Quinoa (pronounced kin´wa and sometimes spelled 'quinua') is gaining popularity in the western world. In appearance it is similar to millet; it is pale brown in colour and it is thought of as a cereal. It should more correctly be known as a pseudo-cereal, being a form of Chenopodium, or Goosefoot, similar to Fat Hen or Good King Henry1.
An Ancient Crop
The Incas of Andean South America cultivated quinoa as a nutritious food-crop, calling it chisaya mama or 'mother of all grains'. They also used it to brew chicha, a kind of beer. In addition to its value as a food crop, quinoa was used for medicinal preparations. It was used in the treatment of a wide range of illnesses and conditions including bruises, urinary tract problems, tuberculosis, appendicitis, liver problems, altitude sickness and motion sickness.
The crop grows successfully at altitudes up to 4,000 metres and does best in a well-drained soil. It has a long growing season. Later occupants of its native South American region, notably the Spanish conquerors, rejected the crop as being Indian food, and even actively suppressed its cultivation.
Relatively recent research into the nutritional properties of quinoa have identified a number of beneficial constituents in the pseudo-grain. Such research only serves to validate to our modern scientific minds what was known to the Incas and Quechua people of the Andes. Quinoa is very high in protein and well balanced with amino acids. It is a good source of dietary fibre and rich in mineral content, predominantly phosphorus, magnesium and iron. The fact that it is also gluten-free is valuable to those who are intolerant of gluten and makes it easily digested2.
Quinoa can be used in much the same way as rice or couscous. It differs mainly in that in its raw, unprocessed state the pseudo-grain is covered with a waxy coating of substances known as saponins. The saponins must first be rinsed out through a process of soaking and disposing of the water; this is repeated once or twice or the grain is thoroughly rinsed in running water until the water runs clear. Saponins are used as a foaming agent, sometimes industrially, such as in the separation of ores. If left, they make the quinoa taste extremely bitter. Packaged quinoa is usually sold with the saponins already removed, but the package should be checked to ensure that this is so. Some sources advise that quinoa should be washed until the water runs clear even if it has already been treated by the supplier.
There appears to be a difference of opinions with regard to the suitability of quinoa in the diet of infants and young children. Two sources in Germany advise against giving quinoa to children under two years of age on the grounds that it may adversely affect their blood cells and the permeability of their intestinal walls. Conversely, the US Environmental Protection Agency3 states that, in relation to both adults and children, 'there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to saponins of C. quinoa residues, including dietary exposures and all other exposures for which there is reliable information.' It might reasonably be felt that an adult can make a decision based on available information concerning his or her own health and safety but that, while some doubt exists, it is more advisable to err on the side of caution in the case of infants and small children.
In present-day Andean Peru, quinoa is still often eaten with a little meat or vegetable accompaniment but otherwise unflavoured. In some communities it forms the staple diet along with potatoes and maize.
The basic preparation of quinoa is simple. It is usual to boil it in water, slightly salted for taste, until the germ is released in the form of a tiny white spiral. Some like to enhance the flavour by toasting the quinoa in a dry pan or skillet for a few minutes, stirring continuously to avoid burning, before boiling. Further preparation involves simply incorporating the quinoa into suitable recipes.
As it gains in popularity more imaginative uses are being discovered by adventurous cooks willing to experiment with quinoa. The BBC Food website has a tempting variety of recipes involving quinoa. The Vegetarian Society's advisor says that 'quinoa is great as a side dish, similar to rice or potatoes, or it can also be used widely in salads, stuffings, stews, pilafs, casseroles, vegetable burgers and desserts. It can also be added to biscuits and cakes, though the absence of gluten limits its use in breads.' The Vegparadise website has an interesting recipe for quinoa with pistachio pepper sauce.
A Sting in the Tail
All of the above information supports the traditionally held opinion, and more modern adoption of that opinion, that quinoa is a valuable food source of benefit to all. Indeed, many people already enjoy the inclusion of quinoa in their diet in some form.
However, in 1996, a voluntary worker in the Peruvian Andes was living with a local family and sharing their simple, and usually rather poor, diet. After a few days the worker found himself becoming progressively more sick and lethargic. The first natural assumption was that he was suffering from the soroche, or altitude sickness; but he had not suffered any ill effects for the first few days at this altitude and early onset is more normal for the condition. Because he did not like quinoa, he stopped eating it and found that he quickly recovered, remaining healthy and fit for the remainder of his stay in the Andes.
On an occasion about eight years later, back in the UK, the same man suddenly began to feel sick and weak for no apparent reason. Initial tests showed that he was seriously dehydrated and had very low blood pressure. The doctor decided that hospital admission was necessary. He then spent the next twelve hours on a fluid replacement drip. Investigation showed that he had tried out a new brand of cereal that included quinoa among the ingredients.
This is the only incident of a bad reaction to quinoa that has come to the attention of this Researcher. The cereal company said that they had had no reports of such a reaction. It appears that the many people who regularly eat quinoa find it both enjoyable and beneficial.