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Quinoa – From Detergent to Gourmet Superfood

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For thousands of years, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has been a staple food in the Andean diet. For the Incas, quinoa was sacred and the mother of all crops, used in religious ceremonies. Often mistaken as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed from a vegetable related to spinach and beets. It was domesticated for human consumption 3000 to 4000 years ago in the Andean region of what is today Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Today, it’s still part of the local diet and if you travel to South America you’re likely to encounter to many dishes containing quinoa.

The Nutritonal Value of Quinoa

Lately, quinoa has gained popularity in North America and Europe because of its high nutritional value. The seeds are high in protein compared to rice and wheat, and also contain high levels of fiber, magnesium, iron and phosphorus. Quinoa is a good source for calcium and also, it’s gluten-free – making it popular with the growing numbers of people on gluten-free diets. There are many different varieties of quinoa, with colors ranging from light golden tones to dark purple. The most popular varieties are white, red, and black quinoa.

Quinoa at the market in Bolivia

Given all the benefits of eating quinoa and its increasing popularity, it’s understandable that the United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Most quinoa produced in South America comes from Peru and Bolivia, but more and more countries are cultivating quinoa these days.

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa is usually cooked in the same way as rice and served as a side dish for meat or vegetable dishes, but it can also be used in soups, salads, stews and even desserts.  Sometimes it’s eaten for breakfast with fresh fruit. More recently, quinoa has even attained gourmet status, with some chefs developing especially creative quinoa recipes. One of the most delicious is the famous quinotto – like a risotto, but made with quinoa. To see some healthy and easy recipes containing quinoa, go here.

One important thing to remember is to rinse the quinoa seeds well before cooking. Quinoa is covered in a toxic and bitter tasting chemical which keeps birds away. Most of the quinoa sold abroad has been rinsed before it gets to the consumer, but even so it’s a good idea to soak and rinse the quinoa before cooking.

Eating quinotto in Peru

Quinoa chocolate in Cusco, Peru

Other Uses for Quinoa

As mentioned already, fresh quinoa seeds are coated in saponins – bitter and toxic chemicals. Not good for eating – but they do have other benefits. In South America, the saponins are rinsed off and used to treat skin injuries as they have antiseptic properties. Also, saponins can also be used as a detergent for washing clothes. As if all these benefits were not enough, quinoa also has anti-inflammatory properties – it was traditionally used by the Andean people to treat sprains and broken bones (in combination with other plants).

Quinoa dish from the market in Bolivia

So as you see, quinoa is a true superfood, not a passing fad. This ancient crop has been popular for thousands of years for good reason.

Have you ever tried quinoa? Do you have  a favorite recipe that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Viventura specializes in individual and group tours to South America. To find out more, contact us now by email or telephone:

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