Quinoa is truly an amazing pseudo-grain whose seeds are considered a complete protein. Its high protein content is a very fortunate anomaly in the plant world.
Though it is a broad leaf plant and does not belong to the same horticultural family as grasses that are grown for grains (such as wheat, oats and barley), it is nonetheless considered a grain. It differs from the more traditional grains in that it blooms with lovely red or purple flowers before it goes to seed. The seeds are used like typical grains to make flour, soups, cereals, and alcohol.
Quinoa began to be cultivated in the South American Andes as a staple food prior to 3,000 B.C.. The ancient Incas revered it as sacred, and called it la chisiya mama, the mother grain. Every year at planting time, the Inca emperor would traditionally use a solid gold taquiza (planting stick) to plant the first seed. In celebration of the harvest, the Incas drank a fermented quinoa beer, chicha, and made sacrifices of animals, cloth, food, and even children. Quinoa was a source of sustenance for Incan armies, which would march for days on end eating "war balls," a mixture of fat and quinoa.
In 1532, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro reached the Andes. Within a year, Pizarro's men had destroyed most of the quinoa fields, and the Incas were forbidden to practice their ancient ceremonial rituals that centered on quinoa. Quinoa declined to a minor grain know only to isolated mountain villages that continued to cultivate it in secret.
Following centuries of obscurity, interest in Quinoa began to revive in the 1970s when it was imported to the U.S. by a pair of Americans who had been introduced to quinoa while studying spirituality in Bolivia. However, though quinoa is grown all over the world, most of the quinoa that is on the market today is grown in its native Andean mountain region. In Peru, Chile and Bolivia, quinoa is now widely cultivated for its nutritious seeds, which are referred to as "little rice."
Because of its high protein content, quinoa has become highly valued to vegans and vegetarians as a wonderful vegetative protein source. The popularity of quinoa has benefited the Andean farmers who grow it. However, while the growers benefit from the higher pricing afforded by the increased demand, price increases have made quinoa less affordable to the local Andean people who rely on it. The subject of intense debate, questions about the sustainability of the quinoa market have given pause to many socially-minded consumers who are weighing the health benefits of eating quinoa with the unintended consequences to others.
As a gardener, the answer seems clear to me...grow your own! Here is how to plant quinoa, as well as how to grow, harvest, cook and preserve this deliciously healthy grain.
Photo credit: RahelSharon @ Flickr.com