I was out to dinner just the other night with a group of food-savvy friends, and the subject of quinoa came up. One comment followed another: "Oh, I just love quinoa," "I have it every morning for breakfast," "It's so good for you!" The discussion went on for quite a while, with recipes and accolades flying across the table. I got the message; it's time for me to write a column on quinoa.While quinoa is usually treated like a whole grain, like rice or barley, it is actually a seed. It originates in the high altitudes of the Andes of South America, where it was cultivated 4,000 years ago, long before the Incas, as a staple food. They held the crop to be sacred and referred to it as chisaya mama, or "mother of all grains." The Inca emperor would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using golden implements. During the Spanish conquest of South America, quinoa was looked down upon as a native food, and the Spanish conquistadores actually forbade quinoa cultivation for a time, forcing the Incas to grow wheat instead. While quinoa was certainly important to the Andean cultures, it has been relatively obscure in the rest of the world. It is clearly becoming more popular, however, in the United States, Europe, China and Japan. Between 2006 and 2013, quinoa crop prices have tripled, due to growing demand. Quinoa has even become popular among some in the Jewish community as a Passover substitute for forbidden leavened grains. How do we eat it? It's bitter coating helps, during cultivation, to keep away birds and other predators. After the seeds are harvested, most quinoa sold in North America is processed to remove this coating. It can then be cooked like rice and used in a large variety of dishes. Quinoa leaves can be eaten as a leaf vegetable, and the raw seeds can even be germinated as sprouts. The grain can be made into bread flour, or even fermented to make beer. How healthy is it? Very. Quinoa contains essential amino acids, calcium, phosphorus, many of the vitamin B's, zinc, magnesium and iron. It is quite high in dietary fiber, and has a low glycemic index, meaning that it digests slowly and is ideal for diabetics. It is considered a source of complete protein. It's a good choice for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. It is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. As a result, quinoa is being considered as a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration human occupied spaceflights. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the "International Year of Quinoa!" I would suggest that it is time for all of us to consider adding Quinoa to our diets. Happy and healthy cooking! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: May 23, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 06