some thoughts on quinoa

Floating island of Uros on Lake Titicaca

Last summer, I spent 11 weeks traveling throughout South America.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had been majorly influenced by the traditional cuisine of the countries I visited, and came home with new, exotic eating habits?  For sure.  But it didn’t really happen.  Despite living with locals and trying my best to glean gastronomical knowledge, I have to say that South American fare left me relatively unimpressed.  Some observations: Argentinians eat boatloads of red meat at late hours of the night.  Chileans like their meat, too, and lots of refined carbohydrates (one big bonus: avocado at nearly every meal). Prevalence of stomach bugs in Bolivia drove me to eat a strict diet of Clif bars while I was there.  The one gift Peruvians gave me is quinoa; since it’s a bit of a health food fad in the states, I was already pretty well-versed in the grain.  However, Peruvians eat quinoa in a whole new dimension than Americans do.  I present to you my one South American gastro-takeaway: Quinoa for breakfast.

When you think about it, there’s no good reason that the only whole grain that’s been mainstreamed as an American breakfast food is oatmeal (I guess you could count grits, but corn isn’t exactly a grain).  Oats aren’t inherently any more breakfasty than rice, barley, millet, and least of all, quinoa.  We’ve just arbitrarily assigned them to be our hot cereal breakfast staple when there’s a variety of other whole-grain options to choose from.  And I recommend quinoa.  First of all, it’s so flipping good for you that NASA feeds it to astronauts on space missions.  It’s a complete protein, meaning it contains a balanced set of amino acids; this is super rare for plants, especially grains.  Speaking of protein, a cup of cooked quinoa gives you almost 10 grams.  Tell that to the genius who thinks you need animal products at breakfast.

There’s a caveat.  Like many foodnomena of the past, Americans have found a way to take an amazing discovery, exploit it, and produce it in a way that’s terrible for the world.  People of the Andean region (Peru, northern Chile, and Bolivia mainly) have been enjoying the nutritional benefits of quinoa sustainably for literally thousands of years. “Quinoa” is a Quechua word. Quechua, as in, the language of the Incas, who fed quinoa to their soldiers.  We’re talking old-school here. Now that every yoga-pant wearing Whole Foods shopper is hot for the stuff, the demand for quinoa in the Andes has sky-rocketed.  That’s great if you’re an Andean farmer, because, cool, more people want your quinoa.  But it sucks majorly if you’re a poor, rural-dwelling citizen that now can’t afford to eat the nutritious staple of your ancestors.  It’s fine, though, because the corporate food products of the U.S. are so pervasive that you can probably find highly processed, mass-produced crap for very cheap.  We’ll be over here in America, eating your quinoa.

Sad, ironic, true… and probably confusing.  Like, should I eat quinoa, or what?! Yes, you should, but not by the truckfull.  And more importantly, stop buying processed food products made by big U.S. corporations.  When you do this, you’re voting with your dollar to support the companies that are making our country, and the rest of the world, malnourished.  You have the luxury of making informed decisions about what you eat, but not everyone can be that fortunate.  Little Bolivian children are growing up on white bread and Coke that were produced here.  Part of the reason that I found South American food so underwhelming is that much of the traditional, culture-rich diet has been replaced with our depressing Western one.  Any given day of my travels, I could have more easily eaten McDonald’s than anything culturally or nutritionally significant; this is sadly becoming the way of our world.

Wow, I think I started this post to tell you a new delicious breakfast idea, and have ended it with a miserable rant about the state of our global food system.  Wahmp, wahmp. Sorry ’bout it.  In short, be informed about where your food comes from and what was sacrificed for its production.  Specifically, buy as locally and as in-season as you can.  Don’t support large, multinational food processing giants by buying their products.  Educate yourself! Buy this so you don’t have to guess.  And try this for breakfast:

Breakfast Quinoa
I won’t pretend like this is a “recipe” with “ingredients”… Just cook quinoa like you would normally but sub milk (skim, soy, almond, whatever- I use unsweetened almond) for the liquid. Anything you use to spruce up your oatmeal can be used here, too- I love a little bit of agave for sweetness, some vanilla, and cinnamon.  Fruit, nuts, peanut butter, etc. can add some substance. My Peruvian host family would keep sweetened quinoa in the fridge, then throw it in a blender with milk.  Kind of like Horchata!

The End.