Let’s start with what we do know. Quinoa is a versatile, protein-filled superfood. While similar staples like bulgur and barley tend to be relegated to health food aisles and your hippie aunt’s vegetarian casserole, quinoa is a crowd-pleaser with enormous global appeal.
But with great power comes great responsibility. Controversy clings to the crop — from Pizarro’s 16th Century Andean adventures, to modern-day agricultural analysis spanning Los Angeles to London, quinoa consumption and cultivation is a hot topic. That’s why we are taking a closer look at this newer culinary obsession. Nevermind the bombast, here’s the truth about quinoa.
1. A rose by any other name: Though it is often called a whole grain, quinoa isn’t a grain at all. True grains like wheat and maize are derived from grasses, whereas quinoa is part of a protein-rich plant family that includes fellow iron maidens like spinach and beets.
2. Can’t stop won’t stop: A superfood in more ways than one, quinoa can grow in diverse climates and terrains, including areas with minimal irrigation and fertilization, or as little as three to four inches of annual rainfall.
3. Late to the party: Andean peoples in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia first cultivated quinoa some 7,000 years ago. Contemporary consumers such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan developed our voracious appetites for the stuff within only the past decade.
4. Devil’s crop: In the 1500s, using the peerless logic of colonialism, Spanish conquistadors deemed quinoa unholy due to its elevated status in indigenous cultures, and even prohibited native peoples from cultivating it. But, ultimately, no one puts quinoa in the corner.
5. Intergalactic appeal: Twenty years ago, NASA researchers declared quinoa the perfect inflight snack for astronauts on long-term missions because it is mineral-rich, gluten-free and contains all essential amino acids.
6. Drama queen: In January 2013, UK newspaper The Guardian ran a provocative piece about how quinoa’s rising popularity worldwide has rendered it too expensive for the Bolivian farmers who knew it back when it had braces and a bowl cut. No small amount of controversy about food miles, ethical consumption and sustainability ensued. While farmers in Oregon and Colorado look to grow the stuff stateside, other analysts argue that quinoa’s rising prices can be good for indigenous smallholder farmers who can profit from their crop’s success. Long story short? Food politics are complicated. All things in moderation.
7. Variety pack: There are over 120 different identified varieties of quinoa, but the most commonly cultivated and exported are white, red and black. Quinoa is also commercially available ground into flours or, most recently, compressed into flakes. Similar to quick-cooking oats, quinoa flakes are formed by steam-rolling the groat, or whole kernel, until it is flat and flaky. Throw some flakes in boiling water, and they are ready to eat in under two minutes.
8. Time to shine: The United Nations named 2013 The International Year of Quinoa, citing how its endurance and durability as a crop contributes to world food security. Naturally, this rekindled the sustainability debate amongst agricultural analysts, and Bolivian president Evo Morales even got in on the action. (Again: moderation is key.)
9. Switch hitter: While we norteamericanos typically use quinoa as a rice substitute, locals in cities like Bogota and La Paz drink the stuff. Chicha is a traditional Andean beer brewed from indigenous crops like corn and – you guessed it – quinoa.
10. Rinse and repeat: The quinoa crop protects itself from predators with a waxy, bitter-tasting coat of saponins, an organic chemical compound that gets rinsed away during cultivation. Resourceful Andean families would traditionally save this saponin-heavy wash water to use as shampoo. Waste not want not.
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