Although new to North Americans, it has been
cultivated in the highest continuously farmed region of the earth, the South
American Andes, since at least 3,000 B.C. The ancient Incas called it “the
mother grain” and revered it as sacred. Compared to other grains and
vegetables, it is high in protein, calcium, and iron. One researcher has said
that “while no single food can supply all of the essential life-sustaining
nutrients, (it) comes as close as any other in the vegetable or animal
This amazing ancient food now in the process
of being rediscovered by modern eaters is quinoa (pronounced “keenwa”). In South America, a renewed respect for indigenous crops and
traditional foods has reversed a 400-year decline in quinoa production that
began with the Spanish conquest.
What is this strange grain that holds so
much promise? And what factors have prevented it so far from fulfilling that
Quinoa is a small seed that in size,
shape, and color looks like a cross between sesame seed and millet. It is
disk shaped with a flattened or depressed equatorial band around its periphery.
It is usually a pale yellow color but some species may vary from almost
white through pink, orange, or red to purple and black.
Quinoa is not a true cereal grain but
is technically a fruit of the Chenopodium family. Chenopodium plants have
characteristic leaves shaped like a goose foot. The genus also includes our
common weed, lamb's-quarters. Quinoa is an annual herb that grows from
three to six feet high, and like millet its seeds are in large clusters at the
end of the stalk.
The seeds are covered with saponin, a
resin-like substance that is extremely bitter and forms a soapy solution in
water. To be edible, the saponin must be removed. Traditionally, saponin has been
removed by laboriously hand scrubbing the quinoa in alkaline water.
(There is some controversy regarding
saponin. Some agriculturists maintain that a saponin-free strain of quinoa
should be developed - its removal process has been one factor limiting
quinoa's production and marketing. On the other hand, ecologists observe that
the bitter-tasting saponin probably prevents insect and bird predation and that
it is better to wash away the saponin than to have to rely on insecticides.)
Because quinoa has been grown for centuries
under varied ecological conditions there is no "pure" strain.
Quinoa is predominately an in breeder and any given crop is composed
of a mixture of inbred lines. Thus, quinoa varies greatly within a given
region and from region to region. Peru
have quinoa seed banks that total over eighteen hundred ecotype samples
The edible seed of the quinoa plant has been
called both a pseudo-cereal and a pseudo-oilseed because of its unique
nutritional profile. It is high in protein compared to other grains, although
it is also high in oil and fat.
wheats come close to matching quinoa's protein content, but cereals such as
barley, corn, and rice generally have less than half the protein of
quinoa. Also, quinoa has a good balance of the amino acids that make up
the protein. Quinoa is also a good complement for legumes, which are
often low in methionine and cystin addition, quinoa is a relatively good source
of phosphorous, calcium, iron, vitamin E, and several of the B vitamins.
Of equal importance as quinoa's nutritional
benefits is the hardiness of this plant. Unlike most other food crops,
quinoa thrives with low rainfall; high altitudes (and therefore high
radiation levels); thin, cold air; hot sun; subfreezing temperatures; and
even poor, sandy, alkaline soil.
It is this ability to thrive where few other
food crops can that has allowed quinoa to remain the staple of millions of
descendants of the Inca Empire.
The Aymara and Quechua Indians who live in
the high mountainous regions of Ecuador,
Peru, Bolivia, southern Colombia,
and northern Argentina and Chile
grow most of the world's quinoa. In the altiplano of Peru
where annual rainfall may be as low as four inches, quinoa is the principal
food crop and, in some areas, it approaches constituting a
monoculture. Here Chenopodium quinoa Wild assumes the level of
importance that the buffalo once had for the Plains Indians of North America.
The cereal is prepared whole, like rice, or made into flour for bread and
biscuits; its leaves are eaten as a vegetable or used for animal fodder; the
stalks are burned for fuel; and the saponin-filled wash water is used as a
Quinoa has been a popular food among
natives of the Andean altiplano for millennia. Its ability to grow in
high, often cold altitudes ensured that corn and most other crops could
not compete with it. When Pizarro and his army marched into Inca territory in
1532, they discovered a well organized and even sophisticated food and
agricultural system supporting the Incas. The three primary staple foods
were potatoes, maize, and quinoa.
With the advent of the Spaniard's rule, and
the subsequent repression of many aspects of native South American culture,
quinoa production went into a tailspin from which it has only recently
begun to recover. Like amaranth, the ceremonial grain of the Aztecs which
today is also becoming popular again, quinoa may have been actively
suppressed as a means of disrupting and dispiriting the Incas. The Spanish
imported European livestock to the lower altitude valleys, and encouraged
cultivation of the more widely adaptable corn and potatoes.
The peasants and campesinos in the more
remote areas still cultivated quinoa, though. In the twentieth century, other
factors have come into play to prevent quinoa from becoming important to
a wider population. North American exportation of huge wheat surpluses has
acted to skew internal markets in poorer countries such as Peru and Colombia. Cheap, U.S.-subsidized
white flour discourages cultivation of quinoa and native wheats.
there was the well intentioned but misguided attempt at agricultural reform
known as the Green Revolution. Farmers in developing countries around the
world were encouraged to abandon traditional crops and instead raise cash
crops. Special high-yielding varieties were developed, but over the past
decade it has become clear that there is a considerable price to be paid for
the loss of diversity, both cultural and agricultural. Agrarian reform
has now begun to swing the other way, to preserving the earth's genetic
diversity and selecting crops with an eye toward local ecological and
In Peru, which has always been the
world's leading producer of quinoa, the total acreage of planted quinoa was
116,000 acres in 1951. It dropped to 79,000 in 1955 and bottomed out at 37,000
acres in 1975. It is now on the rise and the latest figures put quinoa
cultivation at about 62,000 acres.
However, in Bolivia, which has some 50,000
acres of quinoa growing, the grain is probably of even greater importance.
Indigenous cultures are more prominent in Bolivia
where the more dominant urban whites tend to disdain native food products
and the government's food policies downplay traditional crops. Quinoa's
importance to Bolivia
was underscored in 1983, when a serious drought led to crop losses ranging up
to 66 percent for potatoes and 54 percent for barley. Quinoa production was
barely affected in some areas the dry weather even produced bumper yields
Steve Gorad sums up the problems thus:
"In areas of greatest quinoa production it's hard to find quinoa in a
restaurant. You ask for it and people are embarrassed to admit knowledge
of it. Radio and television commercials obviously promote refined foods.
Native foods must compete against an international food system as well as
The story of quinoa's introduction into the U.S. is a
fascinating one. I decided to hear it from the principals themselves. After a
fifty-minute flight east over the continental divide to Boulder, I met Gorad, who is president of the
Quinoa Corporation. We drove a short distance to his five person office
and warehouse in the new commercial section of town.
The Quinoa Corporation looks like a typical Boulder office with its butcher block furniture,
view of the Flatiron
Mountains, and photos
tacked to the wall. A clue to its unique purpose lies with the photos
they are of Bolivian Indians and the large map of South
America on the kitchen wall. To the north of the offices,
the 3,000 square foot warehouse is filled to the brim with quinoa.
Gorad's salt and pepper hair is the only
clue that at forty-two years, he's not a youngster. Soft-spoken, with dark deep
eyes, he offered me some South American tea de coca and then launched into a
discussion of quinoa.
"Quinoa's most pragmatic quality,"
observed Gorad, "is that it's a basic food with strong earth energy.
People who try it categorically respond, 'This tastes good!"
What, if anything, will help to popularize
it? "Quinoa is so good nutritionally that its impact gets through to
the body with the message this stuff is good I want more."
The Quinoa Corporation's story starts in
1976 when Gorad, who has a doctorate in psychology, and Don McKinley, a friend
who was then working for a shoe company, were in Boston
studying with the Bolivian founder of Arica,
Oscar Ichazo. Ichazo mentioned quinoa in his teaching as "a very
nutritious food which is good to eat when doing mystical work."
next year found Gorad in La Paz,
he promptly purchased quinoa
and tried it. "I put it in an open pot
and as I watched it cook, I fell in love with quinoa," he said.
After his first pot of quinoa Gorad started
contacting South American scientists and quinoa growers. "In 1978 I
brought back fifty pounds of quinoa to the U.S. I took it around to all my
friends, including Don McKinley. I cooked it, served it to them, and
asked, 'Do you like it?' The response was one hundred percent, 'Yes."
Gorad and McKinley wanted to market quinoa
in the U.S.
but the problems of availability stopped them. To gather grain by going from
one remote Indian settlement to another was impossible. There was at that
time no commercial or political support for developing quinoa. The project went
on the backburner again.
In 1982 Gorad was living in Chile, married
to a Chilean woman, and teaching and writing about holistic health. He received
a letter from Don McKinley asking for quinoa seed. Since his Boston Arica days,
McKinley had traveled to Brazil
importing wool and shoes, driven a taxi in Hawaii,
and landed in Boulder
with a highly successful advertising business.
McKinley, now thirty-six, told me,
"The whole time I was driving a cab and doing the wool and graphics
businesses, I was always thinking about quinoa. How could we market
it in the states? One day the obvious occurred to me let's grow it in Colorado! I wrote
to Steve and asked him for seed quinoa.
"I next contacted David Cusack,"
continued McKinley. Cusack brought a wealth of knowledge and experience
to the enterprise. He had grown up on a high altitude potato farm in
and had lived, taught, and worked on development projects in the Andean
countries since 1968. He had a doctorate in international development and
a master's degree in agriculture and environmental management. He had
also founded Sierra Blanca Associates, a research group that sought to
spread practical applications of science and technology across cultures.
McKinley said, "I told him of our project and he immediately got involved.
We located a San Luis
Valley farmer at an 8,000-foot elevation in acrid
who was willing to plat a five-acre test field. Now we just needed the seed."
Gorad put the word out that he wanted seed
quinoa. The limited supply in local markets often had had its saponin
washed off and therefore would not germinate. Weeks and weeks went by and no
"I'd given up on getting seed in time
to plant for an '82 test crop." Commented Gorad. "Then, the day
before my flight back to the states, a Chilean friend knocked on my
door with fifteen pounds of beautiful pink, yellow, and red seed. He was a
simple man and did not think it proper to accept money for the seed, so I
gave him the shirt I was wearing."
The quinoa was planted that spring and
harvested in October. "We harvested it by hand, threshed and winnowed it
by hand, and washed the saponin off. Then we cooked it and ate it and it was
delicious," Gorad said with a grin.
next year, 1983, they tested forty-eight varieties on less than fifty acres and
only six worked. Last year 100 varieties of quinoa were planted on over 125
a few more grew successfully. These
figures may sound inconsequential, but the corporation is most optimistic about
quinoa's progress in Colorado.
It takes ten years to develop a new strain of wheat and reflect on the backlog
of information we now have on wheat! The introduction of a cereal into a
new environment is a lengthy process, and according to the experts, quinoa is
right on target.
"That our first seed even grew,"
Gorad commented, "was pure grace. It has now grown in Colorado for three summers and it's
still working well."
Would quinoa actually sell in a store? This
past June a test market was made in Boulder's
new natural food store, Alfalfa's. "We served prepared quinoa and
quinoa cookies and pudding at their demonstration kiosk," McKinley
related. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Alfalfa's is currently
selling 700 pounds of quinoa per month.
But is selling quinoa in Boulder
the same as selling it in Kalamazoo?
"Maybe not." McKinley said,"
but we've got mail orders for it in Kalamazoo."
Two days after Alfalfa's demonstration the
local paper reported David Cusack's murder, the victim of a robbery attempt
near La Paz, Bolivia. Cusack had been
instrumental in the revival of quinoa. His death was a severe blow to all who
knew him, and a setback for continued quinoa experimentation and production in
both North and South America.
Gorad said, "We thought that was
the end of us and that the Quinoa Corporation would close down. But
strange as it sounds, we were strengthened by it. David would have
wanted it that way."
My visit with Gorad and McKinley stretched
into the afternoon. Despite the element of tragedy, their story warmed me.
Finally, it was past time to go, but not before experiencing quinoa firsthand.
Quinoa seed, which is saponin covered, is all the earth colors. Steve showed me
a dozen carefully packaged and labeled test samples and each was a different
color. The colors were vibrant raspberry reds, purples, blue-blacks, brilliant
oranges, translucent pinks quinoa is beautiful.
Quinoa ready to cook is usually pale yellow.
The disk shaped seed has a band about its periphery. As the grain cooks, this
band partially separates from the seed but retains its curved shape. In
appearance cooked quinoa looks liked cooked couscous sprinkled with little
spirals or crescent moons.
The grain itself seems to melt in your
mouth. But the tiny bands offer just enough tooth resistance to create a minute
crunch, affording a varied and pleasant sensation.
An experience to be savored, eating quinoa,
and one that deserves more fans.
April 1985 East West Journal:
this article was written in 1985 the Quinoa Corporation has relocated to California and still continues to purchase its quinoa
high in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia.