Real Food Encyclopedia | Quinoa

Less than 20 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 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.

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 5000 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.

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Fun Facts about Quinoa:

  • 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.
  • The explosive demand for quinoa has inspired the development of quinoa-derived products — vodkachocolate barspasta and animal feed, to name a few.

What to Look for When Buying Quinoa

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.

Sustainability of Quinoa

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. 

Quinoa and Geography

Currently, Bolivia, Peru (and Ecuador, to a lesser degree) are the leading world producers, responsible for about 80 percent of worldwide production. Although small-scale quinoa production is underway in Colorado and Nevada, the US imports far more quinoa than it grows, taking about 45 percent of the global harvest.

Eating Quinoa

Storing Quinoa

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.

Cooking with Quinoa

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.

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 quinoa hot or cold, seasoned with your favorite vinaigrette, herbs and finely chopped vegetables 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 is great 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.

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.

Preserving Quinoa

Quinoa reheats beautifully the next day, but it can also be stored in the freezer for a dinner in the not-too-distant future.

Quinoa Nutrition

Quinoa isn’t just loaded with protein (12 to 16 percent, depending on the variety). It’s 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.