Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You Can Eat It Even If You Can’t Pronounce It - Quinoa

Stuffed mushroom with quinoa and onion. Photo: Pfctdayelise
The first time I discovered quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) was when I was travelling through the back blocks of Peru. I’d ordered a veggie soup and when the smiley waiter delivered it to my table, I took a moment to study it. Tiny worm-like things floated among the potatoes and carrots. I hadn’t heard of Peruvians eating worms so I dipped my spoon into the hot liquid and analysed the tiny curly things swimming on my utensil. Not one to say no to a food challenge, I ate the soup and was pleasantly surprised.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed quinoa in a myriad of meals and find it a useful ingredient to have in the cupboard. I’m also fascinated by the long history of this grain. First cultivated more than 5,000 years ago, quinoa is was one of staples in the Inca’s diet, along with potato and corn.

Similar in appearance to millet, quinoa has stalks that grow up to nine feet tall and large seed heads. They come in a rainbow of colours, including green, purple, red, black, and yellow. One pound of seed makes four cups of quinoa, which means one acre of quinoa could easily feed a family of ten for a year. 

Photo by Markus Hagenloch
Quinoa is best grown at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more. It loves the sun as well as freezing temperatures and soils that other plants find difficult to grow in. When Bolivia had a severe drought in the 1980’s and lost its crops of barley, potato, wheat, and various vegetables, quinoa not only survived the drought, it actually flourished.

Once considered more valuable than gold, the Incas have held quinoa in high regard throughout the years, in part because of its nutritional and medicinal benefits. The Incas have used quinoa as a compress for bruises, a treatment for urinary tract problems, tuberculosis, appendicitis, motion and altitude sickness, as well as liver problems. Quite the versatile grain, eh?

Today's nutritionists often refer to quinoa as the “super grain” because it contains carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, protein, and fibre. It’s especially good for those who want or need to eat gluten-free food as quinoa is classified as a leafy grain (unlike wheat, corn, rye, barley, and oats). This little grain also contains the amino acid lysine, which helps tissues grow and repair. Quinoa also contains other valuable nutrients such as magnesium, iron, copper, and phosphorus and many people swear eating this grain on a regular basis helps with migraine headaches, diabetes, menopause, and hardening of the arteries.

That's a lot of pow for such a small grain.

Photo by Dider Gentilhomme
So how do you eat it? If you want to try it raw, the spinach-like leaves are great in salads but it’s hard to come by as the plant grows at altitude and therefore it’s difficult to get the leaves to markets where most people live.

Cooking quinoa is as simple as adding water to a pot, waiting for the water to boil and throwing in some grains. Add some veggies and voila! A yummy meal for the hungriest of people.

So if you’re in the mood to try something new, grab some quinoa and try out one of these recipes, including one for a dessert!


  1. I love quinoa, but I didn't know how much health is packed in that tiny little package. I like to toast it in a pan without oil before cooking. It gives it a lovely, nutty flavor. Do only the seed heads that come in all those colors, or are the seeds colored too? I've only see tan ones in the market.

  2. I must admit that I've only tasted this once or twice, but I'm certainly going to be on the lookout. What a powerful grain! The plants in your photos are beautiful, too. I love learning about new food.

  3. I love it - I 1st had it in Bolivia in a soup in the middle of the Salt Lakes - so yummy!!

  4. Heidi, that sounds lovely! I'll need to try that. Thanks! I'm not so sure about the colours, but I think it is only seedheads as I've only seen the tan ones also.

    Patricia, it's a very versatile grain and you can even make dessert with it. Yum!

    Anon, it is yummy, huh? I'm glad your first taste of it was in such a memorable place!

  5. Have been eating it for breakfast cooked like porridge, with apples and raisins and cinnamon thrown in. Have heard it's very nice with walnuts and maple syrup, too!

  6. Yummo! That sounds so delicious, Allison. Ooh, another good combination to remember!

  7. Allison, I'm going to try that for breakfast. It has more protein that oatmeal so it sounds like a good way to start the day. And Heidi, I'm going to try toasting it too. What else do you serve it with? Kebabs, maybe?

  8. It's a great substitute for couscous and it's really nice with an avocado mashed in.