Quinoa, or the rice of the Incas
Technically quinoa is not a true grain, but the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant from the same family as spinach and beets.
Quinoa grains range in color from ivory to pink, brown to red, or almost black depending on the variety. There are over 120 species of Chenopodium, but only three main varieties are cultivated; one producing very pale seeds, called the white or sweet variety; a dark red fruited variety called red quinoa; and a black quinoa.
Quinoa's origins are truly ancient. It was one of the three staple foods, along with corn and potatoes, of Incan civilization. The ancient Incas called quinoa "chisiya mama" - the "mother grain" and revered it as sacred. Each year at planting time it was traditional for the Inca leader to plant the first quinoa seed using a solid gold shovel. Quinoa was used to sustain Incan armies, which frequently marched for many days eating a mixture of quinoa and fat, known as "war balls."
Unlike corn and potatoes, quinoa aroused little interest from the 16th century Spanish Conquistadores, who instead focused their energies on growing wheat and barley. Thus began a 400-year decline in the production of quinoa. It became a minor crop and was grown only by peasants in remote areas for local consumption. Only in the 1970s was interest revived as quinoa began to be more widely consumed in North America and Europe, though declining in South America.
In Peru, Chile and Bolivia, quinoa is now widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds, referred to as "little rice." The seeds are used as is in soups, or ground into flour for bread. They are also fermented with millet to make a beer-like beverage.
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