Remember when quinoa was the new brown rice? Or maybe it was the new couscous. Boasting the nutritional density (and then some) of the former and the short cooking time of latter, the South American seed originally found supporters in vegetarian restaurants internationally where it acted as a high protein rice replacer. Quinoa had clearly “made it” when Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart got on the quinoa bandwagon, publishing recipes for “killer quinoa salad” and a (slightly less appetizing) “quinoa spinach bake,” respectively. Despite its popularity, however, rarely does quinoa shine at fine-dining restaurants, much in the same way that brown rice doesn’t often stray from tahini dressings and oversized salad bowls.
Traditionally eaten in the mountainous regions of its native Peru, in Lima, Peru’s capita, the seed was relatively unknown until celebrity Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, championed it. Now the locavore chef has a documentary coming out about revitalizing Peruvian by using little-known local ingredients at his fine-dining restaurants, and his cooking philosophy has inspired an entire generation of young, patriotic cooks who see the possibilities of quinoa and other lesser-known local foods including purple potatoes and passionfruit honey.
What started at Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston (which was recently voted the 14th best restaurant The World's Best Restaurant Awards sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and has been awarded The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award ahead of the first ever Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants List) has now spread to Lima’s other upscale restaurants, including the city’s only fine-dining vegetarian restaurant, AlmaZen. While at Astrid y Gaston, Acurio makes a Thai-influenced yellow fin tuna loin with coconut foam, tamarind, and huacatay black mint sauce on top of quinoa “no mai kai,” at Almazen Chef Enrique Vera combines the seed with sweet potatoes, and cherry tomatoes stuffed in roasted eggplant and drizzled with local olive oil. Vera also uses it in place of couscous in his tabbouli and corn in his cornbread. And he uses it to replace seafood in his popular variation on Peruvian causa Andino, a dish traditionally made with spicy mashed potatoes and mayo-coated shrimp or crab, molded into a circular, single-serving timbale.
Vera thinks as an artist about the composition of his plates, with quinoa being just one of the flavour options he could employ in causa. “You have a layer of a mashed root vegetable – it could be yucca, manioc, arracacha, or it could be potato, either white or black,” says Vera. “Then you have this middle layer of quinoa with chopped onion, tomato, cilantro, and hot pepper. Or sometimes instead of cooked quinoa we use quinoa sprouts – so quick and nutritious. Then you need something to make it gluey and we usually use avocado, brazil nut cream, cashew or pecan cream. And sometimes we don’t shape it as timbales, but as causitas – small causa balls filled with avocado cream or hot pepper cream with salad and dipping sauces.”
At Almazen quinoa isn’t limited to savoury dishes. Vera’s wife, Mariella Matos, uses naturally bitter and nutty quinoa flour in her desserts to contrast sweet exotic fruits and complement Peruvian dark chocolate. She fills her quinoa jellyrolls with either cashew-mango cream or butterscotch-flavoured lúcuma fruit, and makes quinoa banana cake with sweet and tangy jungle bananas. Like Vera, who also uses quinoa in place of corn in his tamales, Acurio gives traditional Peruvian dishes unique presentations at Astrid y Gaston. His ceviche trio comes in a glass dish that separates a pool of standard lime-marinated seafood from a creamy yellow chili version with plantains, and a third with sweet potato, mango and coconut. And his cuy – guinea pig – is glazed à la Peking duck, and served with purple corn crepes, its meat confited in duck fat. The swirl of carapulcra – a stew of pork, dried potatoes, chilies and peanuts – is served as a purée, replacing mashed potatoes. Acurio, however, takes advantage of a wider array of foreign flavours and cooking methods. In his version of chaufa, a dish of Chinese fried rice so ubiquitous in Lima that it’s become traditional, Acurio replaces white rice with quinoa. As a base for an Andean curry of local root vegetables, the unusual combination of Chinese, Peruvian and Indian influences makes the dish feel both familiar and exotic.
Now international gourmet restaurants such as chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous Daniel in New York are incorporating quinoa while avoiding negative “fusion” and “spa fare” correlations. The “black and white quinoa” with basil pesto, fennel marmalade, caramelized artichoke, and black garlic is featured on the vegetarian-only section of the menu, itself another wager on a fine-dining trend from the cutting edge restaurant. And British chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, champions quinoa in his popular vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, combining the seed with smooth, creamy broad beans and avocado, and a healthy sprinkle of freshly ground cuminseed to play off quinoa’s nutty bitterness.
While it may be in the Limenan kitchens of Astrid y Gaston and Almazen that the sweet and savoury possibilities of this superseed have taken root, quinoa has only just begun to spread near and far in the name of haute cuisine and was voted best product of the year, The United Nation (UN) has declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa to recognize the nutritional, ecological, and economic benefits of Quinoa.