What Is Quinoa?

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Technically a fruit of the Chenopodium family, quinoa packs more protein than any other grain, yielding more than twice the protein of rice and five times more than corn. Quinoa is high in lysine, an amino acid widely deficient among vegetable proteins, and is a good complement to the amino acid structure of most legumes, being naturally high in both methionine and cystine. It has less carbohydrate than any other grain beside corn, and a 6% fat content which gives it a pleasant nutty flavor. 
 
In Peru and Bolivia where most of the quinoa in the world is cultivated and eaten, it is boiled whole, like rice, ground into flour for breads and cakes and simmered as a cereal. The leaves of the plant are eaten as a vegetable. The stalks are burned as fuel, and the water leftover from washing the grain before it is cooked is used for shampoo. 
 
The quinoa plant is extremely hardy, thriving in agricultural environments where corn and wheat normally perish. Cultivated in the U.S., mostly in Colorado, quinoa continues to grow year after year in the Andes despite low rainfall, sub- freezing temperatures, high altitude and poor alkaline soil. Its only drawback is the laborious processing it requires once it is harvested. 
 
The small round seeds of quinoa, which resemble something between sesame and millet, are covered with saponin, a bitter resin, which forms a soapy solution in water. In order for the quinoa to be edible, the saponin must be removed by washing the grain in an alkaline solution. By the time you purchase quinoa the saponin is largely gone, but it is a good idea to wash quinoa well before cooking to insure that no bitterness remains. 
 
Before processing, quinoa seeds are brilliantly colored raspberry red, dark violet, blue black or burnt orange, but once the saponin is removed all quinoa is a uniform pale yellow (with the exception of red quinoa). Each flat disk-shaped seed is framed with a white band around its periphery. During cooking, this band unravels into a tiny sprouted spiral, giving quinoa a beautifully textured appearance and a chewy resiliency.   
 
Quinoa’s mild flavor has an affinity to everything from onions and mushrooms to sugar and cinnamon. It is equally good as a side dish, a stuffing or baked into bread and is a good substitute for rice in rice pudding. 

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