Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is not an actual cereal, but a pseudo-cereal, a seed that belongs to the family Amaranthaceae, the same family as the amaranth, Swiss chard and spinach.
Quinoa is a plant which originated in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, in the Andes Mountains of South America. Quinoa was cultivated and used by pre-Columbian civilizations and was replaced by other cereals on the arrival of the Spanish, despite being a local staple food at the time.
Existing historical evidence indicates that its domestication by the peoples of America may have occurred between 3,000 and 5,000 years BCE. Before its domestication, the leaves and seeds of wild quinoa were used as food. The plants have been represented on early pottery from the region.
The quinoa plant is a very pretty plant with broad-leafed and grows to be 3 to 9 feet tall. IThe seed heads have beautiful colors ranging from red to purple, orange, green, black or yellow. The quinoa plant prefers cooler temperatures and short days and can handle mild frost. However, it is not very picky being able to grow in poor soil without fertilizer or irrigation.
Qunioa was a sacred crop to the Incas who called it the mother of all grains or chisaya mama. According to the legends, it was a custom for the Incan emperor to ceremoniously plant the first quinoa seeds every year.
A 400-year decline in the production of quinoa began with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. While the Spanish colonists scorned quinoa as ‘food for Indians,’ they also felt threatened by this nutrition source, as Inca armies used a mixture of quinoa and fat, known as ‘war balls’ while they marched for many days. The Spanish destroyed quinoa fields in an attempt to weaken and conquer the population.
In more recent times, the ruling class told indigenous people that quinoa was not good for human consumption and should only be used as animal feed. The irony is that quinoa had literally gone underground and almost disappeared as malnutrition and poverty soared among the indigenous population in this region.
However, quinoa has been rediscovered. In the United States, it was first introduced commercially in 1982 and since then its popularity has grown. And it is noteworthy that the descendants of the Inca are now growling and selling quinoa while also consuming. South America, the cultural home of quinoa, contributes over 80% of the world’s supply.
Quinoa is a complete protein. While rich in antioxidants, it also contains folate, iron, thiamine, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. Most importantly, quinoa is a gluten-free option for people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Once considered an alternative crop or a niche food, quinoa is now becoming increasingly common in North America.
Quinoa comes in three colors: white, red and black. For today’s recipe of Quinoa and White Bean Soup, I have used a tri-color mix.
Quinoa and White Bean Soup
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 medium onions or one large, finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and finely diced
- 1 can (14½ ounces) cannellini or other white beans, drained
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Tomatoes of any kind, to make up two cups when chopped
- 7 cups vegetable stock
- ⅓ cup quinoa
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, rosemary or thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat oil in a largish saucepan over medium heat.
- Add onions, carrots and celery, and sauté until tender.
- Add beans and garlic and stir for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
- Stir in chopped tomatoes and their juices, and vegetable stock. Simmer until tomatoes are cooked and well mixed.
- Add quinoa, parsley and rosemary. Cover and simmer until quinoa is cooked, 12 to 15 minutes.
- Adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with chopped parsley and rosemary.