It’s touted as a superfood. Quinoa (which we all know to pronounce as keen-wah) is often described as an ancient grain although, strictly speaking, it’s a seed, not a grain. It’s gluten-free, high in fibre and full micronutrients. And it’s the only plant food that contains all nine of the amino acids (read protein) our body needs. What’s not to love?
It’s certainly old. Quinoa has been cultivated in South America for thousands of years. It was a staple food long before the Incas and is indigenous to the Andes in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. So why did the General Assembly of the United Nations declare 2013 to be the International Year of Quinoa? The special year was suggested by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as part of a broader strategy to promote traditional or forgotten crops as a means to combat world hunger and promote healthy eating.
By then quinoa, categorised as a pseudo-cereal, had been recognised beyond its native region as a healthy alternative to grains such as rice and was being grown in many countries around the world, including Australia. It wasn’t as new as we thought though. The first reference we have to quinoa in Australia dates back to 1835 when The Colonist gave an account of its planting in England. The article described its uses, saying:
…[it]ranks in utility with the potato, the maize and the wheat. The leaves are used as spinach or sorrel or as greens; and the seeds in soups and broths or as rice. Through a great part of South America and especially in Peru, the seeds are in as common use as rice is in Hindostan.
In 1910, the Australian botanist, Fred Turner, wrote that he had cultivated the quinoa plant “but it does not thrive in the coastal districts.” Over the decades, it seems a few gardeners experimented with the plant; Mrs Daw of Esperance was distributing seed in 1920 but reported she had lost her entire crop when a herd of cows ate it.
The FAO became interested in quinoa in the 1950s. An article headlined “Junior, Eat Your Quinoa” appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1954 and described the origin and versatility of the seeds, which the ancient Incas regarded as sacred. It reported:
Technologists of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations believe the plant has commercial possibilities. Their tests show that 100 grams of the seed – a very small meal – contain more starch, proteins and vitamins than a plate of eggs, a fresh fish, a side dish of assorted vegetables and a generous helping of condensed milk.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that food writers in Australia caught up with quinoa. In 1989, it was suggested as an alternative to rice, bulghur, barley or cous cous. Mark Shields called it “an instant ticket to oneupmanship” and wrote: “These days, it’s just the thing to spring on unsuspecting guests, using a throw-away line like ‘cous cous is so tedious'”. By this time, the pseudo-cereal, imported from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, was beginning to appear on the shelves of gourmet groceries and natural food shops but had yet to find a place in the major supermarkets.
The first Australians to grow quinoa commercially were the Damon family of Kindred Organics in northern Tasmania. They planted their first crop in 2007 and, the following year, world prices soared along with the growing trend towards healthy eating. Prices peaked in 2014 but stabilised as supply caught up with demand.
The Three Farmers group began growing quinoa in 2010 at Narrogin in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. The enterprise required new farming practices as the local climate, with its hot summers, was very different from the high plateaux of the Andes. In Western Australia, it’s a winter rather than a summer crop, with the harvest in spring.
There was also a processing issue. Quinoa seeds are coated with a soapy substance called saponin, which protects them from insects and birds. It turned out that this coating, which must be removed to make the seeds palatable, was thicker for plants grown at low altitudes. The group convinced the supermarket giant, Coles, to subsidise their investment in a processing plant that washes and scours the seeds and the brand appeared in supermarkets in 2015.
Quinoa hasn’t been a bonanza for Australian farmers. Cheaper product from South America has undercut the price although there is still demand for the local product grown under more sustainable conditions. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Some people unashamedly confess that they hate it. But, with health-conscious Aussies using it in everything from their breakfast porridge to soups, stews and salads, the industry seems to have a solid, if not spectacular, future in this country.