The Culinary Traveler: The Forgotten Cereal of the Ancients: Quinoa

Sunday June 1, 2014

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is not a true grain, but the dried fruit of the goosefoot family, brightly colored herb plants related to spinach and lamb’s quarters. But what can I say–it LOOKS like a grain.

Quinoa translates to “mother” in Quechua, one of the main languages of native Andean peoples and Incan descendants.  It was a staple highland grain of equal importance as maize, and considered a primary food source of strength and endurance for working in the thin mountain air.

It has been grown in remote highland rural areas of Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia, up into the present, with each Indian community having their own special strain of quinoa, quite similar in practice to the Indians of the American Southwest and their relationship to corn.
For the indigenous people of the altipano regions of South Amercia, quinoa represents both food and medicine, while at the same time it has remained at the core of their age-old spiritual practices inherited from their pre-Columbian ancestors. Since it carried sacred importance, the Spanish conquistadores under Pizarro stamped out its cultivation, thinking to move the psychology of the mountain people to Christianity.

Quinoa was virtually lost to the world until the 1880s when it made a first appearance in the United States through the work of visionary horticulturalist Luther Burbank.  The “forgotten cereal of the ancients,” as he dubbed the supergrain, did not catch on as a food source for North Americans.

It resurfaced in 1982 in test plots in the high altitudes of the San Luis Valley (this is where Coors plants its vast fields of barley for beer), cool and semi-arid, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Today, this is the main source for domestic organic quinoa in the United States. Quinoa is also imported from South America under the name Ancient Harvest Quinoa and Alter Eco Fair Trade. As an alternate to wheat, barley, and rye, quinoa is one of the fastest growing new gourmet food trends to hit the market in the 21st century.

Bolivian Emigdio Ballon, a Ph.D. in plant genetics, planted quinoa for the Seeds of Change research farm in New Mexico.  As Director of Agronomy and Research Associate, Ballon has personally developed fields of numerous strains of heirloom quinoa in a rainbow of colors, all hand planted with traditional ceremonial rituals, available for home gardeners and limited gourmet food market today.

pearl colored raw quinoa/notice the little hoop surrounding each grain

To Wash or Not To Wash Quinoa

Quinoa is coated with a resiny natural pesticide and preservative compound, saponin, which is bitter and soapy flavored in the cooked grain.  All imported quinoa needs to be rinsed before cooking, as the compound dissolves easily in cold water. Always wash, since a batch of bitter quinoa is not exceptionally palatable. Domestic grown quinoa does not need washing as it is prewashed.

Technique for Washing: Place the seeds in a deep bowl.  Fill with cold water to cover.  Swirl with your fingers; it will foam.  Drain off through a fine mesh strainer and place under cold running water.  Repeat until there is no foam.

cooked red quinoa

Quinoa Tortillas

Tortillas are now showing up made with “ancient grains”. Here is a unique tortilla recipe translated and adapted from a little known South American cookbook Comidas Del Ecucador by Michelle O. Fried (Quito, Ecuador, 1986), a recipe that won her first place in the Primer Festival Costumbrista food competition in 1984.  It is a more complicated tortilla than the basic flour and corn varieties, with the addition of vegetables, cheese, herbs, whole quinoa, and oatmeal, but this savory version is a must for serious tortilla lovers.  A commercial liquid egg substitute works nicely for the liquid in this recipe.  Quinoa tortillas make great quesadillas and chilequilles.

Makes about sixteen 6-inch tortillas


  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup raw quinoa, well rinsed
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1/2 cup grated raw carrot
  • 1/2 cup minced raw red pepper
  • 1 large egg or 1/4 cup liquid egg substitute
  • 3/4 cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking oatmeal
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dry Mexican oregano


1.  In a small saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a rolling boil.  Add the quinoa and reduce the heat to the lowest setting.  Cover and cook until the water is absorbed and the quinoa is tender, about 20 minutes.  Let stand off the heat 15 to 30 minutes before proceeding with mixing the tortilla dough. You can also make the quinoa in your rice cooker.  You want to use the quinoa while it is still warm.  Makes about 2 cups.

2.  In a medium mixing bowl using your hands or a wooden spoon, or the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on the lowest setting, combine the shallots, carrots, red pepper, and eggs.  Add the warm quinoa, oatmeal, whole wheat flour, unbleached flour, cheese, salt, and oregano, stirring just until the dough sticks together, clears the sides of the bowl, and a very soft ball is formed.  Adjust the consistency with a tablespoon or two more of flour or an extra egg, if necessary.

Give the dough a few kneads (less than 10) to make a smooth ball.  Form into a cylinder and wrap the dough in plastic wrap or a clean dishcloth to prevent drying out, and let rest at room temperature 15 minutes.

3.  To shape the tortillas, divide into 16 equal portions about the size of a golf ball.  Place one of the portions of the dough between two pieces of plastic wrap or waxed paper coated with cooking spray for easy releasing.  Press in a tortilla press, turning at regular intervals, until the desired thickness, or roll out with a thin rolling pin to a 6-inch round, less than 1/4-inch thick.  Often the edges will crack; you can leave like this, or press on the plastic to smooth, or trim with a knife.  Leave in the plastic wrap until ready to cook.  You will have a pile of tortillas sandwiched between the layers of plastic or waxed paper to prevent sticking and drying out.  These may be refrigerated in this form for up to 8 hours before baking, if necessary.

from a mural by Diego Rivera

4.  To bake the tortillas, heat an ungreased heavy cast-iron skillet, griddle, or comal over medium-high heat; a drop of water will dance across the surface.  Peel off both layers of the plastic or waxed paper and place each tortilla onto the hot pan, one at a time, or as many that will fit without touching.  Bake for 30 seconds on the first side, turn over and bake for 1 minute, then turn back to the first side and bake for a final 30 seconds; the tortilla will puff up and be speckled with brown spots (that homemade look).  The tortillas can be baked in advance, stacked, wrapped in plastic or placed in a thick plastic bag, and refrigerated overnight.  Rewarm as needed right before eating.

Using quinoa tortillas in recipes: When making recipes that require you to quick fry the tortillas before using (such as enchiladas, which require you pass them through oil or hot sauce before stacking or rolling) you can use the freshly made tortillas without this step. If the tortillas are not quite fresh enough to roll easily without breaking, spritz the tortillas with a small amount of water and place in a towel inside your microwave. Microwave on high for about 15 seconds, and this will restore the freshness to them.

Storage: Quinoa tortillas can be refrigerated, wrapped in plastic wrap, for 2 to 3 days. To reheat for serving, sprinkle each tortilla with a few drops of water and heat on a preheated nonstick pan for 10-15 seconds on each side. They can be also frozen in plastic freezer bags.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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