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


  1. Por supuesto como buena chilena moderna y santiaguina no vine a comer quinoa hasta estar acá en USA.
    Que bueno que allá también se este haciendo popular, me encanta lo fácil que es de cocinar.

  2. Gracias, Pilar. Mi familia Chilena no había comida tampoco—ACG (antes del cocinero gringo). Pero, parece que el gusto Chileno esta cambiando, un poquitín… Ayer el Jumbo tuvo papas chilotes a granel, siempre hay ajos chilotes, cordero es bastante más común que hace tres años, venden salsa de pescado y curri tailandés, chiles chipotles y pasta de mole Mexicana, etc., y hay nuevos restaurantes internacionales mas o menos auténticos.

    Pero el pastel de choclo todavía es rey!

    Saludos - Jim

  3. Hi Jim, If I were to cook a classic Chilean dish, which would you recommend. I want to do something that looks and tastes delicious, but without too much chili.

  4. The favorite Chilean dish is Pastel de Choclo, similar to Tex-Mex Tamale Pie but with out chili. Take a look at the table of contents and you will find it. I have links to recipies and there are many more, in English, on the web.

    Good luck - Jim

  5. Great info about quinoa! I really like this product, overall to give it to vegetarian people as a good protein source.

    I think you're preparing something gorgeous for our independence day? maybe 200 years of culinary story? who knows... but already sounds delicious.

  6. Gracias, Chef, pero estoy en Espana estudiando - bueno, comiendo - la cocina Andaluza. Tal vez puedo hacer algo sdobre las raices de la cocina Chilena cuando regrese. Saludos - Jim

  7. Hi! I am visiting family in Chile this December and I am vegetarian who relies heavily on quinoa here in the states and would like to continue during my vacay. where can I find quinoa in or near Vina Del Mar? They didnt seem to have it at regular grocery stores. I am thinking about bringing my own in my luggage, but not sure if I am even allowed to!

    Any help would be awesome. Thanks!

  8. TP,

    Quinoa is available in the health food sections of larger supermarkets (Jumbo is a chain with a branch in Vina) and in tostadurias--where they sell dry nuts, beans, spices, etc. Chilean agricultural regulations prohibit bringing any fruit, vegetables, seeds, meats, cheeses, etc. into the country so be careful about what you bring.

    Best wishes - Jim

  9. Hello Jim,

    Thank you for all the wonderful information on Quinoa I have been experimenting with it lots and love it!

    I have a slightly random question for you. I would like to make some healthy treats for my Chilean Ground Squirrel or Degu. I think the Quinoa would be very healthy for him - but I know that Qunioa has the saponin specifically so that it doesn't get eaten by small animals. If I rise the Quinoa really well and then cook it and make treats, do you think it would be okay to use? I have asked my vet but he said he had never heard of Quinoa before.

    Do you have any insights for me? It would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for your blog!


  10. Hi Jim

    I thought of another Quinoa question. I have been scouring the internet to find an answer with no luck! You can buy regular Quinoa and Organic Quinoa here in Canada. The Organic Quinoa is quite a bit more expensive.

    I was wondering if there is any difference between the two - as far as I understand how it is grown, it is all organic, isn't it?

    Is "organic" just a marketing buzzword that some smart marketers are applying in this case so they can charge more for it?

    If there is a difference between Organic and conventional Quinoa, what is it and which would you recommend? I suppose that is more then one question, I hope you don't mind.

    I am really enjoying not only your Quinoa page but all the detailed info you have about Chilean food! Thank you!

  11. Sheena,

    I’m afraid that the care and feeding of Degus is a bit out of my line and in fact I hadn’t heard of them before your comment. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degu) tells us that they are “strictly herbivorous, in the wild feeding on grasses and browsing the leaves of shrubs, though they will also take seeds,” and also that they “are highly susceptible to developing diabetes mellitus when fed regularly on a diet containing free sugars.” I don’t think quinoa has “free sugars,” but with animals that have such specific dietary requirements, experimentation with new foods seems a little chancy. As to “organic,” Canada has specific guidelines for organic certification explained here: (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/organic/certification.htm).

    I’m glad you are enjoying the blog; sorry I can’t be more helpful - Jim

  12. Hola, mi nombre es Pablo Machicao Medinaceli, soy Gerente General de la Empresa Bolivian Golden Grain Queenoa SRL., nosotros nos dedicamos al rubro de los alimentos en base a quinoa. Trabajamos con los tres tipos de quinoa existentes, quinoa blanca, roja y negra. Hacemos barras energéticas 4 tipos de barras (blanca, negra, roja y mix que son las tres quinoas juntas) sin chocolate y las otras 4 con chocolate. Tenemos una capacidad de producción de 60 Toneladas mensual con una forma de producción totalmente automatizada usando maquinas especiales para la producción de estos alimentos.
    Lo que nosostros buscamos son nuevos mercados en Sud America, ya que es el lugar donde no se conoce mucho este tipo de alimentos y ponemos a su consideración la idea de comercializar estos productos en sus tiendas.
    La quinoa que nosostros utilizamos es totalmente orgánica y procedente del sector de Potosi-Bolivia, donde se encuentra la mejor quinoa del mundo por las propiedades de sus suelos.
    Esperando alguna respuesta me despido atentamente.
    Pablo Machicao Medinaceli
    Gerente General
    Bolivian Golden Grain Queenoa SRL.

  13. Gracias Pablo, pero no tengo ninguna tienda. Tal vez alguien entre mis lectores tenga interés.

    Pablo's company, Golden Grain Queenoa (sic ?), makes organic quinoa energy bars and would like to place them in stores in new South American markets. He can produce up to 60 tons a month and would be happy to hear from you if you are interested.

  14. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for this great article. I live in CA now, just wondering where I can buy Chilean Quinoa in USA.
    Thanks for your help in advance

  15. Tannis,

    I don't know any source for specifically Chilean quinoa in the US, but Ancient Harvest´s Bolivian quinoa is widely available. Try Whole Foods or your local health food store.

    Best wishes

  16. I still don't understand why the Paleo community recognizes this super seed as a grain instead. I'll gladly eat it. a variety of protein is better than too much meat protein.

    1. By the authority vested in me as a culinary anthropologist I hereby authorize you to add quinoa to your paleo diet; also chia, acorn mush, piñones, wild rice, cattail roots, and anything else eaten by hunter-gatherers—except people. :-)

      Best wishes


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim