Quinoa – The Incan Superfood

red quinoa plant peru

Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wah) is an ancient food that is not yet well known in North America. It has been cultivated in the South American Andes since at least 3,000 B.C. and has been a staple food of millions of native inhabitants. The ancient Incas called quinoa 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.” Beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, there was a 400-year decline in the production of quinoa. It became a minor crop at that time and was grown only by peasants in remote areas for local consumption.

quinoa seeds uncooked little rice pearls

Uncooked quinoa - "little rice"

In Peru, Chile and Bolivia, quinoa is now widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds, and they are referred to as “little rice.” The seeds are used in creating various soups and bread, and also fermented with millet to make a beer-like beverage. A sweetened decoction of the fruit is used medicinally, as an application for sores and bruises. Quinoa has been grown outside of South America for a relatively short time. It is grown in Canada and has been grown in the U.S., in Colorado since the 1980’s by two entrepreneurs who learned of the food from a Bolivian. They developed test plots in high arid fields in the central Rockies and began test marketing in 1985. Quinoa can be found in most natural food stores in the U.S.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant. It is used as a grain and substituted for grains because of its cooking characteristics. The name comes from the Greek words, chen (a goose) and pous (a foot). This is due to a resemblance of the leaves of the plant to the webbed foot of a goose. The leaves are lobed or toothed and often triangular in shape. The succulent like plant grows from 4 to 6 feet high and has many angular branches. The flower heads are branched and when in seed looks much like millet, with large clusters of seeds at the end of a stalk. The plant will grow in a variety of conditions but favors a cool, arid climate and higher elevations. Beets, spinach, Swiss chard, and lamb’s quarters are all relatives of quinoa.

quinoa pink red brown colors

Quinoa grains range in color from ivory to pinks, brown to reds, 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. The seeds are similar in size to millet but are flat with a pointed oval shape and look like a cross between a sesame seed and millet. Quinoa has a delightful characteristic that is all its own: as it cooks, the outer germ around each grain twists outward forming a little white, spiral tail, which is attached to the kernel. The grain itself is soft and delicate and the tail is crunchy which creates and interesting texture combination and pleasant “crunch” when eating the grain. Quinoa has a fluffy consistency and a mild, delicate, slightly nutty flavor that borders on bland. The leaves of the Goosefoot (quinoa) plant are also edible and make a pleasant vegetable, like spinach. A quinoa leaf salad is generally more nutritious that most green salads.

red quinoa cooked tail

Red quinoa cooked where you can see the "tail"

Before cooking, the seeds must be rinsed to remove their bitter resin-like coating, which is called saponin. Quinoa is rinsed before it is packaged and sold, but it is best to rinse again at home before use to remove any of the powdery residue that may remain on the seeds. The presence of saponin is obvious by the production of a soapy looking “suds” when the seeds are swished in water. Placing quinoa in a strainer and rinsing thoroughly with water easily washes the saponin from the seeds. In South America the saponin which is removed from the quinoa is used as detergent for washing clothes and as an antiseptic to promote healing of skin injuries.

The quinoa seed is high in protein, calcium and iron, a relatively good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins. It contains an almost perfect balance of all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development in humans. It is exceptionally high in lysine, cystine and methionine-amino acids typically low in other grains. It is a good complement for legumes, which are often low in methionine and cystine. The protein in quinoa is considered to be a complete protein due to the presence of all 8 essential amino acids. Some types of wheat come close to matching quinoa’s protein content, but grains such as barley, corn, and rice generally have less than half the protein of quinoa. Quinoa is 12% to 18% protein and four ounces a day, about 1/2-cup, will provide a child’s protein needs for one day. The 6-7% fat of quinoa is relatively high when compared to other grains, but it boasts low sodium content and also provides valuable starch and fiber. Quinoa also contains albumen, a protein that is found in egg whites, blood serum, and many plant and animal tissues. The seeds are gluten-free which makes this a nutritious and flavorful alternative grain for those with gluten sensitivity. Quinoa would be a worthy addition to anyone’s diet, supplying variety as well as good nutrition. The seed is also excellent feed for birds and poultry and the plant itself is good forage for cattle.

quinoa salad

Mango and black bean quinoa salad. Yum!

Cooked quinoa is excellent in hot casseroles and soups, stews, in stir-fries, or cold in salads. The seeds cook very quickly, in only 15 minutes. Uncooked seeds may be added to soups and stews as you would barley or rice and quinoa is often substituted for rice in rice dishes; dry roasting quinoa in a pan or in the oven, before cooking will give a toasted flavor, and it can be cooked in fruit juice to add character to the flavor for use as a breakfast cereal or in desserts. Cold salads consisting of quinoa and chopped vegetables or cooked beans make a quick, easy, and nutritious dish. Quinoa flour is used in making pasta and a variety of baked goods such as pancakes, bread, muffins, and crackers. Quinoa seeds can be sprouted and eaten as raw, live food for snacks or in salads and sandwiches. To sprout the seeds, soak about 1/3 cup seeds in a jar for 2 to 4 hours, then drain and rinse the seeds twice a day for 2 to 4 days. When the sprouts are about 1 inch long, place them near a window for chlorophyll to develop, which will give them a vibrant green color. Another fascinating way of using quinoa is to “pop” the seeds in a dry skillet and eat them as a dry cereal.  I particularly like this as a cereal because it is light and quick and you can even pour it on top of yogurt to add a nutrient rich extra crunch.

Have you tried quinoa?  What did you think?  It is quick and easy and here are a couple great recipes you can try out this weekend!  Do you like that mango and black bean salad?  How about using corn instead of the beans?  Here is a great recipe from Sydney’s Kitchen blog!

Adapted from Health and Beyond Online


16 thoughts on “Quinoa – The Incan Superfood

  1. Interesting, we have similar plant growing in Ukraine. It must be of a little different kind, but it has been used as a food plant for many centuries. Although, people eat its leafs, instead of seeds. They add them into soups and salads. The leafs are sweet to taste.

    • Very interesting! What is it called? I wouldn’t be surprised if they were related; quinoa is in the same family as beets and spinach, so who knows! You can also eat the leaves of the quinoa plant – in fact, they are much healthier for you than most lettuce or other leafy greens. But it is not as popular as the grain and is not really grown for commercial production, just an extra that is part of the package! I’ve never tasted it, so not sure if it is sweet, bitter, or bland.

  2. When the Peruvians make bread with quinoa, do they make flat bread or yeast bread? Do you have a recipe for either?

    A couple times of year, I buy quinoa with the best of intentions of using it, but I don’t — but your idea of tossing it into soup or stew is a painless, easy one, and I like the nutritional component of this food. If you were to use it like rice, how much water would you use versus grain, and how long would you cook it?

    • Hi! Wow, what a great question! To be really honest, here in Lima, this kind of bread is not really that popular. It is more of a provincial thing that you would find more in the highlands. That being said, you can still find some restaurants that will make it, but probably in more highland typical spots. We also make bread from corn and a few other grains.

      Now, to answer your question: You can make flat bread from quinoa (even by sprouting the seeds), but the typical is yeast bread. I don’t have a recipe off hand, but I will put some requests out in the office and see what I can get. If I get one today, I will post it later in the Recipe of the Week post. 🙂 If not, I will post it (or email it) as soon as I get it.

      If you buy quinoa but never get around to using it, I really would recommend toasting it. It is what we call quinoa “pop” and it is light and crunchy…kind of like a rice crispy but much smaller. Then you can throw it on top of salads or yogurt or in cereal. And if all else fails, yes, throwing it into the pot of soup is fast and easy. Quinoq cooks quickly – maybe 15 minutes? So you don’t have to slave over soaking it overnight like beans or anything like that. Or as I mentioned above, you could sprout it. It would be just like alfalfa sprouts, and health wise, that would be even better for you…as if this little guy could get any better?

      Going off on a tangent here: Generally, anything sprouted is much better than the original seed, and provides a ton of fiber and extra nutrients.

      Just like white rice, the ration would be 2 cups water to every 1 cup quinoa. But just remember that once cooked, the quinoa basically doubles in size. So 1 cup uncooked quinoa will yield you about 2.5 or 3 cups of cooked quinoa. Just to keep that in mind so you don’t cook too much thinking that it won’t be much. Cook it in boiling water…so about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how much you put in. It kind of looks like couscous when done. Just remember to add to stuff or spice it up a little, as by itself, it is rather plain tasting. If you have extra, you could easily eat it in the morning as a kind of museli or oatmeal!

  3. Thanks for the great background on my new favorite grain. I discovered quinoa a few months ago and now I use it with everything. Warmed served like rice with a meat entree, cold tossed in my salad to give it a little extra texture and even with fruit and cheese for breakfast.

    I’ve not worked with quinoa flour, but I think that’s up next.


    • Of course! I wish more people knew how nutritious it was. It’s so easy and reminds me of couscous. The quinoa bread is delicious. Sadly, living in Lima, it is not as common as it would be in the highland areas. I am working on finding a recipe for quinoa bread, so check back in with us later today or tomorrow! ¡Saludos!

  4. Pingback: Recipe(s) of the Week – All Things Quinoa! « Rischmöller Real Estate

    • Thank you! Quinoa is one of those things that I wish more people would try out – it really is quite versatile and extremely healthy. About the recipe: Please do! And let me know how it comes out/how you like it! It is so delicious! Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Pingback: Recipe of the Week – Coconut Chicken Corn Soup with Quinoa « Rischmöller Real Estate

  6. Pingback: Chia Seeds – The Aztec Superfood « Rischmöller Real Estate

  7. I don’t see the recepee for Quinoa mango salad can you please send it back I am totally amazed aboutthis new grain that I intent to try and implement in my diet.

  8. Pingback: Whole grain #1: Quinoa | 18grains

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