Quinoa is what we now know as a “superfood”, but the Incas started cultivating this seed for food as long as 4,000 years ago. Our word quinoa is actually the Spanish spelling of the Incan word kinwa.
Considered as a sacred crop by the Incas, it was known as the “mother of all grains” and the emperor ceremoniously sowed the first seeds of the season each year using “golden implements” reserved strictly for that purpose.
Not only was it a regular part of everyone’s diet, but Incan warriors were given balls of quinoa (held together with fat- yuck!) to eat on long marches and before battle to increase their stamina.
Obscure South American Origins to Worldwide Renown
Sadly, after the Spanish conquest, the grain all but died out during the 16th century as the Spanish attempted to eradicate every element of the Incan culture to better assimilate the conquered people.
Only a few areas of wild quinoa survived throughout the following centuries to be gradually rediscovered and re-cultivated by the Andean people living in the country and needing additional avenues of sustenance. It doesn’t hurt that the plants have these really pretty flowers on them.
By the 1900s, it was once again a pretty common food wherever it grew indigenously. In fact, an obscure American research paper written back in 1955 makes the assertion that “while no single food can supply all the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other food in the plant or animal kingdom.”
In the 1970s, the grain really started to make a comeback, spreading from the poor countryside to the cities of South America.
Over the following decades, it gained in popularity outside of those countries, and after the dawn of the new millennium, quinoa saw a major boom as a new health food in the United States and in other parts of the Western world.
In fact, 2013 was the “Year of Quinoa” as declared by the United Nations to raise awareness of the nutritional, economic, environmental and cultural value of this food source.
Quinoa: It Does a Body Good
So, why is this grain such a health superstar? There are actually many reasons why, and I’ll go over the most important factors here, but let me state first that it is what is known as a pseudo-cereal. This means that it is cooked and eaten like a grain product, but the plant is actually related to beets, chard, and spinach rather than true cereal crops such as wheat and oats.
In fact, the leaves are also edible and are pretty common as food in some parts of South America (not so much here in the United States, though).
Now, onto some of the biggest reasons you should consider adding this into your diet. First and foremost, while quinoa is a pseudo-cereal and thus a carbohydrate source, it is also a complete protein.
This means that, like other protein sources such as beef and chicken, this mighty seed has all nine essential amino acids. These are the only amino acids (essential nutrients that the body needs to function well) that the body is incapable of producing on its own and needs to get through the food we eat.
For the purposes of weight loss, this fact carries a different meaning as well.
First, the outrageous 8 grams of protein per cup of the cooked seeds mean you feel fuller faster and longer, helping you to consume fewer calories during the meal and later during the rest of your day.
Second, it gives you both a protein and a carbohydrate serving at the same time. This is helpful if part of your weight loss plan includes keeping up with protein and carbohydrate servings allowed at each meal.
Now, if you read my article on green tea, you read all about polyphenols and flavonoids, which are wonderful nutrients produced by plants that have a myriad of healthful benefits.
Well, quinoa is a plant, so it too has some super helpful flavonoids, namely quercetin and kaempferol. These two in particular have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer, and anti-depressant qualities. They also seem to help regulate blood pressure and lower the risk for developing type II diabetes.
Finally, quinoa has greater than 20% of the daily recommended amount of the B vitamins B6, riboflavin, thiamine, and folate, as well as similarly high levels of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.
It also has 10-19% of the daily recommended amount of niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, and potassium.
Lastly, for a plant product, it has a ridiculous amount of calcium (47 mg per100 grams), making it a great source of the nutrients for vegans.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into what each of these vitamins and minerals does for your body, but feel free to read up on them yourself and be further amazed at all the good this plant can do for you.
Good to Know
There are a few other interesting notes regarding this amazing food that I want to share with you as well:
- It’s pretty cool that NASA has proposed quinoa as an ideal food for astronauts during long-term space flights.
It makes an excellent drink. In South America, they make a beer called chichi that is made with fermented quinoa. I guess that’s what you’d call a healthy buzz!
- There is wide range speculation now that the Natchez Indians of Mississippi may have cultivated their own variety long before the emergence of maize as the most common crop grown by Native Americans.
- Back in the day, the indigenous tribes of the Andean region in South America would make poultices using quinoa to help heal broken bones. I suppose the belief that the plant would be beneficial for that purpose lies in the fact that it has high levels of phosphorus which is good for keeping bones healthy and strong.
- This final point perhaps has the most significance for us as a world today: quinoa is extremely drought tolerant. In fact, when all other crops begin to fail as result of drought, this plant perversely starts to thrive and may even produce more seeds than before. This crop can survive on as little as 3-4” of rain a year. This has great promise for areas that are prone to famine due to drought, such as many parts of Africa.
- One crop can produce a large harvest in a small area. Fixed resources such as land and water may have the ability to product more food. This has huge import in terms of food security for the future.
So, How Do You Cook It?
First, though most quinoa you can buy in a store these days has been pre-rinsed, it is recommended that you rinse before cooking. The seeds have a protective coating of naturally produced chemicals called saponins which serve as a natural pesticide.
This coating is still on them when they are harvested and can be pretty bitter and unpleasant to eat. Rinsing them removes that coating. While most store-bought is already pre-rinsed, as I said, it doesn’t hurt to make sure.
Now, in its most simplistic form, cooking quinoa could not be any easier. In a small saucepan, bring to a boil 2 cups of water (or chicken or vegetable stock for more flavor) for every 1 cup of quinoa with a teaspoon of salt.
Then, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer, cooking for 15-20 minutes. You’ll know it’s done once all of the liquid has been absorbed by the seeds. Similar to couscous, give the quinoa a quick fluff with a fork, and you are good to go.
You will see a little white “tail” protruding from each seed, which is the “germ” or plant portion of the seed. This is normal and expected. Also, perfectly cooked quinoa still has a slight crunch to it, so don’t be alarmed by this and start thinking that it’s not cooked all the way.
Again, this is normal and expected.
I did say that this is the most simplistic way to cook this superfood, but most of the time this is not straight up, bare quinoa that ends up on my plate. It’s perfect as a base for our protein-rich lemon chicken quinoa bowls and lemon and herb tabbouleh!
Also, it can be ground into flour – either at home or bought pre ground.
Let me share a few more of my favorite recipes with you.
Enjoy a protein-rich start to your day with quinoa “oatmeal.” With just a handful of ingredients required – quinoa, coconut milk, honey, vanilla extract, almonds, and strawberries – this is a delicious alternative to oat-based breakfast cereals!
About Ashley Martell
Ashley has enjoyed creative writing since she was six years old, when she wrote her first short story. She majored in English literature at the University of Montevallo. After years of professional work, she is now a stay-at-home mom of three, who uses her craft to write about her life and adventures in and out of the kitchen.