Quinoa originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. It was known as ‘the gold of the Incas.’ The grain was used to feed and energize ancient Incan warriors because it increased stamina. Because it is a seed, rather than a grain, it has a high protein content (18 percent of RDA) and it has a balanced set of amino-acids, making it a complete protein.

In 1532, a Spanish explorer, Francisco Pizzaro, tried to eliminate the grain by destroying its cultivated fields.  His goal was to undermine the Incan culture by destroying the crop, which the Incas considered a sacred food and essential to their ceremonies. Fortunately, he did not succeed. Quinoa is a highly resilient crop, able to survive in poor soils and extremely dry terrains. The seed was “rediscovered by the outside world in the 1970s.

Quinoa is encased in bitter saponins, making it unpleasant for birds, which increases its resilience. In the past, these saporins were left on the grain making the food difficult to prepare. Today, it is sold once these casings have already been removed, making it an easy dish to cook with a nutty flavor. Popular with foodies, it is now sold in many supermarkets as well as health food stores. The United Nations has classified it as a ‘super crop’, because of its resilience, nutrition and fiber content.

Complimentary and varied ingredients: Quinoa’s high fiber helps regulate blood sugar by slowing down the conversion of complex carbohydrates into sugar. It is easy to prepare – it just need to be rinsed and boiled. It has a slightly nutty flavor that complements many diverse cuisines.

A few interesting recipes:

  • Warm quinoa salad with edamame and tarragon recipe- Toasting quinoa enhances its unique and slightly nutty taste. To toast, place quinoa in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat with or without a small amount of oil. This recipe combines quinoa with edamame. The dressing is made with fresh tarragon, lemon zest and chopped walnuts. This salad is best served with greens, like Boston lettuce leaves, fresh arugula, or wilted spinach.
  • Quinoa and smoked tofu salad recipe- Quinoa and smoked tofu can be paired with the tangy, fresh flavor of tabbouleh. Replace the bulgar wheat of tabbouleh with quinoa, and add cucumber, tomato, mint, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. You can buy smoked tofu, so it does not need a marinade. Serve by itself, or with leafy green vegetables.
  • Quinoa salad with baby spinach and dried apricots- The recipe is a spicy salad topped with dried apricots. This salad combines Moroccan flavors – dried apricots, almonds with spinach and quinoa. The dressing is made with equal parts olive oil, lemon juice, a sprinkling of shredded ginger, cumin and cinnamon. Combine this with cherry tomatoes, baby spinach, and a 1/8 of finely sliced red onion. For a hot salad, serve immediately after the quinoa has been drained, otherwise, wait until cool.

Health benefits of Quinoa:

  • Nutrition- Quinoa is high fiber, low-fat and high protein. It is a good source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, calcium, and is high in magnesium and iron. As it is actually a seed, nor a cereal, it is gluten-free and easy to digest.
  • Protein- Quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids used by the body as building blocks for the development of muscle tissue. It is high in the amino acid, lysine, important for growth and repair of human tissues. Rich vegetable-based protein sources that are high in iron, such as quinoa, are especially good for vegetarians, to ensure a well-balanced diet.
  • Fiber- Quinoa has both low soluble dietary fiber (36  percent) and in-soluble dietary fiber (64 percent), so it a good source of complex carbohydrate and fiber.
  • Magnesium- 1/4; cup of quinoa provides 43 percent of your RDA magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral necessary to almost every organ in the body, including the heart, muscles and kidneys. Lack of magnesium can cause ischemic heart disease, atherosclerosis, hardening of the blood vessel walls hypertension, and heart arrhythmia.
  • Antioxidant- Quinoa is a source of the enzyme Superoxide dismutase, which has both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Superoxide dismutase neutralizes the damage done by superoxide, the most common free radical in the body.
  • Low gluten content- Quinoa is gluten free. Gluten sensitivity is thought to affect 6 % of the population and can cause a range of symptoms from bloating, migraines, lethargy, tiredness and ADD.
  • Other vitamins- Quinoa contains many vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin A, good for maintaining skin and hair health. Quinoa dishes also contain small amounts of important B vitamins, like B6, niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. It also contains trace elements of zinc, iron, copper, and selenium.

Beware of these though

  • Allergic reactions- The most common adverse reaction is from the presence of saporin, which protects the seed from fungal, birds or pest attack. While modern manufacturing is careful to remove most of the saporin, you can be extra cautious by putting it in a fine-meshed sieve, and run under cold water, shaking the sieve until the water runs clear. Some people still react to saporin, and become ill after eating quinoa. However, this is rare, and it is a short-term digestive problem without any long-term effects.
  • High in oxalates- Oxalates are organic acids that crystallize when linked with calcium. Diets high in oxalates can cause the formation of kidney stones. If you have had kidney stones or are an oxalate-restricted diet, you should eat quinoa sparingly if at all.

A healthy twist to some recipes with Quinoa

  • Quinoa noodles – For a nutty twist to any pasta recipe, use quinoa noodles. These are higher in protein and are gluten free.
  • Quinoa flour- Ground quinoa flour is wheat and gluten free, but can be used in almost any baked goods recipe.
  • Sprouted quinoa- As quinoa is a seed, you can soak it in water, and it will sprout. First you soak the seeds overnight, and then you drain, and place on a baking tray. You cover it with a cloth and place in a cool, dark place, rinsing every six hours. After about 2 days the quinoa will sprout, which can be eaten like alfalfa sprouts.

Quinoa has become increasingly popular among the foodie and health food set for its nutty flavor, ease of preparation and nutritional qualities. It used to be found only in health food stores, but with its growing popularity, it is found in more grocery stores and on restaurant menus. It is excellent both as a culinary contribution to a quotidian dish, or for its versatility. While a little pricier than wheat, it has extra health benefits, as it is gluten free, and is a complete protein.

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