From fringe ingredient to Western pantry staple, quinoa's star has risen exponentially in recent years. Where we once muttered the word with a degree of self-consciousness, quinoa now rolls off the tongue. The little high-protein seed appears to be on a fast-track to omnipresence; it peppers the menus of our cafes and restaurants and is increasingly popping up in supermarket aisles in everything from breakfast cereals and pasta to chocolate bars.
Quinoa was the second most-searched for ingredient behind chicken on goodfood.com.au this year, while on search engine Bing, it was the most-searched of the "fitness and foodie fads" among Australian users this year. Scouring quinoa recipes online turns up the full gamut of dishes, from the amazing to the less-than-appealing (turkey quinoa meatloaf, anyone?). Seems we can't get enough.
The rise of quinoa
The growing demand for this healthy seed, traditionally grown and eaten in the Andes, is largely due to its recognised health benefits. There's an ever-growing number of people in the developed world on gluten-free diets for one thing. It's also popular with vegetarians looking to increase their protein intake, and with vegans because of its unique balance of amino acids. It's seen as a great option for diabetics and others looking for lower-GI alternatives to rice, bread and cous cous.
But its popularity, particularly among health-fad followers, has also seen it earn a sort of enmity. A recent posting on Twitter headed "Quinoa - instructions for t--sers" advised would-be cooks to "remove [quinoa] from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes, whilst you have a chance to loathe yourself even more for the middle-class, stereotypical waste of space you've become."
Articles published at The Guardian in January helped fan concern that skyrocketing demand in wealthy countries was taking quinoa out of the mouths of the rural people in Peru and Bolivia who have traditionally grown and eaten the seed. The Guardian article noted that in Lima, quinoa was now more expensive than chicken and was increasingly being replaced in the diets of poorer people by less nutritious foods.
In February Bolivian president Evo Morales said domestic consumption of quinoa had increased "threefold in the past four years ... to 12,000 tonnes”. However, it appears much of the demand is coming from the wealthier sectors of Bolivian society.
The UN declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa with the aim of increasing knowledge and ultimately the production of what it describes as a "life-sustaining seed" that could "help promote food security and poverty eradication, cut malnutrition and boost biodiversity".
A spokeswoman for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation insisted that quinoa-addicts in countries such as Australia could eat South-American grown quinoa without feeling guilty. Goizargi De Las Heras told goodfood.com.au that quinoa remains far less-expensive in the Andean countries. "In some cases the mark-up can be up to seven times the price in comparison to the local price in the producer country."
De Las Heras said farmers in particular were profiting from growing international prices. "[They] are now able to afford other foods, to complement their diets, which they couldn't afford before". The governments of Peru and Bolivia are also implementing programs to ensure quinoa remains a part of the local diet, for example subsidised quinoa in school breakfasts.
Quinoa in Australia
Currently, more than half of the world's quinoa is grown in Peru and Bolivia, but farmers in the US, France, Kenya and India are planting more each year. Australia's only commercial quinoa crop is grown by Kindred Organics in northern Tasmaniabut trial crops are also being planted in Western Australia. Kindred Organics owners Lauran and Henriette Damen are overseeing their sixth crop.
"In our first year [we planted] just a handful - a trial area," Henriette said. "In the second year we [planted] a field; the following year more fields." The Damens now dedicate 40 hectares of their farming land to quinoa - up from about 30 hectares in 2012 - and they're in talks with other organic farmers in Tasmania with the hope they can develop partnerships and gain access to more land. "Our future aim is also to mill it," Henriette Damen explains; a reflection of the growing popularity of quinoa flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour for breads, pastas and other staples.
Cooking with quinoa
Sydney-based chef Michael Moore was asked to write a quinoa cookbook earlier this year, with publishers keen to cash in on its pulling-power. Moore, a diabetic, was already a convert who had included quinoa recipes in his previous cookbook Blood Sugar. At his Sydney restaurant O Bar and Dining kitchen staff use about 200 kilograms every six weeks.
Moore says he appreciates quinoa for its health benefits but also for its "nice nutty, delicate flavour". Moore says that despite quinoa's growing popularity, many people are still wary of cooking with it. "It's one of the main questions I get asked when I do book signings," he said. "The funny thing is it's actually very easy to cook." Quinoa has far less starch than rice or couscous, he explains, "so it doesn't go gluggy and is quite difficult to overcook".
Moore cooks quinoa in batches and keeps a container in the fridge for up to five days, and uses it in breakfasts, to bulk up soups or to throw into salads and even desserts.
"The best thing about it is its versatility," says Moore. "It can go with about any cuisine. It picks up the soy flavours in an Asian dish, the spices in a Moroccan tagine or the garlic and red wine in an Italian recipe."
Moore explains in Blood Sugar: Quinoa & Healthy Living that he likes to cook quinoa in lots of lightly salted water; slightly more than the 2-1 ratio often prescribed. He adds the quinoa when the water is simmering and cooks it until it's just tender; usually 12 minutes for white quinoa, 14 minutes for red quinoa and up to 18 minutes for black quinoa. Once the quinoa is cooked he places it into a fine sieve and runs cold water through it. Moore says white quinoa is more easily overcooked than the red and black varieties, which retain some of their chew.
In Melbourne, chef Nicky Riemer says quinoa has moved into the mainstream and is constantly on the menu at her restaurant, Union Dining in Richmond. She has a different approach to cooking quinoa than Moore.
Riemer believes it is vital to thoroughly rinse quinoa seeds before cooking them. "It is covered in something called saponin, which acts as a natural insect repellent but it has a bitter taste," she says. She advises cooking one cup of white quinoa in two cups of water. She puts the quinoa in cold water then brings it up to a simmer for 12-15 minutes - until nearly all the water has been absorbed; "It should be slightly damp". Riemer then tips the cooked quinoa onto a tray to cool. She uses more water, about 2 1/2 cups, for red and black quinoa.
"I use it in salads, particularly in place of freekeh if we have a gluten-free request. It's a great substitute for pasta or rice or wheat grain in salads, risottos and soups.
"You don't have to put it in raw; you can add it to soups once it's cooked and it won't dissolve and it adds a nutty flavour."
A great salad that reminds me of Sicily, and it goes with everything. It is important to remember that you need to wash your quinoa before cooking it or else it will taste bitter. Pecorino is a beautifully salty hard cheese made with sheep milk and can be bought from most good delis at any market. But you can also use parmesan or even substitute with a hard goat cheese!
500g of white grapes picked and cut in half
500g of red grapes cut in half
1 head of radicchio shredded
2 cups roasted and roughly chopped blanched almonds
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley roughly chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
Juice of 2 oranges
200ml extra virgin olive oil
100g chunk of pecorino
Wash the raw quinoa under running cold water in a fine strainer until the water runs clear.
Place the quinoa and 1.1 litres of cold, salted water in a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for about 12 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed, scoop out on to a tray and cool.
Combine the lemon and orange juices and the extra virgin olive oil in a bowl and set aside.
Combine the cold quinoa, grapes, radicchio, almonds, parsley in a large bowl then dress with the juice and olive oil mix and stir all ingredients together gently.
Spoon quinoa salad on to a large platter and use a microplane to grate the pecorino over the top and serve.
Michael Moore's poached red fruit salad
From Blood Sugar: Quinoa & Healthy Living (New Holland), $24.95.
60g agave syrup
1 small knob fresh ginger, grated
1 small bunch rhubarb
4 fresh black figs
60g organic red or white quinoa
1/2 bunch fresh mint
Preheat the oven to 150C. In a small saucepan heat water and dissolve the agave syrup. Add grated ginger. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the rhubarb and cut into 3cm batons. Place the rhubarb into the saucepan with the agave liquid and cook on a low heat for approximately 2 minutes.
Trim the stalks from the strawberries. Cut the figs and strawberries in half and place them into an ovenproof dish. Pour the hot poached rhubarb and liquid over them. Place the dish into the oven for 5 minutes, remove and allow to cool in the liquid.
Place the quinoa in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes until plumped and tender, then drain and rinse under cold water.
Drain the liquid from the fruit and add it to the cooked quinoa with the finely chopped mint leaves.
Arrange the fruit on serving dishes and spoon the sweetened quinoa on the top.
Michael Moore's quinoa rumbled eggs
You can modify this recipe how ever you like - I find roasted red peppers with crumbled fetta cheese also tastes great.
8 large free range eggs
1/2 cup light cream
Sea salt and pepper
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium-sized green zucchini in 1 cm dice with skin on
1 small red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
60g yellow grape tomatoes, halved
60g red cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves picked and shredded
250g cooked red quinoa
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
In a medium-sized bowl crack the eggs and lightly whisk together with the light cream, sea salt and pepper.
Warm the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan, add the diced zucchini, red onion, crushed garlic and the chilli flakes. Cook together for 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, basil and the cooked quinoa and cook for a further 2 minutes.
Over a high heat, add the egg mixture and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Keep stirring until mixture just begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and adjust seasoning and chilli level.
Spoon into your serving dishes and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts.
Images for Michael Moore recipes supplied by New Holland publishers.