While quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah or keh-NO-ah) is usually considered to be a whole grain, it is actually a seed belonging to the Goosefoot family, but it can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley. It comes from the Andes Mountains of South America and was one of the three staple foods, along with corn and potatoes, of the Inca civilization.
Quinoa is a favorite whole grain for three reasons. First, it takes less time to cook than other whole grains. One cooking method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing two cups (or less) of water to a boil with one cup of grain, covering at a low simmer and cooking for 10–15 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed.
Second, unlike other grains such as millet or teff, quinoa has a delicious flavor all its own. Add a bit of olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice and it is quite tasty! It is light and easy to digest, not sticky or heavy like most other grains, and it can be substituted for almost any grain in almost any recipe.
Finally, of all the whole grains, quinoa has the highest protein content—an average of 16.2 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for rice, 9.9 percent for millet, and 14 percent for wheat. It also provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein—so it’s perfect for vegetarians and vegans. Besides its unique protein, quinoa also provides starch, sugars, oil (high in essential linoleic acid), fiber, minerals, and vitamins. The nutrient composition is very good compared with common cereals.
Quinoa in its natural state has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it unpalatable. This bitterness has beneficial effects during cultivation, as the plant is unpopular with birds and therefore requires minimal protection. Most packaged quinoa has already been cleaned, but it doesn’t hurt to soak and rinse it just in case. The leaves are frequently eaten as a leafy vegetable, like spinach, but the commercial availability of quinoa greens is limited.