Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chilean Quinoa

In 1551, 10 years after taking possession of Chile for Spain Pedro de Valdivia wrote King Charles V concerning the new colony:
I can tell you truthfully of the goodness of this country….. cattle like those of Peru [llamas, vicunas] prosper, with wool that drags on the ground; it abounds in all the foods the Indians plant for their subsistence, such as corn, potatoes, quinoa, madi, chili and beans.  The people are large, tame, friendly and white, and of attractive faces, men as well as women, all dressed in wool in their style, although the clothing is somewhat crude.[1] (all translations mine)
This was the earliest mention of quinoa, (or quinua, from the Quechua) Chenopodium quinua, the “mother grain” of the Incas, and although Valdivia wrote enthusiastically, if not always truthfully (the native Mapuche were neither friendly nor tame—they killed him two years later), of the country’s blessings, he didn’t mention quinoa again.

Quinoa is not a grain; member of the grass family like the wheat, barley, oats and rice familiar to the conquistadors, or the American maize (corn) they found and readily adopted. It is an “herb,” a leafy plant with no woody stem and abundant small seeds, unlike any plant cultivated for seeds in Spain.  While the conquistadors ate it, comparing it to rice, it remained stigmatized as low status “Indian food,” and did not become part of the colonist’s agriculture.[2]

Today, 450 years later, quinoa is finally achieving recognition beyond indigenous communities. And while it has been subject to the usual levels of marketing hype (at left) quinoa’s high levels of protein, balanced amino acid composition, pleasant taste, and easy cooking qualities have made it popular with both the health food and foodie communities.  And its potential for improving diet in high altitude and dry environments has led the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to name it as “one of the crops destined to offer food security in the next century.”[3]

Quinoa origins      

The earliest evidence of quinoa in archaeological sties is from Peru in levels thought to date to about 7,000 years ago. In northern Chile quinoa seeds were being collected by 5,200 BP (before present), and they were found in an archaeological site on a tributary of the Rio Maipo near Santiago from about 3,000 BP. Quinoa was attractive to hunting and gathering people both because of its nutritional value and because it could be stored without suffering losses from rodents and insects: quinoa seeds have a bitter soap-like saponin coating which makes them unpalatable unless they have been washed.  Domestication probably occurred by 3,500 years ago in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca where the plant’s greatest genetic diversity is found.[4]

 Quinoa, corn and potatoes were the principal crops of the Inca and their predecessor from Columbia south to northern Chile and Argentina. Quinoa’s remarkable ability, shared with potatoes, to grow at altitudes over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) made it the dominant seed crop at high altitudes.  In Chile it was grown from high altitudes to sea level, and from dry northern valleys to wet Chiloe Island, off the south-central coast. This great adaptability to differing climates and altitudes is the result of indigenous farmers’ selection of the most promising varieties for their particular location, producing thousands of local varieties in five major categories:  Chilean sea level quinoas adapted to low elevations, long days and high rainfall; Andean valley quinoas that grow at 2,000 to 4,000 meters; subtropical quinoas from the eastern Bolivian Andes; salar quinoas adapted to soils with high salt content; and Antiplanic varieties from around Lake Titicaca at 3500-4000 feet which are adapted to a short growing season and are frost resistant.[5]

While quinoa continued to be cultivated by many indigenous Andean communities after the conquest, in Chile  constant war with the Spanish south of the Mapuche frontier disrupted the traditional Mapuche way of life and cultivation of many traditional foods, including maize and quinoa, was greatly reduced; replaced by wheat and other European crops.[6]  In the 1620s the Spanish soldier, Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, whose account of this captivity by the Mapuche is full of discussions of the food he was given, mentions quinoa only once, when he was given bags of “toasted corn flour, mixed with quinua.[7]  By the 19th century it is rarely mentioned except as an historical oddity: as in “Quinoa still existed in Chiloe in the year 1875”.[8] Even Mapuche chief Pascual Coña’s dictated Indigenous Araucanian Life and Culture in the Second Half of the 19th Century, which provides an extensive discussion of Mapuche food and agriculture, mentions quinoa only once: “quinoa in olden times replaced cereals.”[9]

By 1997, only 435 acres of quinoa were under cultivation in Chile (in the highlands near Iquique) down 30% from 20 years earlier.[10]

Quinoa in Europe and North America

While quinoa cultivation was declining in Chile, it continued (and continues) be cultivated in Indigenous Peruvian and Bolivian communities, and was observed with interest by a number of European visitors.  In 1838, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine published an article on quinoa, including the drawing to the right, a botanical description, discussion of its varieties and their uses, and its introduction to Europe:
Father Feuillée, in his travels in Peru and Chili, seems first to have brought this plant to notice. Dombey, in 1779, sent seeds to Paris, but they did not succeed; nor are we aware that it was know in a living state in Europe till within these last few years, when it was in cultivation first in Paris, and since in England.  Mr. Lambert directed public attention to it in 1834: and we are indebted to the Glasgow Botanic garden to John McLeal, Esq., of Lima for seeds which have increased most abundantly in the course of a single year. [11]

It was also discussed by Dr. J.J Von Tschudi,[12] who visited in 1838-42.  He noted that while only a little wheat and barley were cultivated by Andean communities:

Quinoa continued to receive notice throughout the 19th and 20th century in books and journals including Popular Science Monthly (1893), National Geographic Magazine (1916),  The Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1931), The Farm Quarterly (1950), and etc.,  Then in the 1980’s quinoa imported from Peru and Bolivia began to appear in US health food and specialty shops, and to be widely discussed in magazines and books. In 1986 an article entitled “Quinoa, a Legacy of the Andes, Arrives” extolling it’s virtues and providing recipes appeared in the New York Times; a sure sign that it had arrived.[13]

Today quinoa is widely available in North America through the original importer The Quinoa Corporation and others, and is being grown in Canada.  It is also available in the UK and Australia and in Europe.

Quinoa Corporaton’s Ancient Harvest brand

Back in Chile

Beginning in the late 1990s, interest in quinoa has grown in Chile. In 2007 quinoa was being produced on 3,640 acres, over 90% by indigenous Aymara in the area of Colchane in the far north, an 800% increase over 1997.  Quinoa is also cultivated on a small scale in the central valley south of Santiago.  Most producers there are elderly, and much of the production is for home consumption, but a little over half is sold regionally or is destined for European and North American markets. 

In Chile’s  Region IX, The Araucanía, quinoa (dawe or dahue in the Mapuche language) historically formed a part of the Mapuche cultivation system and diet, and as muday (quinoa drink) and food for animals.  Some Mapuche women continue to grow it in small gardens interplanted with corn, beans, and potatoes. During the last decade the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture’s southern development center CET Sur has encouraged seed sharing, recovery of traditional uses, and innovations for new uses (including interchanges between Mapuche women and Chilean chefs), and has promoted organic production of quinoa in rural and indigenous communities.[14]  

CET Sur’s pullication La kinwa mapuche, un aporte a la alimentación[15] (Mapuche Quinoa, a Contribution to Diet) includes Mapuche women’s comments about their experiences in the program:
I have been eating quinoa since I was a little girl, prepared with milk and sugar, and also as mote…. but during the last five years I have continued experimenting and have developed many dishes; main dishes, stews, fried foods, sweet and salted beads, cookies and many deserts.  I have also made spreads to use in place of butter, salads with the leaves, and have fried the seed heads when they are tender.  Zundia Pepí
…I only knew the most traditional uses of quinoa that I heard about from my grandmother, but I never ate it as a girl because I left the village.  But when I came back… I began to love plants, flowers, birds and animals.  In 2000 I started to develop dishes with quinoa; desserts, salads and fried dishes and then I thought that instead of buying pizza I could make my own creation… Now I can recommend it; you make a dough to which you add cooked quinoa, being careful that the seeds are soft and not dry.  You spread the dough in a pan, calculating that it shouldn’t be very thick and you put it in the oven.  The filling is made with various vegetables, with egg, white and black quinoa seeds, and grated cheese.  Eris Cornado

Quinoa is now widely available in Santiago supermarkets and tostadurias, both as washed seeds and as flour.  Prices range from around 3,750 to 4,700 pesos/kg ($3.40-4.25 US/lb.), and it appears occasionally in restaurants—especially vegetarian and up-scale Peruvian. 

Quinoa and nutrition

Quinoa is the basis of the diet of children of the altiplano. It is a blessing and great privilege.  Only now is the nutritional value of this Andean cereal recognized, with its 18% of easily assimilated protein, balanced amino acid composition, and iron, calcium, phosphorus, fiber, vitamin E and B complex content  Although it is now being replaced by rice and pasta, quinoa is still present in the Aymara diet almost every day. It is the reason that the nutritional status of Aymara children is good, with very few recently reported cases of malnutrition.  Arturo Kirberg B. MD, Iquique, Chile.  “The health of the Aymara child”[16]   

Quinoa is higher in protein, with from 8 to 22%, that comparable cereals (wheat, corn, rice, etc.), and the protein is of high quality, with a better balance of essential amino acids.  It has high levels of lysine and methionine, which tend to be low in most plant protgein, and is a good source of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals   The UDSA food values tables (via Wikipedia) provide the data at right.


Most quinoa you are likely to encounter will have been washed to remove the bitter saponin coating, but if not, it should be rinsed under a stream of water in a fine strainer or in a pot until the rinse water runs clear.   Quinoa is cooked like rice: 1 part quinoa and 2 parts water are brought to a boil and then simmered 15 to 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. And like rice it can be sautéed in oil first for pilafs.  The flavor is slightly nutty but otherwise relatively neutral, so it is really combined with other flavors.

There are hundreds of quinoa recipes on the internet, but for a start try Recipes for Health: Quinoa from the New York Times,  Cooking Quinoa from a US mail order source, Good Food from the BBC, or Quinoa Recipies from the Quinoa Corporation. 

Meanwhile, here are two Chilean quinoa recipes, an Aymara quinoa pudding from the cookbook Cultura y alimentación indígena en Chile (Indigenous Culture and Diet in Chile).

…and a New Chilean recipe for from the bilingual cookbook Sabores de Chile para el mundo (Chilean Flavors for the World). Click to enlarge.

[1] Toribio Medina, José [editor].  1929,.  Cartas de Pedro de Valdivia.  Sevilla: M. Carmona Velázquez.  P. 223 On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0008846  Note that madi is Madia sativa, an oil seed cultivated by the Mapuche.,
[2] Tagle,  Blanca and M. Teresa Planella. 2002. La quinoa en la zona central de chile, supervivencia de una tradición prehispánica. Santiago: Editorial Iku p 43 as quoted in  Cocinas Mestizas de Chile: La Olla Deleitosa, Sonia Montecino Aguirre, Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino, 2004. p. 70.  On line at www.precolombino.cl/zip_pdf.php?id=1905
[3] Jacobsen, Sven-Erik. 2000. Quinoa – Research and Development at the International Potato Center.  On line at www.cipotato.org/publications/pdf/002670.pdf
[4] Kolata, Alan L. 2009 Quinoa:  Production, Consumption and Social Value
in Historical Context.  Latin American Studies Association 2009 Congress Paper Archive. On line at lasa.international.pitt.edu/members/congress-papers/.../KolataAlanL.pdf , and  Planella O, María Teresa, Luis E. Cornejo B and Blanca Tagle 2005. A.Alero las Morrenas 1: evidencias de cultígenos. Chungara, Revista de Antropología Chilena.  37(1):57-74. On line at www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0717...script=sci_arttext 
entre cazadores recolectores de finales del
período arcaico en Chile central.
[5] Valencia-Chamorro S.A. 2003.: Quinoa. In: Caballero B.: Encyclopedia of Food Science and Nutrition as quoted in Jancurová M., Minarovičová L., Dandár A. 2009. Quinoa – a review. Czech J. Food Sci., 27:71–79.  On line at www.agriculturejournals.cz/publicFiles/06732.pdf
[6] Torrejón, Fernando and  Marco Cisternas. 2002. Alteraciones del paisaje ecológico araucano por la asimilación mapuche de la agroganadería hispano-mediterránea (siglos XVI y XVII). Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 75:729-736.  On line at www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0716...script=sci_arttext
[7] Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Francisco. 1948. El Cautiverio Feliz.  Biblioteca de escritores Chilenos.  Zig-Zag. On line at http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/servlet/SirveObras/78039514323481684765679/index.htm
[8] Cavada, Francisco J., 1914. Chiloé y los Chilotes. Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografía, 7-14.  On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl//temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0008648
[9] Wilhelm de Moesbach, Ernesto. 1936 Vida y costumbres de los  indigenas araucanas  en  la segunda mitad del siglo xix (presentadas en la autobiografía  del  indígena  Pascual Coña). Santiago de Chile: Imprenta Universitario Estado 63. p. 102  On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl//temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0008879
[10] Delatorre-Herrera, J.  2003. Current Use of Quinoa in Chile.  Food Reviews International 19(1-2)155-165.
[11] Chenopodium Quinoa. Useful Quinoa (3641). 1838. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. London. 12(new series)
[12] Tschudi, Dr. J. J. von.  1847. Travels in Peru, during the years 1838-1842. Thomasina Ross, translator. New York: Wiley and Putnam. p. 257.  On line at http://books.google.cl/books?id=J6UaAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Travels+in+peru&hl=en&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false
[13] Fabricant, Florence.  The New York Times; Living Desk
February 12, 1986, Wednesday  Late City Final Edition, Section C, Page 1, Column 1
[14] Bécares, Diana Alfonso and Didier Bazile.2009. La quinoa como parte de los sistemas agrícolas en Chile: 3 regiones y 3 systemas. Revista Geografíca de Valparaíso 42:61-72, on line at www.rgv.ucv.cl/Articulo%2042-6.pdf , and Thomer I., Max and Juan Sepúlveda A. 2005. Experiencia de investigación participante en la recuperación de la kinwa mapuche. Serie de Publicacionse CETSUR No. 7.  On line at www.cetsur.org/.../experiencia-de-investigacion-participativa-en-la-recuperacion-de-la-kinwa-mapuche.pdf   Note: CET Sur  is “Southern Center for Education and Technology for Development”
[15] Thomet, Max and Juan Sepúlveda  A. 2005 La kinwa mapuche, un  aporte a la alimentación.  Serie De Publicaciones Cetsur, No. 8 On line at http://www.cetsur.org/?p=226  
[16] Kirberg B, Arturo. 2006. La salud del niño aymara. Revista chilena de pediatría. 77(6):608-609.  On line at http://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0370-41062006000600009

Monday, August 2, 2010

Curanto: Chiloé’s ancient “clambake”

By 6,000 years ago, and perhaps as early as 10,000 BP[1] (before present) Chiloé families did something they still do today; wait for the curanto to be ready. Curanto, a pit oven and the meal of shellfish and other foods cooked in it, is amog the most caracteristic and certainly the oldest dish in the cuisine of Chiloé, the large island of south central Chile. In fact, Chiloé’s curanto may be the oldest “recipe” that still graces the world’s tables—at least if we ignore such generic things as “roast meat.”[2]

The evidence is the “feature” (archaeologese for a non-movable artifact) below:  a 6,000 year old curanto from the archaeological site of Puente Quilo on the north coast, west of the city of Ancud (map).   It was found in a shell mound along with the remains of many of the inhabitants’ meals:  “bones of nutria, sea lions, sea birds, fish and whale, as well as hooves of the southern pudú [a small species of deer].  And of course, many remains of shells of scallops, snails, Chilean abalone, surf clams, mussels, hard shell clams, and razor clams.” [3] 

Curanto, is from kurantu meaning “stony ground”[4] in the Mapuche language, but the early curantos were made thousands of years before   Mapuche speakers, the agricultural Huilliche, arrived in Chiloé.  Curantos originated with an earlier hunting, fishing and gathering culture, ancestral to the Chono, the canoe Indians of the archipelago south of Chiloé.

Making curanto

Vicente Pérez Rosales’, a Chilean politician, merchant, miner, diplomat and organizer of German colonization of Chile, described (with evident distaste) a curanto as he observed it, probably in the 1850s.

[Fish] and those inexhaustible banks of exquisite shellfish of all types that the low tides expose were, along with potatoes and fava beans, the larder that sustained [the Chilotes].  Even the means of preparing those delicacies was purely Indian, from the time of the conquest.  In a hole in the ground full of stones heated by a fire are placed shellfish, fish, meat (if there is any), cheese, and potatoes, and without delay, everything is covered with monstrous pangui [fern] leaves, and finished by covering with sod and earth to keep the steam from escaping.  A quarter of an hour later, one saw the whole family, with their obligatory escort of dogs and pigs, surround the smoky horn of plenty in which each one put his hand and ate, sucking his finger’s, until satisfied.[5]

Pérez’s distaste is not shared by Chilean newspaper editor and publisher, Recaredo S. Tornero who, writing in the 1870s, provides a more sympathetic description:

Nalca, the plant used to seal the curanto.
[Curanto] is a type of banquet or feast that they celebrate in the fresh air, always at the edge of the beach, and very frequently since there is never a lack of pretext: now a wedding, a baptism, a sick person now out of danger, a good harvest, finishing a house, a happy return from the mountains, or simply the desire to have a good time.  The curanto is prepared as follows:  They select a site convenient to the edge of a pebbly beach and there they dig a hole a yard deep and equally wide and light a violent fire in the bottom.  When the sides of the pit are well heated, it is a sign that it is ready to receive the infinite variety of foods that make up the curanto: potatoes, ham, pork, lamb, and all kinds of shellfish, mainly clams, of which there are an abundance, requiring no more work to obtain than scratching around in the sand.  Then they cover the bottom and sides of the pit with leaves of fern or nalca, and continue adding the foods mentioned above in layers, separated one from another and with plenty of seasonings, until the pit is completely full.  Then it is covered with another layer of rocks and while the delicious curanto cooks, the guests dance the famous seguidilla, a kind of resbalosa [folk dance, literally “slippery”] for two couples, accompanied by harp and guitars.  It seems unnecessary to add that during all this potato aguardiente [liquor] and apple chicha [hard cider] preside over the entire fiesta.[6]

 A curanto and spit roasted lamb for summer tourists in front of the market in Ancud, .

So…. ready to make a curanto?   Here is a modern recipe, from the cookbook Indigenous Culture and Food in Chile, p. 49):

If a curanto for 30 seems a bit much, you can make polmay, curanto in a pot, using cabbage leaves instead of nalca.  And an advantage is that the good juices are retained, instead of going into the ground. Click here for a recipe, including milcaos and chaples (potato breads).

Below is polmay from Camila’s kitchen in Castro, with a mug of the broth and a cup of wine. The darker colored patty is milcalo and the light one is a chapale.

Other curantos

Just when and where the practice of cooking in a pit with heated stones began, and how many times it was independently invented, is unclear, but the Chilotes were in good company.  Alston V. Thoms, a Texas A&M archeologist who studies such things, tells us that the earliest European curanto-like finds (he calls them “cook-stone features”) date to the late Aurignacian (32–33,000 BP) in France. “They tended to be basin shaped, about 1.5 m in diameter, and filled with heat-fractured river cobbles.”  Similar features are found on all continents, but their purpose is seldom clear.[7] The best know recent (geologically speaking, i.e. with in the last 10,000 years or so) curantos are found in the Americas and in Polynesia.

The earliest found in North American date to around 10,500 BP and by around 9,000 BP they are common in the US Pacific North West, South East and North East where they were used to bake tubers and bulbs of wild plants.  In Mexico and the South West US, they were associated with the roasting of sugary agave hearts; a practice which continues today, but now as the first step in making mescal, the famed Mexican liquor.

An agave curanto in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Barbacoa de hoyo.  photo: Andres Juarez

The Mexican barbacoa (above) is also a curanto, in which beef, lamb or goat is cooked in a pit, often in or over a large pot to catch the juices.  I learned how make barbacoa from Mexican friends in Southern California and successfully cooked several goats, 25 lbs of chuck roast, and a whole pig this way.  (And unsuccessfully undercooked one goat when there wasn't enough wood; we finished it in the oven.)  Here’s my recipe if you’re interested.

In Yucatan the Maya curanto is called a pib, from which emerges the famous cochinita pibil, pig from the earth oven, right. 

Cochinita pipil.  Photo: ¿Que Guiso Hoy?

And every South American region seems to have one too. The Inca version is the pachamanarca (from the Quechan for “earthen pot”) of Peru, Ecuador, and NW  Argentina; Bolivia’s is the wathiya or wajaña; and Brazil and Paraguay have the paparuto.

Curantos are also found throughout the Polynesian islands and the eastern Pacific and include: the Hawaiian  imu;  the Samoan and Easter Island umu; Tahiti’s ahima'a; the Maori hangi; and the mumu from Papua New Guinea.

Easter Island umu Photo:  suenson-taylors

But back to Chile’s curanto:  it inspired this song.  To hear a bit of it, follow this link and click on música.

[1] Curumilla Sotomayor, Sara.  2006 ¡Sorprendente Hallazgo Arqueológico! La Estrella () Jueves, 16 Febrero 2006, Pgs. A-6-7. On line at http://www.aforteanosla.com.ar/afla/articulos%20arqueo/hallazgos%20liticos%20en%20chiloe.htm (Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.)
[2] I thought that bread might be older, but the oldest evidence dates to 3,300 BC (5,300 BP). See “Archeologists Dig Into Bread's Prehistory” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1998.  On line at http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/14/news/mn-59730.
[3] Unidad IV: Sitio Arqueológico De Puente Quilo,  Pasado y Presente en el Bordemar.  Medio Ambiente y Cultura. Museo Regional De Ancud. On line at http://explorancudpuentequilo.blogspot.com/2008/04/sitio-arqueolgico-de-puente-quilo.html This is also the source for the photo and drawing.
[4] Another translation is “rocks heated by the sun”
[5] Pérez Rosalez, Vicente. 1886 Recuerdos del pasado : 1814-1860. Santiago de Chile : Impr. Gutenberg.  P. 383.  On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0004566
[6] Tornero, Recaredo S.  1872.  Chile Ilustrado. Valparaiso:  Librerian I Ajencias del Mercurio.  On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0012105
[7]Thoms, Alson V. 2009. Rocks of ages: propagation of hot-rock cookery in western North America Journal of Archaeological Science. 36(3):573-591