Quinoa is a species of goosefoot (in the same subfamily as spinach and beets) grown primarily as a pseudo-cereal crop. Although technically neither a grain nor a cereal, it is generally considered to be a grain crop. Its leaves may also be eaten as a leaf vegetable, much like amaranth, but the commercial availability of quinoa greens is currently limited.
Quinoa comes from the Andean region of South America, where it has been an important food for 6,000 years. Quinoa is generally undemanding and altitude-hardy, so it can be easily cultivated in the Andes up to about 4,000 meters. Even so, it grows best in well-drained soils and requires a relatively long growing season. In eastern North America, it is susceptible to a leaf miner that may reduce crop success; this leaf miner also affects the common weed Chenopodium album, but C. album is much more resistant.
Similar Chenopodium species were probably grown in North America before maize agriculture became popular. Chenopodiums were also used in Europe as greens. Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) which has a widespread distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, produces edible seeds and greens much like quinoa, but in lower quantities. Caution should be exercised in collecting this weed, however, because when growing in heavily fertilized agricultural fields it can accumulate dangerously high concentrations of nitrates.
History and cultureEdit
Archeological evidence shows that quinoa was grown in relationship with grazing lamas as early as 7,000 BCE. In Peru and Bolivia quinoa was found in human graves from 3,000-4000 BCE. During the short lived rule of the Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, quinoa was referred to as "chisaya mama" or "mother of all grains". It was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using 'golden implements'. During the European conquest of South America quinoa was scorned by the Spanish colonists as "food for Indians", and even actively suppressed, due to its status within indigenous non-Christian ceremonies.
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance within pre-columbian Andean civilisations, being secondary only to the potato, and followed in third place by maize. In contemporary times this crop has come to be highly appreciated for its nutritional value, and the United Nations has classified it as a supercrop for its very high protein content (13%). Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete foodstuff. This means it takes less quinoa protein to meet one's needs than wheat protein. Although technically a seed, quinoa is considered a whole grain and a good source of dietary fiber. Quinoa also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which provide benefit to the heart. Quinoa is a good source of phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten free and considered easy to digest.
In its natural state quinoa has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it essentially unpalatable. Most quinoa sold commercially in North America has been processed to remove this coating. Some have speculated that this bitter coating may have caused the Europeans who first encountered quinoa to reject it as a food source, even as they adopted other indigenous products of the Americas like maize and potatoes. However, this bitterness has beneficial effects in terms of cultivation, as it is a crop that is relatively untouched by birds and thus requires minimal protection. There have been attempts made to lower the saponin content of quinoa through selective breeding in order to produce sweeter and more palatable varieties of the crop. However when these varieties were introduced by agronomists to native growers in the high plateaux, they were rejected after just one season. The growers returned to their traditional high saponin varieties, the reason being that despite the newer varieties giving 'magnificent' yields, birds had consumed the entire crop.
The saponin content in quinoa can be mildly toxic, as can be the oxalic acid content found in the leaves of all of the chenopodium family. However the risks associated with quinoa are minimal provided that it is properly prepared and leaves are not eaten to excess.
Quinoa is currently being studied by a number of researchers at various universities, notably a team led by Daniel Fairbanks at Brigham Young University's Department of Biology and Agriculture. Research is being done to increase the yields and palatibility of quinoa without sacrificing its beneficial properties.
The first step in preparing quinoa is to remove the saponins, a process that requires soaking the grain in water for a few hours, then changing the water and resoaking for a further period of time, or rinsing it in ample running water either in a fine strainer or in cheesecloth. (Packets sold in health stores, etc., have usually already been treated.) Quinoa is an easy food to prepare, requiring no more than ten minutes of boiling for a light, fluffy texture with a slight butternut flavour. During cooking, the germ comes out of the seed and dangles, curled from it, or falls off. Most North Americans prepare one cup dry quinoa in four cups of water and two of stock for accentuation of natural flavours. Once drained with a sieve, this method will yield three cups cooked quinoa. Quinoa also makes a breakfast food mixed with honey, almonds or berries; it is also sold as a dry product, much like corn flakes. It is also well-suited to vegetable pilafs, complementing bitter greens like kale.
Another preparation method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing two cups of water to a boil with one cup of grain, covering at a low simmer and cooking 15 minutes until the water is absorbed. Alternatively, one can use a rice cooker to prepare quinoa. Vegetables and seasonings can also be added to make a wide range of dishes.
- Primal seeds article about less usual grain varieties
- Alternative Food Crops article by Plants for a Future that includes quinoa as potential cool temperate region food crop, eg, in the UK
- Plants for a Future database entry on quinoa
- The Seeds of Kokopelli- A manual for the production of seeds in the family garden - Dominique Guillet, (published by Association Kokopelli ) pages 340-344
- Some nutritional information
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