In the Western world it is only now starting to gain fame but in South-America, especially in Peru, it has been a common good for over 4,000 years: Quinoa. This high in protein grain, lacks gluten and is rich of calcium and iron. The nutritional value is comparable to that of cereals. Quinoa is used in soups, stews but also in cakes, breads and in Cusco, there is even a very popular ‘mermelada de quinoa’, quinoa marmalade.
The Incas of Peru have been eating quinoa for many years and saw the crop as sacred. In Quechua language it was called ‘the mother of all grains’, “Chisaya Mama”. Every season the Inca emperor would be the one to sow the first seeds. When the Spanish entered South America they patronizingly called it food for the Indians. The cultivation of the crop was more or less halted, but never disappeared.
The coating of the quinoa is bitter and has to be removed before human consumption. The bitterness does however have the advantage of being unpopular for birds as food. The skin serves as a natural protection. The grain is cooked the same way as rice.
Quinoa has been named a so called “superfood”. Of course this is a marketing term introduced to indicate that a food supposedly has health benefits. Although nutrition scientist and dietitians don’t use this term, quinoa does consist of high levels of protein, magnesium and iron. The food is considered easy to digest and is therefore a possible crop in the NASA controlled Ecological Life Support System; a scientific test to create a self-supporting food system while on outer space missions. Just to compare: 200 grams of quinoa replacing the same portion of eggs, or meat with an extra benefit: quinoa contains less calories and, it is much cheaper.
Because of the vulnerability and wide variability, quinoa is harvested by hand instead of by machines. The picking needs precise timing since the grains mature at different times. Harvesting by machines would mean a huge loss of seeds that aren’t ready yet. The grains are dried and stored before being processed.
The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the ‘International Year of Quinoa’. Doing so they wanted to draw the world’s attention to the nutritional value and the role that quinoa could play in providing food security worldwide. It is part of one of the Millennium Development Goals.
Since quinoa started to become more popular in countries outside South America, the price has increased. This has lead Western countries to start their own quinoa production. For instance in the Netherlands, farmers have just harvested their first own grown grains. They hope to have the processed seeds ready in stores in January 2015. The price should be lower than the price of quinoa produced in South America. Because of the risen prices, at times the Peruvians, who have been eating the crop for thousands of years, could no longer afford the grain. Having a greater production worldwide should make the prices drop again. Other European countries have also started experimenting growing their own quinoa. It seems the traditional Inca food, after thousands of years, has finally made it to common food in the rest of the world.