What is Quinoa? A Guide to the Peruvian Superfood

Native to the Andean Highlands, quinoa has taken the world by storm. Why? Learn all about the health benefits of this Peruvian superfood, how to cook it and much more!
Three bowls of quinoa. One filled with red seeds, one filled with black seeds and another one filled with white seeds
Image: Lima" by Heather Sperling, used under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped and compressed from original

Peru is certainly one of the most biodiverse places on earth and consequently has a large number of unique and nutritious foods. Perhaps the most well-known is the ancient Inca crop quinoa. But have you ever wondered why quinoa is so popular? Or why it is considered a superfood? Keep reading to learn all you need to know about one of the world’s most popular health foods!  

Table of contents

What is Quinoa
Types of Quinoa
History of Quinoa
Nutritional Benefits of Quinoa
Where to Buy and How to Store Quinoa
How to Cook Quinoa
Easy Quinoa Recipes

What is Quinoa?

Quinoa, originally called the “mother grain” by the Incas, is the seed from the Chenopodium quinoa plant that grows in the Andes. The plant is a member of the goosefoot family and can grow from three to seven feet high. Although the plant prefers cooler temperatures, it is otherwise very robust. In fact, it can grow in pretty poor soil.

Often mistaken as a whole grain, it is actually a pseudo-cereal. In other words, quinoa is a seed that acts like a grain. Being a goosefoot, the plant itself is more like spinach and beets than whole grains like wheat or oats. What many also do not know is that both the seeds as well as the leaves are edible. 

The seed is often labeled as a superfood since it is not only gluten-free but also contains more protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber than the usual grains and seeds. 

Several quinoa plants growing outside with purple seeds.

These purple seeds growing in Peru are ready for harvesting. Image by Jai79 on Pixabay

Types of Quinoa

Overall, there are more than 1,800 subspecies of this ancient Inca crop, and the seeds come in a variety of colors. By and large, the most common colors are white, red, and black. However, the seeds also exist in purple, pink, gray, orange, green, and yellow. 

White Quinoa

The white seed is the most well-known and widespread type of quinoa. This is because it has a light flavor, cooks the quickest, and has a nice fluffy texture. In contrast to the red and black types, the white one is not at all crunchy. 

Red Quinoa

Compared to white seed, the red type has a richer, more prominent taste that resembles nuts. It also has a heartier texture, since it holds its shape better after cooking. Therefore it is a great option for salads.

Black Quinoa

Black quinoa has an earthy but sweet flavor. It keeps its color when cooked and has a similar heavy texture to the red type. 

Red, white and black quinoa seeds mixed together.

Red, white and black seeds are the most common colors of quinoa. Image by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

History of Quinoa

Quinoa originated in the altiplano of Bolivia and Peru. Surprisingly, the seed was initially only used to feed livestock. Then, around three to four thousand years ago, humans began using it for their own consumption as well. 

For ancient civilizations like the Inca, as well as modern Aymara and Quechua people, quinoa has always played an important role. As a matter of fact, they use the crop for both nutrition and as a sacred element during their rituals and religious festivals. 

When the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro reached the Andes in 1532 looking for gold, he and his men destroyed most quinoa fields as they conquered the region. The colonizers also brought their own grains like wheat and barley from Europe. Since these were easier to grow and much more fruitful, quinoa lost much of its importance. For this reason, only isolated Andean villages continued to grow quinoa. 

It continued to be a crop for poor farmers until the 1970’s when American researchers brought it back to the US. Because it was labeled a superfood, it gained popularity worldwide in the past couple of decades. Due to this rapid increase in demand for quinoa, the crop prices tripled from 2006 to 2013. 

Nowadays, it is one of the most popular health foods out there. 

Quinoa plants with purple seeds growing in front of houses with thatched roofs.

Historically quinoa has played an important role in the lives of the indigenous populations. Image: Peru by Natumano photo, used under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped and compressed from original

Nutritional Benefits of Quinoa

Quinoa is incredibly nutritious and a particularly great addition to any healthy diet. The UN even explicitly named the year 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” in honor of the superfood. 

Here is a list of the top seven health benefits of quinoa:

1. It is gluten-free

Since quinoa is not a real grain, it is naturally gluten-free. For that reason it a great option for anyone with gluten sensitivity or intolerance. 

2. It is high in fiber

Another fantastic benefit is its richness in fiber. One cup of the seed contains roughly five grams of fiber, which is around twice as much as most grains. Fiber promotes good digestion and can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. 

3. It is protein-rich

Evidently, quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods with about eight grams per cup. Since it is a complete protein it contains all nine amino acids that our bodies need. 

4. It contains iron

The seed has a dense concentration of iron. In one cup you can find around three milligrams of the mineral. The recommended daily intake of iron ranges between eight and 18 milligrams. We especially need iron for our hemoglobin production.

5. It is high in manganese

Quinoa is also very high in antioxidants. In essence, antioxidants help protect our cells and red blood cells from damage by free radicals. The recommended daily intake is 2.3 milligrams. One cup already contains around 1.2 milligrams. 

6. It is high in magnesium

Magnesium plays an important role in muscle recovery, controlling blood sugar, and the formation of healthy bones and teeth. While 300-400 milligrams are recommended as a healthy daily intake, one cup of quinoa already contains 118 milligrams of magnesium.

7. It contains lysine

Lastly, 100g of quinoa contains 239 mg of lysine, so 10% of your daily recommended intake is already covered.  This amino acid is essential for tissue growth and repair.

In summary, you can expect the following nutrients in one cup of cooked quinoa:

  • Protein: 8 grams
  • Fiber: 5 grams
  • Magnesium: 30% of the RDA
  • Phosphorus: 28% of the RDA
  • Folate: 19% of the RDA
  • Copper: 18% of the RDA
  • Iron: 15% of the RDA
  • Zinc: 13% of the RDA
  • Potassium 9% of the RDA
  • Lysine: 10% of the RDA
  • vitamins B1, B2, and B6: Over 10% of the RDA 

Cooked red, white and black quinoa on a white plate with tomatoes and greens..

A great addition to any healthy diet! Image: I gotta get that extra quinoa on my dinner plate” by F Delventhal, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Where to Buy & How to Store Quinoa

Generally, you can buy quinoa in health food stores or in regular supermarkets. Usually, it is found near rice, beans, and grains. Another option is to buy it online.

As with other dry ingredients, the seeds should be stored in air-tight containers placed in a dark and cool spot. When stored correctly, the dry seeds will last for two to three years. However, you should always make sure to check the expiration date or best by date before consumption. Once it is cooked you can store it for up to five days in the fridge. 

White quinoa seeds in an open paper sack with a metallic spoon to scoop with.

Nowadays quinoa is easy to find in supermarkets or online stores. Image: Quinoa” by Pedro Reyna, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

How to Cook Quinoa

To prepare and enjoy perfectly fluffy quinoa, just follow these easy instructions.

1. Rinse

This is a necessary step since quinoa seeds have a coat of saponin, a natural insecticide. Although harmless to humans, if not washed off, it gives the seeds a bitter taste and also makes it harder to digest. 

2. Cook

The best ratio is 1 part quinoa (eg. 1 cup) with 2 parts water (eg. 2 cups). Firstly, bring the water to a boil. Then add the quinoa to the boiling water and cover the pot with a lid. Reduce heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes or until the water has been soaked up.

3. Rest

Once the quinoa is cooked, set it aside while still covered and let it rest for 10 minutes.

4. Fluff it up

After letting it rest, fluff up your quinoa with a fork.

5. Season

Season to taste.

Fluffy cooked white and red quinoa in a blue bowl.

Cooking this Andean seeds is easier than you think. Image: DSC_2261” by Crosa, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Easy Quinoa Recipes

Quinoa can be used in a variety of both sweet and savory dishes. Here are some ideas on how to use it in your next meal. 

Quinoa Breakfast Bowl

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups (non-dairy) milk
  • 1 Tbsp of sugar or honey
  • A handful of your favorite fruits and nuts
  • A pinch of cinnamon

Preparation:

  1. In a medium pot mix, 2 parts (non-dairy) milk with 1 part rinsed quinoa. Bring to a boil. Then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally. 
  2. After it is cooked, remove the pot from the stove and let the quinoa rest for 5 minutes. 
  3. Add cinnamon, sugar or honey and any other spices to taste.
  4. Top of with nuts and fruits of your choice.
Cooked white quinoa in a glass bowl with strawberries and blueberries.

A great way to start your day! Image by odovolenkesk on Pixabay.

Quinoa Salad

Salad ingredients :

  • 1 cup of quinoa
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 can of chickpeas
  • 1 large bell pepper
  • 1 medium cucumber
  • 1 pint of cherry tomatoes
  • ½ medium red onion
  • ½  cup black olives
  • ½ cup of crumbled feta cheese
  • ⅔ cup of artichokes
  • 1 cup finely chopped parsley 
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano

Dressing ingredients:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2-3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot. Add 1 cup of rinsed quinoa and cover. Reduce the heat and let it simmer for 15 minutes or until the quinoa has absorbed all the water. Set aside and let it cool for 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile cut the bell pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, and onion into small pieces. Combine them in a bowl. 
  3. To the bowl, add drained chickpeas, olives, feta, artichokes as well as fresh herbs.
  4. When cooled, add the quinoa to the bowl and mix.
  5. In a separate bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, honey/Marple syrup, and minced garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Pour dressing over salad and toss to combine.
Quinoa salad made with white and black quinoa and minced onions on a white plate.

Tasty quinoa salad. Image: Quinoa, Banana, Avocado, Bacon, Cashew ($15)” by Lou Stejskal, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Quinoa Vegetable Stew

Ingredients:

  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup zucchini, chopped
  • 2 cans undrained tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 can of white beans
  • 4 cups of vegetable broth
  • 1 cup of prewashed quinoa
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp of lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Firstly, heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Then add onion, garlic, and celery until softened. Stir often.
  2. Now, add bell pepper, zucchini, coriander, cumin, thyme, and paprika. Cook until fragrant.
  3. Stir in broth and tomatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Then reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 10 minutes. 
  4. Stir in quinoa and cook for another 10 minutes.
  5. Add white beans to the pot and let it simmer for 5 more minutes.
  6. Remove pot from heat. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
Quinoa soup with white quinoa and carrots in a metal bowl on red tablecloth with Andean design.

Hearty soups are the perfect way to warm up on chilly Andean nights. Image: Sopa de Quinoa” by Robert Luna, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Thanks to its great number of nutrients, quinoa is undeniably one of the healthiest foods in the world. And not only is it healthy but also super delicious and easy to prepare. All in all its versatility will make it a fantastic addition to your next meal!

Interested in trying quinoa in Peru’s traditional dishes? Then contact our expert Travel Advisors to start planning your dream trip to discover the richness of Peruvian flavors!