For centuries quinoa has been above it all--and it still is. Grown at 10,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level, quinoa, pronounced keen-wah, brought sustenance to the altiplano Indians and allowed them to thrive in the harsh living conditions that prevail at such altitudes. To these Indian natives of the Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia, quinoa seeds have been more valuable than gold.
Imagine that a sacred bird, known as kullku, has sent you quinoa seeds as a gift from the heavens. You know without doubt that consuming these sacred grains will sustain your body with long endurance, heighten your psychic abilities and bring you onto a deeply spiritual plane through meditation. Today, it's called mythology, but is it really? Many of us would scoff at these ideas, but what we might consider folklore is actually reality. Beliefs like these are not uncommon to the natives of the altiplano. Such attitudes originated thousands of years ago with the Inca culture and still prevail today.
First cultivated more than 5,000 years ago, quinoa, along with corn and potatoes was one of the three foods considered the centerpiece of the Andean diet. In that diet quinoa was a primary food source while animal foods were secondary. Today, grains and animal foods have reversed roles, with grains declining in popularity as meat consumption has risen.
During the period when the Incas thrived in Bolivia, relay teams of barefoot runners would carry news from one region to another, often covering 150 miles in a 24-hour period. Bolivia's elevation is over 12,000 feet above sea level, an altitude where oxygen is considerably reduced. How did the runners perform this unbelievable feat? A practice still prevalent with today's Bolivian athletes involves combining coca leaves and ash from the quinoa plant and holding it in the cheek. The combination increases the body's oxygen because quinoa ash releases alkaloids in the coca.
Quinoa, native to the Americas and considered the most sacred food by the ancient Incas, was held in such high regard, it was called la chisiya mama, which means "the mother grain." Because these altiplano natives believed their grain was a gift from the gods containing spiritual enhancing qualities, the ritual first planting of the season was a god-like act performed by the emperor, who was considered a god himself. Since he was responsible for a successful quinoa harvest, he sowed the first seeds of the season with his golden taquiza, a planting stick.
As special recognition given to the harvest, the Incas drank chicha, a beer made from fermented quinoa, and celebrated by offering sacrifices of animals, children, food, and cloth.
Eight to nine thousand years ago, Bolivian natives living in the Lake Titicaca area began to cultivate quinoa. Archeological evidence indicates morphological differences between wild quinoa plants and those that have been domesticated. The domestic plants have larger seeds or fruit and a thinner shell covering each grain.
Because there is rather little level ground, the Huarpa Indians of Bolivia developed terrace farming as a successful method for cultivating their quinoa, often on land no wider than 12 feet. It was not unusual for the upper terrace to be 2,000 feet higher than the lower terrace. The Incas learned from their neighbors, a method that enabled them to succeed in spite of drought and below freezing temperatures typical of the altiplano region.
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish explorer, reached the Andes with a small army of 158 men, and in one year's time destroyed the quinoa fields, killed the god-king, and forced the Inca culture into submission. The daily lives of the Incas had revolved around the growing, harvesting, eating, and honoring of quinoa. Under Pizarro's rule they were forbidden to practice their ceremonial rituals that centered on quinoa. Now Catholicism and potatoes, dominated their world that began to exhibit many cases of malnutrition and high infant mortality.
The Spaniards introduced wheat and barley, but the Incas did not favor these. Fortunately, quinoa still grew wild in the higher altitudes where it could be hidden from the Spaniards. Small amounts were consumed in secret. Still, the culture of the Incas had been changed forever. For centuries quinoa fell into obscurity until the revival of interest in the 1970's.
North America, too, shows archeological evidence of quinoa's existence in the form of goosefoot , lambs quarters, and pigweed, all growing wild in the southern and eastern regions. Evidence shows that Natchez Indians along the lower Mississippi actually cultivated the seeds. Archeologists exploring a cave in Alabama in 1961 found remnants of a charred basket that contained seeds of the quinoa family. When historians at the Smithsonian examined the basket, they learned that it was indeed quite old, circa1975 BCE.
An Ozark Bluff Dweller site in Arkansas was excavated and revealed the seedhead of a domesticated goosefoot.plant that was 4,000 years old. When corn was introduced into these areas, it became the dominant grain as goosefoot cultivation lost favor.
Today, quinoa is grown in the Canadian prairies and the Colorado Rockies; however, most quinoa sold in the United States is imported from South America,
The spark that created the Quinoa Corporation, whose founders are Stephen Gorad and Don McKinley, began in the 1970s in the altiplano of Bolivia. Both were students of Oscar Ichazo, a Bolivian spiritual leader who encouraged his students to consume quinoa in order to develop a deeper spiritual sensitivity during their meditation. Since quinoa was not grown or available in the United States, the pair initiated their company in Boulder, Colorado in 1983.
The quinoa plant resembles spinach but with 3' to 9' stalks that take on a magenta hue. The large seedheads, which make up nearly one half the plant, vary dramatically in color and display a rainbow of reds, purples, greens, roses, lavenders, oranges, wine reds, blacks, yellows, and mustards. Quinoa is considered a leafy grain as is amaranth and buckwheat rather than a grass grain such as barley, millet, oats, rice, teff, and wheat.
A truly remarkable plant, quinoa has a vertical seedhead covered with enough seeds to plant one-fourth acre. One pound of seeds, equal to four cups, is sufficient to reap harvest from one whole acre, enough to feed an Andean family of ten for an entire year.
Thriving at high elevations of 10,000 feet and higher, quinoa finds drought ideal, loves hot sun as well as sub-freezing temperatures, and prefers soil that is sandy, alkaline and considered poor for growing any other food crops. Quinoa is not hybridized nor is it genetically engineered, rather it remains as pure and wholesome as it was when the Incas embraced it in their ceremonial rituals. The natural home of quinoa is the area between Southern Colombia to Northwest Argentina and Northern Chile.
The extremely thin air at the high Andean altitudes allows more of the sun's radiation to affect plants growing in high elevations. Quinoa has adapted perfectly with calcium oxalate crystals contained within its leaves that permit the plant to retain adequate moisture.
The average altiplano rainfall of about 10" occurs in the spring. Bolivia experienced two years of severe drought in the early1980s and lost a large percentage of its crops of potatoes, barley, vegetables, fruits, and wheat. Quinoa not only survived the drought, but actually produced larger than normal crops during that period with less than 3 1/2" of rain.
At one time the altiplano Indians harvested qunioa by hand. Today machinery collects the seedheads, and threshes and winnows them in preparation for the alkaline solution that removes the saponins, the bitter, soapy resin, toxic coating that protects the seeds from birds while growing.
Today it is commonly used for altitude sickness. Because of its high calcium content, it is considered beneficial in treating bone problems. Natives of the Andes claim it helps strengthen women during pregnancy and postpartum, and promotes healthier milk in nursing mothers.
Andean advice to heal broken bones is to eat plenty of quinoa and apply a plaster made of quinoa flour and water. For infections, they also prescribe the quinoa plaster.
Because quinoa is high in protein and complex carbohydrates, low in fat, and richer in vitamins and minerals than other grains, the Andean people consider it an endurance food and include it as a daily staple
When Rebecca Wood, author of Quinoa, the Supergrain, asked a Calawaya Indian herbalist about the medicinal properties of quinoa, he gave her a special variety of quinoa that he scooped up with a tiny sea shell. Then he told her, "Quinoa is medicine for soul calling. When a person's soul is out or has sunk into the ground, give him a massage with quinoa and then bury the grain on the spot where the problem first manifest."
Quinoa is gluten free and considered an ideal food for those prone to food allergies. Common allergens include grains from the grass family such as corn and wheat. Quinoa, a leafy grain, is not in the grass family, making it beneficial for people who cannot tolerate common grains like wheat, corn, rye, barley, and oats.
Nutritional data on quinoa can vary from one variety to another, from one method of saponin removal to another, and from variations in growing conditions. Therefore, the data offers a wide spread in its figures. For instance, its protein content can range from 7.5% to 22.1%. Compared to common wheat at 14%, rye at 12%, and brown rice at 7.5%, quinoa's figures are impressive.
Most grains are deficient in the amino acid, lysine. Because quinoa has an adequate quantity of lysine, it is considered to contain all the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. According to the Alternative Field Crops Manual of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, "Quinoa is a highly nutritious food. The nutritional quality of this crop has been compared to that of dried whole milk by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The protein quality and quantity in quinoa seed is often superior to those of more common cereal grains. Quinoa is higher in lysine than wheat, and the amino acid content of quinoa seed is considered well-balanced for human and animal nutrition, similar to that of casein [milk protein]."
Quinoa possesses larger quantities of calcium, fat, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins than many other grains. One-half cup of cooked quinoa contains 15.5 mg of calcium, compared to 8.5 mg in the same quantity of cooked whole-wheat cereal. The protein content is a whopping 4.1g for that one-half cup of cooked quinoa. Potassium is impressively high with 159 mg. as is zinc with 1 mg. Other impressive figures include 1.38 mg of iron, and 59 mg. magnesium. In the category of fiber quinoa rates top scores with 2.6 grams for one-half cup cooked grain.
An important component of any grain is the germ, that portion of the grain that is capable of sprouting and becoming a whole plant. The germ of each quinoa grain is larger than that of any other grain and encircles the outer surface, explaining its exceptionally high protein content. "If I had to choose one food to survive on, quinoa would be the best," said Dr. Duane Johnson, New Crops Agronomist at Colorado State University.
Some have thought that because quinoa has adapted to growing in such a difficult environment, one with little cultivation and harsh elements and has developed such an impressive nutritional profile, bringing the grain into our own diets may enable us to better adapt to today's compromised environmental conditions. We may further benefit by adopting quinoa into our family of familiar grains and bringing more diversity to our table.
Buying and Storing
Quinoa flour is also available in health food markets and can be used as you would rice flour. The flour makes a perfect thickener for soups, sauces, and gravies.
We've found that storing grain products in the refrigerator insures against rancidity and bug infestation. For the whole grain, a clear plastic or glass jar makes it easy to find and easy to measure out. Flour is best kept in its original package, then slipped into a plastic bag for refrigerator storage.
As quinoa cooks, the germ is released from the exterior of the grain and forms a tiny spiral. You'll recognize it easily by its white coloring and sproutlike appearance. The grain's tender chewiness is attributed to this uncommon life-bearing germ.
For a richer flavor, quinoa can be toasted in a dry skillet for a few minutes before cooking. Stir continuously during the toasting to prevent burning and to toast the grains evenly.
Because quinoa is so quick cooking, it works well as a hearty breakfast cereal for adults as well as infants and children. We've found it ideal for grain and fresh vegetable salads, the perfect grain accompaniment to any dinner dish, and a delightful grain as a replacement for the rice in rice pudding.
The leaves of the plant can also be cooked and enjoyed as you would spinach.
The Peruvians enjoy a hearty soup that features quinoa as the base along with vegetables.
With this easy-to-prepare recipe you can enjoy quinoa as a main dish or a side dish with a unique sauce, a combination that offers "supergrain" nutrition and gourmet flavor.
Yield: 4 servings