Quinoa is a grain that had its origins more than 5000 years ago in South American countries – Chile, Bolivia and Peru – in the Andes mountainous regions.
It was and still is the staple diet of many South Americans due to the fact that it can grow even in inhospitable conditions like arid areas or high altitudes, or soil that has high concentrations of salt, sand and clay -, quinoa flourishes in them.
Having found out the high nutritive value of quinoa, the UNFAO has now designated it as a ‘super crop’. It contains all essential amino acids (9) and is a complete protein.
Hence, it is a good means for vegetarians to get their required protein. Being gluten-free, quinoa also suits those who cannot eat gluten-rich foods. It is also rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and low in saturated fats.
Types of Quinoa
Quinoa plants are usually categorized based on the climatic conditions in which they grow. Hence, there are 120 species of this plant and over 1800 varieties available.
Depending on where it is grown, the color of the seeds also varies. There are a range of colors like black, grey, pink, red, yellow, green, orange or purple.
However, traditionally, quinoa seeds are classified as red, black and white or ivory based on color. In the US, there are two main types available – the traditional quinoa variety that is a pale ivory shade and a dark red variety called Inca red quinoa.
The seed colors vary due to a resinous coating of saponin on the outer shell. Pigmented quinoa grains are said to have a higher anti-oxidant capacity. Darker seeds taste more like brown rice. While white seeds resemble white rice in taste.
White quinoa has a very mild, subtle flavor. This pearly white grain is the most commonly available of all quinoa varieties.
Most people, who start eating quinoa for the first time, try out white quinoa because of its mild flavor before moving on to darker varieties.
White quinoa is available in local supermarkets, health food stores and organic food stores. They taste sweeter than their darker cousins and it is similar in taste to white rice.
Red quinoa was very popular among Inca warriors. They ate a combination of lard and red quinoa balls which they felt provided them with energy and strength. They worshipped these red seeds. Hence, to this day, this is sold as ‘Inca Red Quinoa’.
Red quinoa color ranges from vivid orange to dark red. When it is cooked however, it turns brown and loses this bright coloring. Red quinoa has a marvelous earthy and fruity flavor. There are higher levels of phenolic compounds found in red quinoa.
Red quinoa is sold pre-packaged in supermarkets or natural food stores.
Those who use red quinoa find that it retains its shape even after cooking and hence it is better for use in cold salad recipes or recipes that require it to retain its shape.
Black quinoa is a hybrid variety that was developed by farmers in the Colorado Rockies. This happened when quinoa seeds were crossbred with a lamb’s quarter – a type of wild spinach.
The resultant plant was taller than other types of quinoa and the seeds were deep purple almost black in color. It also varied in taste from other types of quinoa, having a crunchy, earthy and hearty flavor. The crunchy texture even remains after it is cooked although the color turns inky.
Black quinoa grains are sold only by specialized grocers or at farmer’s markets.
Black quinoa is slightly fibrous and it cooks fast. Black quinoa gets its color from anthocyanins which are a class of compounds that prevent UV damage and oxidation of the plant.
Anthocyanins also have powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. These protect the body against free radicals, chronic diseases, heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc.
Other classifications of quinoa
Quinoa is also available as flakes or flour. Quinoa flakes are produced by steam-rolling whole quinoa grains just like oats or barley flakes. Flaked quinoa cooks faster than full grains and is ideal for use as an instant breakfast cereal. Quinoa flakes can also be used to bake or as a coating for fried fish and chicken.
Quinoa flour is used for baking and resembles other types of flour. This makes a great alternative for those suffering from gluten intolerance and who require a gluten-free baking option.
The flour has a nutty flavor similar to the grains and can even be combined with other flours while baking. Sometimes quinoa flour can have a slight bitter tasted due to the presence of saponin. In such cases, you can toast the flour to get rid of this bitterness.
You can even make your own quinoa flour at home. Just buy whole grains, wash them very well, toast and grind into flour.
Quinoa leaves can also be eaten either fresh or used for cooking. However, outside where they grow in the Andes Mountains, it is difficult to find fresh leaves.
Young leaves taste great when added to fresh salads. Mature leaves can be stir-fried or steamed. People in the Andes feed their livestock with quinoa leaves.
All types of quinoa are rich in nutrients, so incorporate any variety you like depending on your personal preference and the recipe you are using.