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Wednesday, February 18, 2004, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

'Supergrain' quinoa is packed with protein, calcium, other vitamins

By Providence Cicero
Special to The Seattle Times

Good things come in minuscule packages. So it is with quinoa, a leafy plant that has thrived in the Andes for more than 5,000 years, undaunted by high altitudes, steep, arid slopes and poor soil. Rich in iron, potassium and B vitamins, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) is full of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and Folate.

Quinoa, a grain-like seed, is high in protein, says Cynthia Kupper, a registered dietician and executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America. One cup of quinoa has more calcium than one cup of milk, notes Kupper.  She says that quinoa is "a more complete protein" than most grains, and she adds, it is gluten-free. No wonder the ancient Incas revered this dietary staple as "the Mother Grain" and promoters today have dubbed it "the Supergrain."

"The Incas were the original vegetarians," said quinoa importer Bob Leventry, who with his wife, Marjorie, founded Chicago-based Inca Organics, a bulk wholesaler. "All they had were llamas, which weren't eaten; they were pack animals. Until the Spanish and Portuguese introduced pigs and cattle, the Incas' source of protein was quinoa."

Where to find quinoa

Inca Organics' Web site ( has links to stores and mail-order sources for their quinoa, including:

Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Ore. (800-349-2173; and Seeds of Change, which offers three kinds of flavored quinoa blends: French herb, tomato basil and cilantro. Both brands are available in local supermarkets.

Chieftain Wild Rice of Spooner, Wis. (800-262-6368; is a mail-order source for Ecuadorian quinoa, as well as for a unique black quinoa grown by White Mountain Farm (800-364-301;, which has grown quinoa on the slopes of the southern Colorado Rockies since 1987.

Quinoa is even thriving on the Canadian prairies. Saskatchewan-based Northern Quinoa Corp. markets an organic light-brown quinoa under the Norquin brand (866-368-9304, toll free;

PCC, Central Market and Whole Foods Market, as well as stores specializing in Latin American foods such as Il Mercado Latino at Pike Place Market are good local sources for bulk quinoa.

The Leventrys developed an interest in quinoa while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador. Wishing to promote organic farming, as well as help exploited Andean farmers, the couple joined forces with ERPE, a socially conscious radio station in Ecuador.  Inca Organics promised ERPE's listeners it would provide a market for all the quinoa they could produce, allowing each family to keep a third of its output for personal use. Today, more than 4,000 Ecuadorian farmers participate in the program.

Most quinoa still comes from South America, although growers in North America are cultivating hybrids. The seeds range in color from pale straw yellow through red and brown to black.  "I first tasted this ancient grain with the distinctive curlicue tail almost 20 years ago in a Tabouli-like salad fragrant with mint and dressed with lime and jalapeno vinaigrette. It was a favorite of New York chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, who, like quinoa, was a Peruvian native. The recipe for "Quinoa en Salpicon," appeared in his now out-of-print cookbook "The Art of South American Cooking," which was published in 1991, the year he died.

Though quinoa is not a true grain, it can be used in place of rice or other grains in many recipes. Cook it much like rice, combining two parts liquid to one part quinoa. Bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 10 to 15 minutes, until the germ spirals out and the seeds take on a lacy look. They should retain a slight crunch. Toasting the seeds in a dry skillet for a few minutes before cooking enhances quinoa's subtle, nut-like flavor.  Cooked longer, to the consistency of porridge, quinoa mates happily with fruit, yogurt or other toppings.

Those with certain sensitivities may want to experiment with quinoa flour or quinoa pasta. Be aware, though, that the quinoa noodles cook to a softer texture than those made from other grains, never really passing through the "al dente" stage.

Quinoa should be rinsed thoroughly before cooking to remove any bitter, soapy saponine residue that might be clinging to it. This resinous coating is believed to have contributed to quinoa's survival from ancient to modern times, protecting the seeds from birds, insects and the hot sun.

"Most companies polish the quinoa because they want to recover the saponine for other uses," said Inca Organics' Leventry, "but abrasive methods can remove some of the outer covering."  His company developed a process that removes the saponine but keeps the grain intact so the end product has double the fiber and retains more nutrients.

Providence Cicero: