If you eat out regularly - and not just at the same old casual restaurants - you may have noticed that quinoa is creeping onto an increasing number of menus.
But just what is this oddly named stuff and why should you actually care?
What is Quinoa?
Contrary to popular belief quinoa - which is pronounced keen-wah - is not a really a grain - although it is often mis-classified as one - and neither is it a grass. It is, in fact, a seed that comes from a family of green plants called Chenopodium, which some people also known as goosefoot.
The quinoa plant has a fascinating history as a foodstuff. It was first cultivated as a crop thousands of years ago, by the Andean people. It quickly became a staple of their diet, even though it was not found in many other places in the world.
The Incas even considered quinoa to be a scared crop, dubbing it chisaya mama, which means 'the mother of all grains'. It was traditional for the Incan emperor to perform a ceremonial planting of quinoa seeds on an annual basis, using gold implements and amid a lot of pomp and ceremony. When the Spanish conquered South America they outlawed this, made quinoa an illegal crop, and forced the Incas to grow wheat instead. Even when they lifted the ban, the Spanish refused to eat quinoa, dismissing it as 'food for the Indians'
The Andean peoples consumed a great deal of quinoa as it was plentiful in supply, filling and very versatile. Like a grain, quinoa can be ground up to create flour, or it can be served in a similar way to rice It can be consumed alone, as a snack or side dish, or used as an ingredient in a huge number of recipes, one of the reasons that this versatile food product has become a staple in the diet of many vegetarians and vegans. But, because of its impressive nutritional values it is also growing in popularity with those concerned with eating a healthier diet in general.
Why is Quinoa Considered a "Super Food"
The term 'super food' is not a formal scientific term, but it is generally used these days to describe an ingredient that offers higher than average positive nutritional benefits. Quinoa is one of these foods.
The real difference that quinoa offers is that, unlike most other grains, it contains lysine, a naturally occurring amino acid. This technically makes this clever little grain a complete protein, and it offers protein at levels that can be compared to whole milk.
That is far from all that quinoa has to offer though. It is an excellent source of dietary fiber, something that is essential for great digestive health, and it can, in a single serving, provide the recommended daily doses of niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and potassium. If all of that were not enough to qualify quinoa as a super food, it is also an excellent natural source magnesium, copper, zinc and folate.
Cooking Quinoa - What to Do with it?
Quinoa's versatility is certainly a large part of its great appeal. It can be incorporated into a meal at any time of the day, eaten alone as a healthy alternative to junk food snacks and used in a great many different ways. It can be added to a smoothie to give it bulk (and a protein boost) , used, as it often is in restaurants, as an alternative to soybeans to create veggie burgers, added to salads
Quinoa is also easy to prepare. For example, quinoa is also becoming a popular substitute for brown rice. Brown rice is delicious and also quite healthful but to prepare it properly it can take 45 minutes, a major inconvenience for busy people (and who isn't busy?) while the same amount quinoa can be fully cooked in a mere fifteen minutes.
For those trying to lose weight, quinoa can be a helpful diet tool. It is rather filling but is relatively low in fat and calories. A one cup serving of cooked quinoa contains 222 calories and 3.4 grams of fat. To put that latter figure into prospective, consider the fact than the same one cup of lean ground beef contains 33 grams of fat.
Finally, as it is not really a grain at all, quinoa is gluten free. A gluten free diet can be an incredibly boring one, but the addition of quinoa into that rather restrictive diet can bring a great deal of taste and variety back into the everyday meals consumed by those with a sensitivity to gluten.