter mornings. It even offers a sweet ending; both quinoa flour and flakes are making their way into gluten-free baked goods, from cake to brownies (recipe details follow).
Bakers, take note: you can grind your own quinoa "flour." Commercially ground quinoa flour is costly and quickly oxidizes (and turns rancid). Grind what you need in a coffee grinder designated for spices.
And raw foodies, try quinoa seeds in your next sprouting adventure.
In collaboration with Slow Food, the FAO compiled a digital collection of quinoa-centric recipes from chefs around the world. (Recipes begin on page 38.)
Quinoa reheats beautifully the next day, but it can also be stored in the freezer for a dinner in the not-too-distant future.
As mentioned earlier, quinoa produces a naturally-occurring coating called saponin. Although invisible and relatively harmless to humans, it can impart a bitter flavor to cooked quinoa. Several brands of commercially available quinoa are rinsed (which is stated on packaging); if not, give your quinoa a quick rinse under running water.
Storage Like other grains, keep quinoa in an airtight container to discourage insect visitors. But because quinoa is rich in essential fatty acids (i.e. oils), it will eventually oxidize and turn rancid. A cool, dark place will extend its shelf life.
Sweet: Quinoa-Walnut Brownies
Excerpted from "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations" by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.
1⁄2 cup white/ivory quinoa, or 2⁄3 cup quinoa flour
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped roughly
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped roughly
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1⁄2 cup unsalted walnuts, chopped roughly
Tools: Electric coffee or spice grinder, parchment paper, balloon whisk, 8- or 9-inch square baking pan
Kitchen notes: If you're going to grind your own quinoa, use the kind that's been rinsed before packaging rather than rinse yourself. Ancient Harvest, Bob's Red Mill, Earthly Delights and Eden Foods all sell rinsed quinoa, as stated on their labels.
- Grease a baking pan and line with parchment paper with a few inches of overhang so you can easily remove brownies after baking. Grind the quinoa in a coffee or spice grinder until it looks powdery, like flour. Transfer to a small bowl and add the salt and the baking powder.
- Pour a few inches of water into a medium-size saucepan and place a metal bowl that fits snugly on top, yet without touching the water, to make a double boiler. Place all of the chocolate and the butter in the bowl and melt over medium-low heat. As the mixture melts, the chocolate will take on a glossy sheen. With a heatproof rubber spatula, gently scrape the sides of the bowl and stir. When the mixture is completely melted, it will be shiny and smooth.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the sugar and vanilla, followed by the eggs, one at a time. Switch to a wooden spoon or rubber stirring spatula, and stir in the quinoa mixture until well incorporated. Stir in the walnuts until evenly distributed. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and place on a baking sheet.
- Bake on the middle rack for 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out with a small amount of residue. You are looking for a fudgy crumb and overbaking will yield a dry result.
- Transfer the pan to a rack and allow to cool completely, at least 1 hour. Using the parchment overhang, remove the brownies from the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Remove the parchment. If the brownies are still even a little bit warm, expect some breakage. Slice and serve.
The brownies freeze well wrapped in foil. Makes about 16 servings.
Savory: Quickie Quinoa-Chickpea Salad
Excerpted from "The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook" by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.
2 cups water
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup quinoa, rinsed in a sieve
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
1 teaspoon olive oil
1⁄2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium-size saucepan and add the salt and quinoa. Give a quick stir, then cover, lower the heat, and cook for 15 minutes.
- Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and add the chickpeas, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Stir to combine and taste for salt, adding more as you see fit.
Makes about 6 side-dish servings.
This post was originally published in February 2014.