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Kaniwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) is a remarkably nutritious grain of the high Andes that has been described as helping to “sustain untold generations of Indians in one of the world's most difficult agricultural regions.”1 Kaniwa (pronounced kan-yi-wa) reigns in the extreme highland environment where wheat, rye, and corn grow unreliably or not at all because of the often intense cold. Even barley and quinoa (see page 149) cannot yield dependably at the altitudes where kaniwa grows. In its native area, for example, year-round temperatures average less than 10°C, and frost occurs during at least nine months a year, including the height of the growing season.2

Kaniwa is so cold hardy that in the high Andes it serves subsistence farmers as a “safety-net.” When all else fails, kaniwa still provides food. Indeed, it is perhaps more resistant than any other grain crop to a combination of frost, drought, salt, and pests—and few other food plants are as easy to grow or demand such little care. Moreover, although its grains are small, few cereals can match their protein content of around 16 percent.

Although kaniwa produces a cereal-like seed,3 it is not a true cereal but a broad-leaved plant in the same botanical genus as quinoa. At the time of the Conquest, kaniwa grain was an important food in the high Andes. It is still widely grown, but only in the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano—a lofty, semiarid plateau hemmed in by high ranges of the central Andes (see map page 133). Most kaniwa is consumed by the family that grows it, but some can be bought in Andean markets, especially near Puno.

The plant is not completely domesticated, and it often grows almost like a weed, reseeding itself year after year. (Farmers like it, however,

1 Gade, 1970. During Inca times, however, it reportedly was restricted to the Inca emperor himself and to his court; the general population was forbidden to eat this “royal food.”
2 Kaniwa possibly may resist cold because a special anatomical structure protects its flowers from damage at temperatures as low as −3°C.
3 As harvested, the “seed” is actually a hard-walled fruit (achene) containing the true seed.

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