Quinoa is used as a grain, but it’s actually a seed. It grows on a plant that ranges from 1.2 to 1.8 metres tall (4 to 6 feet), whose stalks flower and then produce tiny seeds about 32 mm (1/8 inch) in diameter, that can be white, black, pink or red.
The plant it grows on (scientific name “Chenopodium quinoa”) belongs to the “goosefoot” family of plants, and is related to spinach and chard. It is somewhat cold hardy.
The taste of the seeds is generally mild; attempts to describe it range from “grassy” to “nutty.”
Bitter taste of quinoa
To many people’s tastes quinoa is unpleasantly bitter. The black and red seeds are the most bitter; the white ones less so. The bitterness comes from a waxy coating on all the seeds called “saponin resin”, which is nature’s way of making them unappealing to birds and insects.
“Quinoa seeds are coated with saponins, which are naturally occurring bitter compounds that acts as natural pesticides.” Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa. Harvard Medical School. June 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/seed-of-the-month-quinoa
Almost all quinoa sold commercially is processed to remove most of this bitter coating, but you’ve still got to do a bit of followup work with thorough rinsing.
“Packaged quinoa is usually pre-rinsed to remove saponins; however, most recipes advise people to rinse their quinoa (using a fine-mesh strainer) before cooking.” Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa.
The bitter waxy coating is water soluble. Soak the seeds in water for 5 minutes. Then rub all the grains through your hands, then put in a strainer and rinse under running water, running your fingers through the seeds until the water runs clear and there is no foam or suds left amongst the seeds. You may need to run the water for several minutes.
Some cooks feel that even after rinsing, they still detect a bitter taste, and thus combine it with other grains so that its bitter flavour isn’t as pronounced. Some people don’t detect the bitterness as much or at all, or like it even, and so cook their quinoa completely unrinsed.
Breeding attempts are underway to produce varieties with more compact heads, and with less or none of the bitter-tasting saponin on the seeds. ”The identification of the likely causative mutation underlying the sweet phenotype not only provides insights into triterpenoid saponin biosynthesis, but also enables accelerated breeding of sweet commercial varieties using marker-assisted selection. The diversity present in the primary gene pool of quinoa, which we have begun to characterize, will also help direct future breeding strategies.” Jarvis, D., Ho, Y., Lightfoot, D. et al. The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature 542, 307–312 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21370
To cook, use 2 parts of water to 1 part of rinsed seeds. Bring to the boil, cover, then simmer for about 25 minutes until tender. Then fluff with a fork.
Gourmet Magazine writer Kemp Minifie wrote in 2009 about her favourite way to cook quinoa:
“What clinches the quinoa deal for me is the fact that, unlike most whole grains, it cooks quickly, in about 20 minutes — half the time of brown rice or barley. Getting to love quinoa, however, involved some experimentation. Take it from me: Don’t skip rinsing it well. I know it’s tempting — it looks pristine — but it has a bitter natural coating called saponin, which is easily removed in this crucial first step…. Years ago, when I first began to work quinoa into my kitchen repertoire, I followed the usual directions for cooking it in a measured amount of water (two parts water to one part grain), it felt wet and heavy, even though all the liquid had been absorbed. I eventually solved my problem with that texture back in 1994, while developing recipes for a Gourmet feature on grain salads: Cook it in lots of boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and steam it over a small amount of boiling water to dry it out and fluff it up. That’s been my favorite method ever since.” Minifie, Kemp M. The Home Cook: Quinoa, The Better Couscous. New York: Gourmet Magazine. April 2009.
Quinoa does not have enough starch in it for a successful risotto-type dish, but, you can present it as you would couscous.
Brown rice, amaranth, couscous, bulgur wheat.
Quinoa is valued for having good balance of proteins, better in fact than most other grains. It contains all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development in the human body.
Harvard Health Publishing says,
“Unlike most plant proteins, quinoa is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids — the protein components that our bodies are unable to make on their own. A cup of cooked quinoa provides about eight grams of protein and five grams of fiber; it’s also a good source of minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, and copper. It’s a good option for getting more plant-based protein into your diet.” Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa. Harvard Medical School. June 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/seed-of-the-month-quinoa
The seeds also have iron and calcium.
The bitter substance that coat the seeds may be somewhat toxic.
For cooked see here: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168917/nutrients
Quinoa is kosher for passover
Quinoa has been a blessing for Jewish cooks looking for something starchy they can use during Passover instead of just matzoh and potato all the time. Adeena Sussman told the story in Gourmet Magazine how quinoa came to be approved for Passover use:
“People were desperate for something filling that was approved,” said Rabbi Zvi Goldberg of the Orthodox kosher-certifying agency Star-K. In 1999, a consumer contacted Star-K’s Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann, and asked him to investigate whether quinoa—which was first imported to this country in the 1980s—would pass muster on Passover, when any leavened wheat product (such as bread and pasta) and anything containing even a trace of corn, beans, or rice are forbidden by Jewish law. Heinemann discovered that quinoa—which hails originally from the Andes mountains but is now grown in the United States—is actually a member of the beet family. It is gluten-free and incredibly healthy, loaded with fiber, protein, and essential amino acids. Because quinoa is not a grain and had no religious precedent, Heinemann knew he was onto something. So tests were undertaken to see if quinoa would rise under ideal conditions; instead, it decayed. This sealed the deal, and Star-K issued a statement in support of this “new” Passover food. (Like most things Jewish, there is controversy; not all rabbis agree with R’ Heinemann.) For real sticklers, kosher-for-Passover-certified quinoa can be found at Trader Joe’s and under the Ancient Harvest brand.” Sussman, Adeena. Kosher Quinoa. New York: Gourmet Magazine. 7 April 2008.
2 oz (60 g) uncooked quinoa seed = 1 cup, cooked = 185 g cooked
1 cup uncooked quinoa seeds = 4 cups cooked (quinoa quadruples in size when cooked)
1 cup uncooked quinoa seeds = 170 g = 6 oz by weight
3 to 4 weeks at room temperature; to store longer term refrigerate or freeze so that the protein doesn’t go rancid.
The Incas in Peru counted on quinoa as a principle food, just as others elsewhere relied on rice or wheat. It has been grown for over 5,000 years in the cool, dry highland plains of Bolivia, Peru and Chile.
The quinoa boom – and bust
Quinoa became fashionable on Western dinner plates in the early 2000s, being marketed with phrases such as “wonder grain”, “more protein than wheat”, “ancient food treasured by the ancient Incas…”
“Long denigrated in South America as an “indian food” that marked its consumers as poor, quinoa was virtually unknown beyond the Andean highlands before it transformed into a coveted fashion food and dietary staple found on the dinner tables of health-conscious eaters across the United States, Europe, and Asia.” McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes. New York: North American Congress on Latin America. 2 March 2018. Accessed September 2020 at https://nacla.org/news/2018/03/12/quinoa-boom-goes-bust-andes
Quinoa was lauded by television celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, which drove up First World demand for it. Farmers in Bolivia began growing it for mass export abroad, causing domestic prices to triple in five years, and domestic consumption to collapse by over one-third in the same time period. The price of a bag of quinoa in Bolivia rose to be five times as much as a bag of rice.
“Due to a rapid global acceptance and to rising market demand in less than 10 years the price of quinoa increased at least three times and some varieties of quinoa sold for as much 20 times the price of wheat. As the price of quinoa increased its role began to change too. Once a part of the traditional diet quinoa became a cash crop. With every year, greater and greater amounts of quinoa were exported to foreign countries.” Piumetti, Igor. University of Turin. In: Superfoods: Myths and Truths. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands? Module 2.11. September 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/superfoods-myths-and-truths/4/steps/796823
There was concern about the impact this would have in its native lands where it was a staple food:
“Fears about the impact on people in the Andes where it was grown had some media outlets telling people to stop buying quinoa. The worry was that “some sectors of Peru and Bolivia populations would substitute quinoa with unhealthy and less traditional food” Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?, such as rice, which is less nutritious.
The New York Times and the Guardian ran articles making consumers aware of the issue:
“Major international news outlets ran stories about the complex nutritional politics that it set in motion with titles like “Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth About Quinoa?” and “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Local Quandary.” The New York Times’ 2011 article lamented that, due to the price spike, quinoa farmers were selling their quinoa rather than eating it—buying substitutes like cheap noodles and rice with the money they had earned. The Guardian ran a similar story in 2013 that highlighted problems that quinoa’s sudden demand had created for consumers in Andean countries.” Ibid.
A 2013 survey of 100 households in southern Bolivia showed that the quinoa boom was having a positive financial impact on them. 81% of the farmers interviewed said that quinoa had become their main source of income, and they identified the rise in quinoa prices as providing them with:
- Improved incomes and access to credit
- Access to additional labour and machinery
- Increased productivity FAO. The impact of the Quinoa boom on Bolivian family farmers. 24 April 2014. Accessed September 2020 at http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/225070/
The revenue enabled previously subsistence level farmers to dream of moving into the middle class:
“In 2000, farmers sold a pound of quinoa for less than $0.25 USD. When quinoa, a native crop often disparaged by urban Bolivians as “chicken scratch” or “comida de pobres” (food for the poor), came into demand in the U.S. and began selling for double, triple, and eventually, six times what farmers were accustomed to at up to $4 USD per pound, people saw renewed hope in the campo. It was opportunity for these farmers to envision a future where they earned a livable income and could improve their material conditions. I met dozens of highland farmers in both Peru and Bolivia who had used their profits from the quinoa boom to send their children to university, invest in new motorcycles and cars, build new houses, and buy farming technology to increase their harvests.” McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.
As with all fad superfoods in the west, however, the quinoa boom did not last:
“The situation at the peak of the boom, 2013 was not destined to remain stable. The boom was followed by a bust. Due to the large increase in the total production the price of quinoa decreased and it is now close to its previous values.” Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?
Part of the reason was other superfoods becoming trendy; another was that larger scale producers in other countries jumped into the market to compete:
“Commercial quinoa production commenced in Italy, India, and China and increased in nations that already had small-scale, primarily experimental production, such as the United States and Canada.” McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.
The end of the boom went unremarked by the same media who had expressed concern over it:
“The inevitable bust that followed has gone unnoticed in international media… [the] bonanza period saw the windfall profits and new fortunes that characterize commodity booms. The “quinoa boom” lasted about three years, starting around 2011 and peaking in late 2014.” McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.
Looking back, though, it’s unclear whether the quinoa boom ended up having a positive or negative impact on the area.
“The picture is complicated and the data gathered from the rural regions where quinoa is traditionally grown is often not precise or abundant enough. However, there is some agreement on the fact that as quinoa prices grew close to its peak the welfare of quinoa farmers increased. Farmers could still eat it and they could spend more money on other goods. Despite the alarms, in the short term there seemed to be no bad consequences of the quinoa craze. On the other hand it is possible that some of the effects that were feared actually occurred. While farmers continued to grow quinoa for their consumption cheaper grains partially substituted quinoa amongst the people that didn’t grow it… Unfortunately, the boom was too short to lead to a widespread and stable increase in well-being in Peru and Bolivia. Millions of citizens of Western countries found a new valuable food but traditional farmers are not better off for it. Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?
Pronounced “keenwah” or “ke-chewa” or “kee-noo-ah”, depending on the dialect, meaning “mother.”
Collyns, Dan. Quinoa brings riches to the Andes. Manchester: The Guardian. 14 January 2013.
Jarvis, D., Ho, Y., Lightfoot, D. et al. The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature 542, 307–312 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21370
Parker-Pope, Tara. If You’re Keen on Quinoa. New York Times blogs. 27 May 2011.
Sherwin, Adam. The food fad that’s starving Bolivia. London: The Independent. 22 March 2011.
Wall, Penelope. Wait, what’s so great about quinoa anyway? 16 March 2011. Retrieved April 2011 from http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/wait–what%E2%80%99s-so-great-about-quinoa-anyway-.html
|↑1||Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa. Harvard Medical School. June 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/seed-of-the-month-quinoa|
|↑2||Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa.|
|↑3||”The identification of the likely causative mutation underlying the sweet phenotype not only provides insights into triterpenoid saponin biosynthesis, but also enables accelerated breeding of sweet commercial varieties using marker-assisted selection. The diversity present in the primary gene pool of quinoa, which we have begun to characterize, will also help direct future breeding strategies.” Jarvis, D., Ho, Y., Lightfoot, D. et al. The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature 542, 307–312 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature21370|
|↑4||Minifie, Kemp M. The Home Cook: Quinoa, The Better Couscous. New York: Gourmet Magazine. April 2009.|
|↑5||Harvard Health Newsletter. Seed of the month: Quinoa. Harvard Medical School. June 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/seed-of-the-month-quinoa|
|↑6||Sussman, Adeena. Kosher Quinoa. New York: Gourmet Magazine. 7 April 2008.|
|↑7||McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes. New York: North American Congress on Latin America. 2 March 2018. Accessed September 2020 at https://nacla.org/news/2018/03/12/quinoa-boom-goes-bust-andes|
|↑8||Piumetti, Igor. University of Turin. In: Superfoods: Myths and Truths. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands? Module 2.11. September 2020. Accessed September 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/superfoods-myths-and-truths/4/steps/796823|
|↑9||Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?|
|↑11||FAO. The impact of the Quinoa boom on Bolivian family farmers. 24 April 2014. Accessed September 2020 at http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/225070/|
|↑12||McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.|
|↑13||Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?|
|↑14||McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.|
|↑15||McDonnell, Emma. The Quinoa Boom Goes Bust in the Andes.|
|↑16||Piumetti, Igor. Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?|