Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Few Interesting Facts About Quinoa

I can’t remember when I bought my current bag of quinoa. It might have been last summer after I hit a good stride with this blog. I had bought quinoa many years ago, so it wasn’t unfamiliar. But that bag I bought last summer, well I never did anything with it. It sat in my cupboard until recently.

Then something made me dig it out. Perhaps it was all the success I had with millet. (Note the sarcasm there, I actually did not have *any* success with millet.) Whatever it was I am so glad that I fished it out of the obscurity of the back of my closet. But, like Elmo, I want to know more about quinoa (can’t you just hear that in your head “Elmo wants to know more about quinoa, heeehehehehe).

Quinoa is NOT a grain. I repeat, NOT a grain, it is a pseudocereal and more specifically a chenopod. A cereal is a grass plant that produces an edible seed, think wheat, rice, corn, etc. A pseudocereal is a broadleaf plant that also produces an edible seed. Pseudocereals include quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. Pseudocereals can still be ground into flour and consumed like regular grains. But chenopods are not grains at all. A chenopod is a member of the Chenopodioideae or goosefoot family. It is a group of flowering plants in a subfamily of the flowering plant family Amaranthaceae. God I wish I had studied Latin back in High School. The species are distinguished by flowers with no petals and having an achene or utricle in their fruit. In common terms for you and me, quinoa is more closely related to plants like spinach and chard.

But that is not to say eating quinoa is like having a big healthy salad of chard and spinach. You didn’t get out of eating salad yet! But it does help to explain why quinoa has such a different nutritional profile than wheat or corn or rice. For every 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, quinoa contains 368 calories, 6 grams of fat, 7 grams of dietary fiber, 14 grams of protein (that’s quite a lot when you consider that the same 3.5 ounces of chicken has approximately 25 grams of protein), almost half your folate needs for the day, and more than half your phosphorus and magnesium intake for the day.

Quinoa seeds are coated with a saponin coating. Unprocessed seeds must be soaked for several hours, then rinsed and rerinsed to remove the soapy outer coating. In South America where cultivation is largest, these saponins can be used as detergents for clothing and washing. Boxed quinoas in grocery stores are all fully prepared and do not require soaking.

Recently I saw an interesting article making the rounds on Twitter. It was a NY Times article called Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home. Basically the article states that due to rising global demand for quinoa, global prices for the seed has risen substantially, almost tripling in recent years. In Bolivia, a major producer of quinoa, the grain has become more profitable to sell abroad than at home. So rather than serving as a traditional food to the native people, it gets packaged and shipped to Whole Foods here in the States. This has brought and influx of money into poor farming communities, which is usually a great thing. But like other countries that have experienced recent wealth, the young people of Bolivia would rather eat imported processed foods, and the more traditional peoples can often no longer afford their local quinoa. Quinoa consumption in Bolivia has fallen 34% in the last 5 years, according to the article. Malnutrition is farming regions is becoming a much more serious issue in recent years. But then again, if the community abroad stopped buying quinoa, the farming regions might be forced back into greater poverty. Issues of this nature are almost always complex, with no one perfect easy solution that everyone will agree upon.

Quinoa is gaining in popularity here in the US. I first heard about it maybe 7 or 8 years ago. I tried it and liked it, but I never bought much of it. I encountered it occasionally at a restaurant. But I really enjoyed it when I did. The grains are tiny and although they are soft and savory they kind of pop in your teeth. It is a very satisfying texture. I have most often seen quinoa in cold salads, mixed into raw vegetables. Years ago I tried quinoa mixed with diced carrots and celery and shredded red cabbage, topped with feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. I might have to make that this weekend. The nutty flavor makes it easy to mix with virtually anything. Most recently though it was a delicious recipe at the Just Food CSA Conference that made me want to try quinoa again. They served red quinoa with frisee and maybe shallots? It has been a month already I can’t quite remember. It was really good whatever it was. Since then I have been trying new things.

Quinoa with Kale and Preserved Lemon

1 cup of cooked and cooled quinoa

1-2 cups kale, shredded or chopped into thin strips

1 diced carrot

1-2 heaping tablespoons of preserved lemons, minced

Feta cheese

Make the quinoa according to your packages instructions. My package tells me to boil 1 ¼ cups of water and add in 1 cup of washed quinoa. Cover and boil for 12 minutes and then turn off the heat and let stand another 5 minutes. After the quinoa is cooled off a bit, it doesn’t need to be completely cooled, mix together all the veggies and preserved lemon. Top with feta cheese and dress with olive oil. Yum.

This post is entered in Simple Lives Thursday at Sustainable Eats (and others!)

And Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday


  1. You obviously do not remember that my friend, HZ, served chili at my baby shower with quinoa on the side instead of rice. I don't recall whether you ate any or not but I did and it was delish! A lovely change.


  2. I love the nuttiness of quinoa and I think it works well as a gluten-free replacement for couscous(: