Not everyone can pronounce quinoa (it’s keen-wah), and even among those who can, many are asking: is it a seed, a grain, a fruit? But that hasn’t stopped it from blasting into mainstream popularity, going far beyond its former status as a hippie food that vegans ate for its high protein count. Last week on Amazon.ca’s list of bestselling cookbooks, Quinoa 365, written by two Prairie-raised sisters, Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming, hit No. 3, nudging out Jamie Oliver; in B.C. last week, it was the top-selling book in the province.
Hemming, an avid runner who eats meat, tells Maclean’s that even she is shocked that the word “quinoa” ranked as a top search of the day recently on Yahoo. “It was searched more than the Black-Eyed Peas, the band.” Claiming “it’s not just for vegetarians anymore,” Hemming adds, “People say there are super-foods out there but I have a hard time seeing anything with a nutritional profile like quinoa. It’s got everything from fatty essential acids, protein [as much as milk], complex carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Nothing comes close to quinoa.”
The sisters claim NASA is considering using quinoa for its in-space program. “Yes,” said Hemming this week from Mississauga, Ont., where she now lives. “Because if someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘You can only eat one food for the rest of your life,’ and you had one second to choose a food that would keep you strong and healthy for the rest of your life, you’d be miles ahead of anybody if you picked quinoa.”
It was Hemming’s sister Patricia Green, in Cochrane, Alta., who first talked her into trying quinoa. “Patricia would tell me, ‘Look, stop eating your oatmeal. Stop eating your yogourt. Just eat quinoa. It will impact your fitness. It’s really easy. It’s as easy to cook as oatmeal.” Hemming tried it and was converted to the nutty flavour. Now she eats quinoa 365 days a year. “If I want it for breakfast, I have it with coconut milk and raisins, or milk and bananas. Yesterday, I threw a bunch on a plate with some salsa, some aged cheddar, sour cream, black beans.”
For the past 15 years in Vancouver, Ayurvedic practitioner Todd Caldecott has been prescribing quinoa to his clients. He’s seen its popularity shoot through the roof, “and the reason is, it doesn’t contain any gluten,” he says. “People are looking for a non-grass species. This particular plant, quinoa, is not a grass.” (Hemming says, “quinoa is the seed from a broadleaf plant, so that makes it a fruit.” You eat the seed.) And yet it acts and looks like a grain. It can be ground to a flour and used in baking.
At the Union Street Grill and Grotto, a family restaurant in Courtenay, B.C., chef and owner Mark Duncan has stopped serving rice and started serving quinoa. The restaurant specializes in steak, burgers, pastas and stir-fries. “We’re mainstream.” But two years ago, Duncan thought the community was ready for a change. “I, myself, have adopted a new eating style. I’ve gotten away from eating a lot of starch like rice and potatoes. I eliminated rice right off the menu and replaced it with quinoa across the board. I still run potatoes because I can’t really lose them.” Servers ask, “Would you like potatoes or quinoa with that?” Customers were “iffy at the start,” says Duncan. “It’s quite popular now, [though] I think if we’d given people more options at the start, they might not have gone for it. If they’d had a choice, they’d have gone for rice.”
For baking, Hemming recommends quinoa flour made by the Northern Quinoa Corp., Canada’s only quinoa grower, in Kamsack, Sask. “Their flour is fantastic. Beautiful and powdery,” she says.
“I don’t know if you like chocolate,” she asks on the phone. “But one of our recipes that’s really having an impact is the Moist Chocolate Cake. We’ve had people in tears who are so happy with that cake.” They even got a funny email about it. A woman from Alberta baked the cake and sent it off with her husband to poker night. Her husband told his buddies, “It’s got utopia beans in it.” “He didn’t know what quinoa was, or how to say it,” says Hemming.
“But the guys loved it and they ate the whole thing.”