Quinoa -- pronounced KEEN-wah -- has been designated a “super crop” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, owing to its high nutritional content and status as a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Like amaranth and buckwheat, quinoa is a pseudo-cereal: Even though you can prepare it as you would any grain, it's technically the starchy fruit-seed of an herb. Quinoa plants are related to spinach, chard and beet plants.
Quinoa originated about 5,000 years ago in the Andes region of what is now Peru, Bolivia and Chile. It was a staple of many pre-Colombian civilizations, including the Inca, who referred to it as the “mother seed” because of its nutritive properties and its ability to thrive in harsh climates. Quinoa grows in a variety of conditions that are inhospitable to grains and other crops. It flourishes in high altitudes, on arid land and in soil with high concentrations of sand, clay and salt.
The approximately 120 species of the quinoa plant are further classified into 1,800 different varieties, which are categorized by their preferred climate. Distinct types of quinoa grow between 6,500 and 12,000 feet above sea level in the inter-Andean valleys, 12,500 feet above sea level in the area around Lake Titicaca, in the Bolivian salt flats, at sea level in southern Chile and in the subtropical regions of Bolivia. Depending on where it’s grown, quinoa seeds range in color from black to red, gray, pink, yellow, purple, green or orange -- or any shade in between.
Two types of quinoa are commonly available in the United States -- traditional quinoa, which is pale ivory, and Inca red quinoa, which is dark red. Traditional quinoa is more flavorful than the red variety, but red quinoa is higher in a number of nutrients. A quarter-cup of traditional quinoa contains 166 calories, 3 grams of fat, 30 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of protein. The same amount of red quinoa contains slightly more protein and a higher percentage of calcium, iron, phosphorus and riboflavin.
Aside from being rich in protein, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, B vitamins, vitamin E, copper, zinc and dietary fiber, quinoa is also the least allergenic of all “grains,” according to “The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.” It’s both wheat- and gluten-free, so it’s an ideal choice for sufferers of celiac disease or gluten intolerance. A high lysine content -- something lacking in most grains -- is what makes it a complete protein. This, coupled with a high iron content, makes quinoa a staple for vegans and vegetarians. Quinoa is also low on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t raise blood glucose and insulin levels.
Unwashed quinoa is coated in saponin, its natural protection against insects, birds and the sun. If it’s not rinsed away, saponin makes quinoa taste bitter. Most commercially available quinoa is prewashed, but if you're not sure, place it in a mesh strainer and rinse it thoroughly. If you see soaplike bubbles in the water, it hasn’t been previously rinsed. You can make it as you would rice, by cooking 1 part quinoa to 2 parts liquid for about 15 minutes. The quinoa absorbs the liquid and increases in size several times over. When quinoa is done cooking, the edge of the seed is translucent.