The first bag of quinoa in our life left my five year old flummoxed. He struggled with the pronunciation of quinoa and I had to finally break it down as Keen-wa and that’s how he still goes with it.
My husband had his own issues with the grain. He wasn’t quite sure of the taste of quinoa. He is not much of an adventurer when it comes to food, preferring to stick with the tried-and-tested. Quinoa to him was like vacationing in Central Africa when a national park was what he wanted.
However, ever the keen reader, he was certain of the benefits of quinoa and that turned him an approver.
My family is amongst the hundreds (and growing) around who are now opening their world to quinoa and its benefits. The cheeky grain is fast replacing and supporting other cereals in our diet.
For most of us, quinoa often means the new age cereal lining store shelves (and Amazon) and available from a plethora of suppliers. But quinoa has an origin as interesting and amazing as the grain itself.
The South American connection
Before becoming a quinoa-enthusiast, I didn’t know much of Altiplano. It is a vast, cold, windswept, barren Andean plateau spanning parts of Peru and Bolivia. At a height of 14,000 ft, the climate is harsh. Surprisingly, it is quite conducive for quinoa. The grain is quite tough – it survives, and thrives in the frost, intense sun and drought conditions that characterize the Andean climate.
A large chunk of the world’s supply of the grain comes from the Altiplano. The biggest supplier of quinoa is Bolivia, Ecuador probably the second-largest, followed by Peru. The grain is native to South America. The natives also call it as the mother grain.
Migration and Adaption in North America
However, like everything else, quinoa has also stumbled outside South America. In the 1980s, a few North Americans stumbled upon this food and began cultivating it near Boulder, Colorado.
However, the cultivation is in nascent stages and the average American output is insignificant as compared to the imports from South America.
I will discuss more about the North American experiments with quinoa cultivation in a later post.
Quinoa – A Grain?
Quinoa as a grain is itself an anomaly. You see, quinoa – if I get really geeky about it – is not a grain. A botanist would at best call it a seed, that of a goosefoot plant. Goosewort is a relative of spinach and chard and that would make quinoa a chenopod.
But it’s the way we consume it that makes us club it with cereals.
Quinoa dates back 3,000-4,000 years, when it was first used for consumption in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. This grain-like seed served as a staple food for the Incas.
It was sacred, probably because it was a large part of the Incan diet. The Incans also believed that the grain gave their warriors power and stamina. They referred to quinoa as “chisaya mama” or “mother of all grains”. The Incas used quinoa in ceremonial rituals and legend has it that the emperor would break ground with a golden implement at the first planting of the season to show respect for what the mother grain provided them.
In the 16th century, Spanish Conquistadors burned and destroyed the quinoa fields. The Incas were forced into submission and the cultivation and consumption of quinoa was banned due to its association with non Christian ceremonies. The Incas were forced to grow corn and potatoes instead. However, quinoa, ever the tough grain, survived by growing wild in the mountains and by secret cultivation.
In the last decade, quinoa has been slowly percolating into the food systems in US, Europe and Japan. The popularity of the pseudo-cereal has really exploded in the last few years as the ancient South American beliefs have been further solidified by modern scientific research.
Currently quinoa has gained wide acceptance in our world with many chefs experimenting with quinoa recipes. A number of them are now reinventing age old dishes, replacing the rice or couscous with quinoa.