Although often referred to as an “ancient grain,” quinoa (pronunciation here) is actually a type of seed. It has a long, rich history dating back to the rise of the Incan Empire in western South America along the Andes Mountains. Those areas – including modern-day Peru, Bolivia, and Chile – remain the center of worldwide quinoa production.
If it weren’t for Francisco Pizarro, quinoa would likely have been known worldwide long before its recent resurgence in the past 15-20 years. During Pizarro’s conquest of the Incan Empire, he aggressively stamped out any and all traces of Incan culture. Quinoa was a vital, even sacred, piece of this culture, but it was relegated to growing in the rural foothills of the Andes mountains for the next few hundred years.
In the 1980’s Bolivia became the first country to begin exporting quinoa. In the 1990’s, the United States and a few other countries contributed funding to develop and modernize quinoa processing facilities in South America, remedying the quality problems (like the presence of small rocks and dirt) that had held quinoa back from its eventual place as a trendy health food throughout the world. The more advanced processing techniques also effectively removed the bitter coating of saponin that covers the quinoa seed, releasing its best flavor.
From there, quinoa production and consumption grew exponentially. Quinoa prices jumped approximately 600% from 2005 to 2013 as demand exploded and it began showing up in grocery stores all over the world.
Peru and Bolivia continue to produce 99% of the world’s quinoa, as the cool climate at higher elevations is best for the quinoa plant. Quinoa is also difficult to harvest mechanically, as the readiness of the seeds is often fickle and requires human judgment from those who know the plant well.
As previously mentioned, quinoa is not actually a grain; it’s a seed. That being said, its nutrition and flavor profiles are reminiscent of other whole grains. The quinoa is also unique from other grains in its protein content (eight grams per cup) and quality (quinoa is one of the few plant foods that provides all of the essential amino acids). Additionally, its fiber, vitamin, and mineral content stand out from many other foods in its category.
Quinoa may be challenging to pronounce, but it’s easy to cook. You can learn the whole process in under a minute. If you can cook rice, you can cook quinoa.
Check out the list below for lots of great meal ideas that use quinoa: