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bowl of quinoaQuinoa: Incan Gold, Diabetic’s Delight
by Marjorie Dorfman

The Incas referred to this grain-like crop with its edible seeds as the "mother grain" and it was considered a sacred crop. It was so deeply entrenched in Incan tradition that each season the emperor would sow the first seeds using a golden shovel. Read all about this ancient food staple; its hidden culinary treasures and unique health benefits for diabetics and those who suffer from gluten allergies and other medical conditions.

Experts argue about the pronunciation of the name of this ancient crop, which may be keenwah, quinoa, kinwa, kinoua, tweedledee or tweedledum. Whatever you call it, there is no argument about the health benefits of this special grain, whose edible seeds represent an entire protein. Quinoa is not a true cereal or a grass and is more closely related to the family of beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. Its leaves are also eaten as a leafy vegetable.

Origins and early use of quinoa

incan warrior
Chisaya mama (mother of all grains) was what the Incas called it, but quinoa predates even that civilization, having a noble history as a food staple that stretches as far back as 6,000 years. Originating in the Andean region of South America, the crop is altitude-hardy and easy to grow and it can be cultivated up to 4,000 meters (3/4 mile). During the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century, quinoa was scorned as a "food for Indians" and the conquistadores destroyed fields of quinoa, actively suppressing its "non-Christian" production. The Incas under the yoke of Spanish oppression were forbidden to grow it on pain of death and were forced to grow corn instead.

conquistador In pre-Columbian Andean cultures, quinoa was of great nutritional value, second only to the potato and followed by maize. It sustained Incan armies of soldiers who would march for many days on end. They ate primarily "war balls," which is a mixture of quinoa and fat. Beginning in the 16th century with the Spanish conquest, quinoa production declined over the course of the next 400 years. It is still grown by Incan descendants, the Quechua and Aymara peoples, in remote areas, but only for local consumption.

What is the composition of quinoa?

Technically quinoa is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Goosefoot plant. Its cooking characteristics permit its utilization as a grain. The name derives from the Greek, chen (a goose) and pous (a foot) and refers to the fact that the toothed, triangular leaves of the plant resemble the webbed foot of a goose. Quinoa grows from 4 to 6 feet high 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. Quinoa is related to beets, spinach, Swiss chard, and lamb's quarters.

Quinoa today

quinoa plants
Quinoa’s high protein content (12-18%) makes it extremely healthy for vegetarians and vegans. It differs from rice and wheat because it contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source. Also high in magnesium and iron, it is a good source of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. Due to all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

Quinoa is a versatile food source, which maintains a light fluffy texture when cooked. Its mild, slightly nutty flavor makes it a viable alternative to white rice or couscous (which is off base for most diabetics). Used to make flour, soup, cereal and alcohol, most quinoa sold in the United States is cooked in the fashion of rice or in combination dishes like a pilaf. It also works well as a starch extender when combined with wheat flour or corn meal for biscuits, bread and other processed food.

In its natural state, quinoa has a coating of saponins that make it bitter and unpalatable. This is nature’s protection against insects and birds devouring the seed before it can be harvested for consumption. In North America, quinoa that is sold commercially has been processed to remove this coating. It is not known for sure but it is speculated that this coating is the reason Europeans who readily accepted other indigenous American foods such as maize and potatoes rejected quinoa as a food source.
Through selective breeding, there have been attempts to lower the saponin content in the hopes of producing sweeter, better-tasting varieties. Results were a disaster as native growers rejected the new varieties and after one season because there was no protective coating on the seeds, birds had consumed the entire crop.

How is quinoa prepared?

The first step in quinoa preparation is the removal of the saponins, which is usually accomplished by rinsing the grain under running water. Most boxed quinoa has already been pre-rinsed. One tried and true method of preparation is to consider the quinoa like rice and to cook it the same way; namely, two cups of water to boil with one cup of grain. The pot should be covered and kept at a low simmer for about 14-18 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. When the quinoa is cooked, the germ will resemble a tiny curl and should have a slight bite to it somewhat like al dente pasta. A rice cooker can also be employed to achieve the same results.

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Don't miss this excellent book:

The Splendid Grain

by Rebecca Wood

The Splendid Grain

All about quinoa. The author's continuing holistic passion for being on intimate terms with what we eat has appeal for mainstream cooks. Philosophical, eclectic, homey, hokey, stuffed with old-fashioned values, and strewn with appealing new ideas, this is a lovingly written, thoroughly researched work. An enchanting storyteller, Wood sweeps you through interesting cultural anthropology and agricultural history, then presents an inspired collection of whole grain dishes. Recipes range from simple variations on the familiar oat pilaf, risotto, and tabouleh to tempting and imaginative barley-stuffed meatless dolmadakia.

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