January 2012

Quinua: The Rediscovered Andean Gold

Quinua, or ‘Andean Gold’ has been used for centuries by South American people, but now, in the 21st century, it is finding its way into contemporary culinary circles. Today we take a look into an ancient ingredient that is finding prominence in the modern world.

By: Svea Niestroj
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Rotenburg - Germany

Quinua cereal
Photo: Melle Boss

Quinua (Latin: Chenopodium quinua) is a plant which, although it looks like a grain, is botanically related to spinach and beetroot. Normally it is yellow or red with a very small seed about one or two millimetres in diameter. The crop itself grows up to three meters, but this also depends on the ground. It is possible to cultivate quinua nearly everywhere; near the sea on at sea level altitude or at high elevations of up to 4000 meters. Moreover, there is no need to worry about vermin, because quinua’s seed coat contains saponin, which tastes very bitter and protects the seed. There is also a long tradition of cultivating quinua with its richness of ingredients. So, how is it possible that quinua has had such little attention in the mainstream?

Quinua can be used in many ways: in a soup, just as side dish, as farina for bread and cake or for pasta. Nevertheless, it is not possible to use only the farina of quinua if you want to bake, because the lack of gluten means the dough will not knead properly. The saponins in the seed coat are also useful; it can be used to treat respiratory (breathing) and dermal (skin) conditions, and it is also useful for treating abscesses, luxations and to stop bleeding. Saponins have also been used to make shampoo, soap, washing agents, hair colour, dental products and cosmetics.

Quinua is becoming increasingly popular with people who prefer healthy food because it offers a large variety of vitamins including vitamins A, B, C and E. It also contains minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc, and is comprised of fifteen percent protein. Putting all this together, quinua is comparable with milk for dietary beneficence, and significantly better than many other grains, which it exceeds times in richness. This is why it is also called “mother of all grains” or the “Andean gold”.


Product ready to be sell.
Photo: Svea Niestroj

Another benefit is that quinua does not contain any gluten, and so is an acceptable food for coeliacs who comprise 5% of the population and who, due to a condition called coeliac disease, cannot tolerate gluten. However, there exists a warning for small children to eat quinua, given that the saponins in the seed coat, which are there to protect the seed of vermin, cannot be removed by washing entirely. For elder children and adults that is no problem, it just leaves a bitter taste, but for small children it can create diarrhea. The main producers of quinua are today, as it always has been, Bolivia and Peru. Other countries also started to cultivate this Andean-plant, but the majority of the quinua products are imported from Bolivia or Peru. There, the plant exists at least 5200 years, and about 4000 years ago it was domesticated. So the history of quinua is very long.

Quinua was an important part of the food of the Andean people especially during the ruling of the Inca when it was a main part of alimentation. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the ceremony of planting the quinua was forbidden, with the explanation that it is unchristian. Moreover, the cultivation of other grains and of potatoes was promoted, with the result that in the end quinua nearly disappeared. Just a few years ago, it got more popular again. Before that, quinua was known as food for the people in rural areas and because of that especially more rich people refused to eat it, ignoring how healthy it is. Luckily, that changed now, with the only problem, that quinua now is so popular that most of it is exported to Europe or other countries, and here, in Bolivia, not much is left of the Andean gold.

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