Manataka American Indian Council
Amaranth: Food of the Gods
Three Excellent Articles on Amaranth
Amaranth pasta is light brown in color; when cooked, the pasta is the color of whole-wheat noodles and the consistency of regular noodles.
What food was considered so important to the diet of Mexico's pre-Hispanic population that it was fashioned into images of the gods and eaten as communion? What food was outlawed during the conquest of Mexico, and the people of New Spain forbidden to cultivate or consume? And finally, what food contains between 75% and 87% of total human nutritional requirements? If you've answered "amaranth" to all of the above, congratulations.
Further congratulations are in order if, like a growing number of enthusiastic cooks and gardeners, you have begun to incorporate amaranth into your favorite recipes, and maybe even include it in the kitchen garden. It's English name comes from the Greek amarantus, meaning "never fading", an apt designation, given the varying degrees of esteem and loathing in which this humble plant has been held.
Current interest in amaranth, while well-deserved, gives no indication of the cultural conflict it once caused during the sometimes painful birth of a new nation. As fully as amaranth was appreciated by the indigenous population of what is now Mexico, it was just as fully reviled by the Europeans, as one of the foods they associated with "pagan practices."
Amaranth, a plant used for both its spinach-like leaves and for the grain gathered from the center stalk, had tremendous ritual significance for the Aztecs. Many of their ceremonies included the formation of an image of one of the gods, made with a paste of amaranth grains mixed with honey. Tlaloc, the rain god, Ome Acatl, the patron of banquets, and Xochipilli, the god of youth, poetry and flowers, were all honored with amaranth likenesses. The images, once formed, were worshipped, broken up and distributed to eat. The birth of a male child was also an occasion involving amaranth grains, this time made into a paste for the formation of a replica shield, bow and arrows, symbolic of hunting in particular and manly pursuits in general.
The leaves, too, had their place in ceremonial meals, ground and used in the tamales offered to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and to the dead on the feast of Huauquiltamalcualitztli, a mouthful to say as well as to eat, meaning "the meal of the amaranth tamales." Amaranth was so necessary to both the religion and nutrition of the Aztecs that it was one of the four grains considered as acceptable tribute from outlying parts of the empire, the other three being corn, beans and chia. The Mendocino Codex indicates that the equivalent of the modern measure of 4,000 tons of amaranth a year arrived in Tenochtitlan.
When the Spaniards landed in the New World, immediately undertaking the zealous, often forceful, conversion of the inhabitants to Christianity, one of the first things they did was to outlaw foods involved in indigenous religious festivals. Diego Duran, in compiling this long list of forbidden foods chronicled in the Book of the Gods, noted amaranth as something to be particularly shunned, the consumption of amaranth idols being considered a blasphemous parody of the Christian communion. The friars were quick to issue a ban against its cultivation.
However, a plant which grew so abundantly in the wild, and which had been harvested for over seven thousand years, being used to make tortillas even before the cultivation of corn, was not to be eradicated. Although severe punishments were imposed for the cultivation or possession of amaranth, people continued to gather and use it in cooking. Hoauhatolli, an atole made with ground amaranth and honey, was a popular and nutritious drink, valued for the high percentage of protein provided by the amaranth. The grain was also used to make tzoalli, a forerunner of alegría, a sweet resembling a candy bar, formed of popped amaranth seeds mixed with boiled-down maguey sap or honey, still very popular in Mexico, especially on Day of the Dead, when it is formed into skulls and human and animal shapes. The leaves of the plant were used as vegetable greens, to the extent that the Nahuatl word huautli, meaning amaranth greens, was used interchangeably by the Spaniards with the Nahuatl quelite, meaning greens of any kind. This accounts for the fact that amaranth greens are called quelites in some parts of Mexico.
The leaves and seeds of the amaranth plant are still characteristic ingredients in Mexican cuisine, especially in the staes of Morelos, Mexico, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and particularly Oaxaca, where the plant is widely cultivated as a valuable cash crop, worth four times more per kilo than corn. This is understandable, given the fact that amaranth provides a high quality protein, with a nearly perfect balance of essential amino acids, including abundant lysine and methionine, not found in most grains.
The leaves, seeds, popped grain and flour are all used in regional dishes of these states. The grain, because of its high protein content, is a popular item in tiendas naturistas - health food stores - where it is bought to be used in breads, muffins, hot cakes, and cooked as a cereal. Many brands of Mexican granola also include amaranth in their mixture. Delicious moles, pipians, soups, vegetable dishes and desserts made with amaranth have once again come to the culinary forefront, as interest in pre-Hispanic ingredients has been renewed by the chefs of la nueva cocina mexicana, the Mexican nouvelle cuisine which combines ancient ingredients with modern techniques.
Now widely sold in health food stores and supermarkets north of the border, amaranth is also available on the Internet (see Sources, below.) Amaranth flour is ideal for use in gluten-free diets. The plant is easy to grow in the home garden, sprouting quickly and needing very little special care. Although best nurtured by good soil and moisture, it is capable of surviving both drought conditions and poor soil, a fact which is probably responsible for its lasting through intervals of near neglect, and has earned it the appellation of "never fading."
The following recipes are only a sampling of the many ways amaranth can be incorporated into a great many dishes, including salads, egg dishes, chiles rellenos, stuffed zucchini and chayote, as well as atoles, puddings and cakes.
Amaranth is used in various cultures in some very interesting ways. In Mexico it is popped and mixed with a sugar solution to make a confection called "alegria" (happiness), and milled and roasted amaranth seed is used to create a traditional Mexican drink called "atole."
Peruvians use fermented amaranth seed to make "chicha" or beer. In the Cusco area the flowers are used to treat toothache and fevers and as a food colorant for maize and quinoa. During the carnival festival women dancers often use the red amaranth flower as rouge, painting their cheeks, then dancing while carrying bundles of amaranth on their backs as they would a baby.
In both Mexico and Peru the amaranth leaves are gathered then used as a vegetable either boiled or fried. In India amaranth is known as "rajeera" (the King’s grain) and is popped then used in confections called "laddoos," which are similar to Mexican "alegria."
In Nepal, amaranth seeds are eaten as gruel called "sattoo" or milled into flour to make chappatis. In Ecuador, the flowers are boiled then the colored boiling water is added to "aquardeinte" rum to create a drink that "purifies the blood," and is also reputed to help regulate the menstrual cycle.
Since 1975 amaranth has been gaining support in the U.S. and is now grown in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, and other states, but is still not a mainstream food. It is found in many natural food stores and the flour is often used in baked goods.
The name amaranth hails from the Greek for "never-fading flower." The plant is an annual herb, not a "true" grain and is a relative of pigweed, a common wild plant also known as lamb’s-quarters, as well as the garden plant we know as Cockscomb. There are approximately 60 species of amaranth and there is no definite distinction between amaranth grown for the leaf (vegetable), and the seed (grain).
Amaranth is a bushy plant that grows 5 to 7 feet, with broad leaves and a showy flower head of small, red or magenta, clover like flowers which are profuse, and constitute the plants exquisite, feathery plumes. The seed heads resemble corn tassels, but are somewhat bushier. They are quite striking as well. The seeds are tiny (1/32"), lens shaped, and are a golden to creamy tan color, sprinkled with some occasional dark colored seeds.
Each plant is capable of producing 40,000 to 60,000 seeds. The leaves of ornamental varieties, such as Joseph’s Coat resemble the coleus plant and are quite striking. Their coloring can range from deep red, purple-red, orange, pink, green, to white. The sight of a full-grown amaranth field with its vividly colored leaves, stems and flower or seed heads is an amazingly beautiful sight that evokes much emotion.
Aside from amaranth being such an attractive plant it is extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions. It resists heat and drought, has no major disease problems, and is among the easiest of plants to grow. Simply scratching the soil, throwing down some seeds, and watering will reward you with some of these lovely plants.
Amaranth can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, sprouted, or toasted. The seeds can be cooked with other whole grains, added to stir-fry or to soups and stews as a nutrient dense thickening agent.
Amaranth flour is used in making pastas and baked goods. It must be mixed with other flours for baking yeast breads, as it contains no gluten. One part amaranth flour to 3-4 parts wheat or other grain flours may be used. In the preparation of flatbreads, pancakes and pastas, 100% amaranth flour can be used. Sprouting the seeds will increase the level of some of the nutrients and the sprouts can be used on sandwiches and in salads, or just to munch on.
To cook amaranth boil 1 cup seeds in 2-1/2 cups liquid such as water or half water and half stock or apple juice until seeds are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Adding some fresh herbs or gingerroot to the cooking liquid can add interesting flavors or mix with beans for a main dish. For a breakfast cereal increase the cooking liquid to 3 cups and sweeten with Stevia, honey or brown rice syrup and add raisins, dried fruit, allspice and some nuts.
Amaranth has a "sticky" texture that contrasts with the fluffier texture of most grains and care should be taken not to overcook it as it can become "gummy." Amaranth flavor is mild, sweet, nutty, and malt like, with a variance in flavor according to the variety being used.
Amaranth keeps best if stored in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar, in the refrigerator. This will protect the fatty acids it contains from becoming rancid. The seeds should be used within 3 to 6 months.
The leaves of the amaranth plant taste much like spinach and are used in the same manner that spinach is used. They are best if consumed when the plant is young and tender.
Amaranth seed is high in protein (15-18%) and contains respectable amounts of lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are not frequently found in grains. It is high in fiber and contains calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.
The fiber content of amaranth is three times that of wheat and its iron content, five times more than wheat. It contains two times more calcium than milk. Using amaranth in combination with wheat, corn or brown rice results in a complete protein as high in food value as fish, red meat or poultry.
Amaranth also contains tocotrienols (a form of vitamin E) which have cholesterol-lowering activity in humans. Cooked amaranth is 90% digestible and because of this ease of digestion, it has traditionally been given to those recovering from an illness or ending a fasting period. Amaranth consists of 6-10% oil, which is found mostly within the germ. The oil is predominantly unsaturated and is high in linoleic acid, which is important in human nutrition.
The amaranth seeds have a unique quality in that the nutrients are concentrated in a natural "nutrient ring" that surrounds the center, which is the starch section. For this reason the nutrients are protected during processing. The amaranth leaf is nutritious as well containing higher calcium, iron, and phosphorus levels than spinach.
For something new, different, and highly nutritious in your diet, try amaranth and have some fun experimenting and discovering your favorite ways to use it. If you would like to learn more about whole grains and their uses, you may wish to try one of these books. They are available at Amazon and can be purchased through Health and Beyond Online by simply clicking on the title.
Karen is the author of the popular eBook, How to Improve Fading Memory and Thinking Skills with Nutrition.
Karen Raley - firstname.lastname@example.org
Complete Whole Grain Cookbook, Aveline Kushi