Real Food Encyclopedia | Amaranth
Amaranth is a striking plant, grown ornamentally as well as for food, and (if you can find it), delicious to boot. It can grow to over six feet tall, with red leaves and a huge seed head, used in cooking primarily for its tasty leaves. Amaranth is native to North and Central America, where Native American hunting and gathering tribes once gathered wild species of the plant.
Fun Facts about Amaranth:
- Amaranth was an important crop for the Aztecs, who used the grain as both food and in religious rituals. According to Elizabeth Moran, author of “The Sacred as Everyday: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art,” the Aztecs baked amaranth into cakes formed into images of their deities, in what Moran says was “a symbolic sharing of the ‘flesh’ of the deity.”
- 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. “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.
- 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 United States in 1976.
What to Look for When Buying Amaranth
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).
Look for amaranth greens that are perky, with no mushy, wilted or slimy black spots.
Sustainability of Amaranth
Pesticides and Amaranth
The environmental impact of vegetable and grain amaranth in the US is minimal, as it is such an uncommon crop here. 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. When farmers grow genetically engineered (GE) crops, like soybeans and corn, which have been designed to be resistant to glyphosate (Roundup), other plants are exposed to the herbicide, and over time, the weeds become resistant to the chemical. This particular strain, known as Palamer pigweed, is considered a threat to soybean and cotton production in the southern US, and studies have shown the best prevention is to remove the weed by hand.
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.
Storing Fresh Amaranth
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).
Cooking with Amaranth
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. 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).
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 B-6, 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.