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To the Incas, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) was a food so vital that it was considered sacred. In their language, Quechua, it is referred to as chisiya mama or “mother grain.” Each year, the Inca emperor broke the soil with a golden spade and planted the first seed.1

In the altiplano especially, quinoa (pronounced keen-wa or kee-noo-ah) is still a staple. For millions it is a major source of protein, and its protein is of such high quality that, nutritionally speaking, it often takes the place of meat in the diet. Outside the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, however, the cultivation of quinoa2 is virtually unknown.

Quinoa's large seedheads and broad leaves make it look something like a cross between sorghum and spinach. Its grain is rich in protein and contains a better amino acid balance than the protein in most of the true cereals. In earlier times this grain helped sustain the awesome Inca armies as they marched throughout the empire on new conquests. Today, it is made into flour for baked goods, breakfast cereals, beer, soups, desserts, and even livestock feed. When cooked in water, it swells and becomes almost transparent. It has a mild taste and a firm texture like that of wild rice, a popular gourmet grain of North America. Traditionally, quinoa is prepared like common rice or is used to thicken soups, but some varieties are also popped like popcorn.

The seeds of most varieties contain bitter-tasting constituents (chiefly water-soluble saponins) located in the outer layers of the seed coat. Because of this, they need to be washed—a tedious, time-consuming process—or milled to remove the seed coat. Practical, commercial methods for both processes have been developed in recent years.

Quinoa is beginning to attract scientific attention. In South America, governments and international agencies are extending research support. Moreover, in recent years, seeds have been distributed to more than

1 Today, the cultivation of quinoa almost exactly coincides with the limits of the Inca Empire, although in Chile quinoa extends into the territories of the Araucanians, an extremely creative culture never conquered by the Incas.
2 To conform with the most common English usage, we have chosen to use the spelling “quinoa” rather than “quinua,” which is more usual in Spanish.

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