Quinoa, pronounced [keen-WAH] is a seed crop eaten as a grain. The plant, Chenopodium quinoa, grows in the high elevations of South America. The little seeds were a principal food crop of the Incas and the Aztecs and in the last many years have become more known in the U.S.
Although the plant is best known for it's edible seeds the greens, related to spinach are as well edible.
The quinoa fields were harvested by hand for centuries but now machines are used for gathering much of the annual crop. Once harvested the heads are thrashed to remove the seed. The seed then is winnowed to remove the husks. The resulting seed is coated with a bitter layer of saponins which in nature wards off pests and birds. The seeds must be processed with an alkaline solution that removes the layer and renders the seed edible. The seed can then be packaged or ground into flour.
Quinoa has the highest amount of protein of any grain crop, about 6 grams in a half cup serving. Due to the concentration of amino acids the quality of protein is compared to milk. That half cup serving also nets you 3 grams of dietary fiber and 23mg of potassium. One of the many benefits of this grain is that it is a gluten-free option for our growing population of people with wheat intolerance.
The most common quinoa found in stores is white but black and red varieites are starting to get better distribution. Other colors include orange and yellow but tend to be hard to find outside of South America.
There is a variety of quinoa found in Mexico, (Chenopodium berlandieri spp. nuttalliae). Pronounced [wah-ZONT-lay]. Rather than harvesting the seed, the green heads are battered up and fried. Read more about huauzontle.