Exotic Grains: Amaranth, Millet, and Quinoa

Among the multitudes of grains there are several that seldom see a Western cookpot, though they have places on menus elsewhere in the world. They may sound and even look exotic, but the canny vegetarian will make room in the kitchen pantry for them and make sure these grains find their way into recipes as often as possible. For like their more common kinfolk, these grains, too, are nutrient workhorses.


The amaranth plant’s tiny tan seeds are nutritious and apparently were grown and eaten by the ancient Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs, the latter believing the seeds contained some potent magic that gave people power. Today, amaranth seeds are valued for their high protein content—especially the amino acid lysine—as well as their vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The leaves of the plants figure as a vegetable in some Latino countries. Amaranth cooks in a covered pot in about twenty minutes, with a ratio of one part amaranth to three parts water.


Bland millet seeds—golden, red, or white—are popular for their nutritional profile, particularly in Asia and Africa. A serving offers beneficial amounts of niacin, magnesium, and phosphorous, and millet offers a significant benefit in cutting down on the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Like amaranth, millet cooks in water with a ratio of one part millet to three parts water. Cook covered for about twenty-five minutes.


Quinoa seeds are naturally coated in a substance called saponin, a bitter-tasting compound that may cause intestinal upsets for some people. Saponin is easily removed by rubbing the seeds between your hands in water.


An ancient food favored by the Incas and other South American native peoples, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) is not actually a cereal, grain, or grass, but is instead the seed of a leafy green vegetable. A source of complete amino acids, the word quinoa translates from the Quechua language as “the mother grain.” Its value for the Incas came from its energy-sustaining properties, which some suggest allowed Incas to march or run for days on a handful of the seeds. Besides protein, quinoa also contains various minerals.

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