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For the Aztec people it was sacred, but the Spanish conquerors tried to stamp it out by prohibiting its cultivation and use in religious ceremonies. Amaranth is well and truly the “grain of the Gods,” a super food that has been cultivated for at least 8000 years. It was also a precious source of nourishment for the Maya civilisation, while the Incas, who used to call it the “little giant,” mainly used it for medicinal purposes.
Native Americans were also familiar with “pigweed,” so much so that some native chefs are still keen on using it today. Together with quinoa – this too being a staple food among the native American population – it is one of the best sources of vegetable protein in the world, both in terms of quantity and the quality of its proteins. In the wake of quinoa, and following centuries of obscurantist oblivion, this grain has made a comeback and is all set to conquer the world.
In the US, where quinoa has managed to make headway as a popular alternative to wheat and rice, amaranth has so far only been home grown or cultivated for research purposes. The research carried out by Tennessee University, for example, is pursuing a mission to promote its consumption by North American citizens.
According to a survey carried out last year by the Whole Grains Council, only 15% of North Americans know what it is, and only 4% have ever tasted it. A figure that looks like changing rapidly, as amaranth emerges from its “niche food” category.
What is amaranth?
It grows fast - more quickly than corn - in high temperatures and is able to withstand drought, with a very high yield: one plant can produce 200,000 seeds. It provides about 9 g of protein per portion (250 g) of the first class variety (the closest of all to animal source proteins), since it also contains lysine, an essential amino acid which practically all other grains are deficient in.
In actual fact, amaranth is not a grain but a pseudo grain and consequently gluten-free. On the other hand, it is a good source of fibre, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin C, as well as providing over three times more calcium than the average amount contained in grains.
Crunchy and sweet, with a flavour of hazelnut
So, what about its taste? Most unusual and rather sweet with a flavour resembling that of hazelnut, which becomes more accentuated when roasted or made to pop in a pan like corn kernels. And its texture? It never loses its crunchiness completely, even when boiled: it becomes softer inside, but remains intact on the outer surface. It could be defined as the caviar of cereals, or should we say pseudo cereals, with its tiny precious pearls. However, en masse it can recall the texture of polenta, precisely because of the reduced size of its mini seeds.
How to cook amaranth
Delicious when cooked in a tasty liquid such as tomato juice, it may also be used for fillings, savoury flans, vegetarian meatballs and burgers, fritters and soups. Or in desserts, such as “dulce de alegria,” literally meaning “the sweet of joy,” “alegria” also being the term widely used for amaranth in Mexico, which is where this sweet made from puffed amaranth and honey comes from.
Even the leaves of the plant are edible (along with the tender shoots), and are regularly consumed in certain countries, also in Africa. They are sweet flavoured and may be boiled, fried or prepared in the same way as any other vegetable. Amaranth flour may be used – generally mixed with another type of flour since it has no gluten – to make bread and focaccia. It is possible to buy amaranth pasta as well: thanks to some small-scale producers in Italy, you can now serve tagliatelle or other pasta shapes made from amaranth flour. Finally, guess the name of the Mexican restaurant run by young chef Jorge Vallejo, which came 12th in the 2016 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Quintonil, the Latin American term for “pigweed”…