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Heirloom Quinoa
gourmet articlesarchiveheirloom quinoa

December 2005
Quinoa, the grain of the Incas, has been cultivated in the Andean highlands of South America for over 7000 years, yet it is a relative newcomer on the international market. Pronounced "keen-wa", quinoa comes from the Quechua language spoken by the Incas and many indigenous in South America. With the European conquest of the indigenous, the cultivation of quinoa was suppressed possibly because it had a religious significance for the Incas. The indigenous of the Andes continued to grow it in small amounts. In the late 1900's interest in quinoa began in the Andean nations of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. That interest has now spread to North America, Europe, and Asia

Quinoa is a seed grain known for its delicate nutty flavor. Quick cooking, it holds well, and blends nicely with a wide variety of ingredients. Because of its high nutritional profile quinoa is sold in health food stores; but gourmets are now recognizing it for its pleasing flavor and crunchy texture. Today in Peru and Bolivia, where most quinoa is produced, it is one specific variety bred to be large, white, and bland in flavor like rice. There is some quinoa being cultivated in Colorado and Canada; but only a few varieties will grow and the climatic conditions are not advantageous.

A few years ago an experiment was started in Riobamba, central Ecuador to produce heirloom quinoa of superior flavor and cleanliness like that of the Incas. This has grown into one of the most successful development projects in South America. Four organizations have combined forces on this project: The People's Educational Radio of Ecuador (ERPE), a German organic certification organization, Bio Control System (BCS), an American importer, Inca Organics, and the Canadian Development Fund of Ecuador (FECD). ERPE is the coordinating and teaching body of the group in both Spanish and Quechua. BCS controls the organic certification process to the strict standards of the European Common Market, and FECD has provided funds for capital projects such as the post harvest cleaning and packaging facility run by ERPE. Inca Organics pre-pays for the quinoa so that ERPE is able to purchase the quinoa at a fair price from the indigenous when harvested, not when shipped. It also provides an international market for the quinoa.

The heirloom quinoa that is produced is made up of the indigenous varieties used in the Andes since before the Incas. This results in a complexity of color and flavor favored by gourmets internationally. This heirloom quinoa is also washed in 3 separate operations to remove the saponin, a bitter tasting covering of the seeds. This process allows for the removal of any bitter taste while retaining the whole-grain seed. The quinoa of Peru and Bolivia is mechanically processed to get rid of the saponin and thus is not unlike refined rice or white flour without the germ. This means that the whole-grain heirloom quinoa is much higher in fiber and vitamins as well as having a more complex flavor. The washing process also allows for a cleaner ready-to-use product that is much easier to use since it doesn't have to be rinsed. All of this processing provides additional jobs for the indigenous of the community.

In 1999 the development project grew from the original 298 families to 580 families working on small plots of land in 34 communities. This resulted in 57 tons of quinoa exported to the United States. In 2000, 1200 families exported about 150 tons of organic quinoa. Plans include 2500 families in 2001 and 4000 families in 2002. If the 2002 goal is met, 95% of the indigenous families living in 145 communities will harvest 900 tons of organic products. Other products of the Incas, natural and black amaranth, plus the Andean lupin bean will also be cultivated.

In general the indigenous communities of the Ecuadorian highlands are poor, live on unproductive eroded landholdings and suffer from a high incidence of malnutrition. The livelihood of these communities is based on agricultural production of traditional crops such as potatoes and corn. Production is generally low and many of the farmers have used strong chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain production. What little they do produce has little value in the marketplace. The farmers who currently benefit from this project have a typical income of $227 a year. ERPE and Inca Organics estimate that this income was increased over 50% to $357 a year for the participants in 1999. This income will improve in the coming years.

The introduction of organic agriculture in these communities has been facilitated by years of consciousness raising about the dangers of misuse of agrochemicals through radio programs run by ERPE. ERPE, with the help of BCS, has an experimental organic farm that serves as a demonstration and teaching tool. Worm farming is also being introduced into communities. The current economic crisis in Ecuador has helped promoters of organic agriculture because agrochemicals are too expensive for the small indigenous farmer.

The organic agriculture builds on a cultural base of environmentally friendly agriculture practiced by the Incas. The indigenous farmers are participating in the rescue of their culture through the rediscovery and implementation of farming techniques once commonly practiced by their ancestors. In addition, ERPE and Inca Organics have a purchasing strategy that returns 1/3 of the organic quinoa harvested under the project to the producing indigenous family. This combats the malnutrition of the indigenous and is returning them to the high protein nutritious traditional diet of their ancestors.

Heirloom quinoa is distributed in the United States by Tekla Distributing, Chicago, IL; American Roland Food Corp. NY, NY; Chieftain Rice, Spooner, WI; Eden Foods, Clinton, MI; Mezza, Inc. Gurnee, IL; North Farm Cooperative, Madison, WI; Ozark Cooperative, Fayetteville, AK, and Tree of Life, Bloomington, IN. It will be introduced in Europe at Bio-Fach in Nuremberg, Germany this year.

Quinoa can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Typically in South America is used in soups, stews, and desserts. Quinoa flour lends a delicate nutty flavor to quick breads. It is gluten-free, easily digestible and kosher for Passover. Because quinoa contains more protein than most grain and is a complete protein, it is a perfect base for vegetarian dishes.

For more information visit Inca Organics

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