Quinoa

Quinoa plants

Beautiful quinoa plants. Image from here

The New York Times published this article while I was abroad in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and sparked my initial interest in learning more about quinoa’s cultural significance.  I had plenty of local Andean potatoes for lunch and dinner with my host family, but they prided themselves on their Western diet (pasta, fried chicken, coca-cola, etc.) and I only really ate quinoa while visiting an indigenous community high up in the mountains near Lake Titicaca.  The disparity in quinoa consumption among urban Bolivians and those from the altiplano seemed also to be based on some kind of stigma that equated quinoa with peasant food. Almost two years later, this article suggests something similar.  Why this is I’m still not totally sure.  I started to think that tracing quinoa’s path to the United States might help broaden my understanding.

 Chenopodium quinoa, commonly known as quinoa, existed for centuries as a staple crop for Quechua people in Andean regions of South America.  Classified as a goosefoot, the quinoa plant shares similar qualities to spinach and beets, though it is often referred to as a grain.  Archeological evidence suggests that quinoa initially was cultivated sometime around 5800 to 4500 B.C.  In high-altitude environments, like those of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, quinoa’s ability to withstand natural elements and its nutritionally rich content allowed local indigenous communities to survive.  Pre-Colombian societies in Tiahuanaco were dependent on quinoa for this reason and quinoa held cultural significance to succeeding Inca civilizations that deemed it “the mother grain”. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century challenged this status, and for various reasons, the Spanish failed to adopt quinoa into their diet and instead turned to the domestication of potatoes and corn (which I ate plenty of in both urban and rural areas).

In the 1970’s, three interested travelers from the United States decided to bring quinoa back to the United States and initiated its cultivation in Colorado, where they found the Rocky Mountains to possess similar altitude and climate to the Andes.  Since their introduction of quinoa within the United States, the crop has seen increased attention beyond health food stores.  People seem to love all the health benefits of this delicious and versatile food. While quinoa is extremely nutritious, free of gluten, and tasty, I hope learning more about it adds to your appreciation of eating it.

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