As you would guess from the name, the newly opened Protein Bar in Washington, D.C., is all about the protein. The health-conscious fast-casual restaurant’s signature Bar-ritos include the usual protein-packed suspects – chicken, beef, tofu, and beans – but there’s one surprising addition: quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). With the texture of slightly crunchy couscous and a rounded, nutty flavor, it’s the perfect substitute for rice and a great vegetarian source of protein.
Known as the Mother Grain – even though it’s technically a pseudocereal, so what you’re actually eating are the plant’s seeds – this ancient crop is fast becoming a modern culinary phenomenon. That’s because it’s gluten- and wheat-free, possesses a full complement of essential amino acids, has plenty of fiber, boasts a variety of vitamins and minerals, and is relatively low in carbohydrates. “It’s the highest of all grains in potassium,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council. “That’s important for blood pressure, since potassium is the anti-sodium.”
Quinoa can be seen as a highly nutritive superfood. “It’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat without packing on the pounds,” says Susan Irby, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quinoa Cookbook. Its extreme healthfulness – coupled with the fact that it is drought-resistant and has a high yield of seeds per plant – has gained the crop the attention of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa.” To coincide with this celebration, two filmmakers, Michael Wilcox and Stefan Jeremiah, are working on a documentary, The Mother Grain, which they hope to premiere within the same timeframe.
The documentarians will have a lot of ground to cover, since there are over 120 varieties of quinoa. It comes in a slew of colors, though the most prevalent are white (also marketed as cream or ivory, though it sometimes possesses a light yellowish hue), red, and black. Sometimes several varieties are mixed together and sold as rainbow quinoa.
Cultivation of Quinoa originated in the upper reaches of the Andes around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in areas that are now in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Today, Bolivia produces about 80 percent of the world supply, much of it coming from the soaring plateaus known as the Altiplano. With salt flats on one side and volcanoes on the other, this high-altitude growing region is where Alter Eco exclusively sources its quinoa from a series of family-owned farms. The company has dubbed its product royal quinoa. “That refers to the variety and the terroir where it is grown,” explains co-founder and chief operating officer Edouard Rollet.
The company has been selling its Fair Trade-certified quinoa in France since 2003 and in the United States since 2005. Since then, Rollet has seen a huge growth in interest. “When we first started selling it, people could barely pronounce the name,” says Rollet (many incorrectly pronounced it kwi-noah). For the past seven years, the company has seen 100 to 200 percent sales growth every year for its quinoa and has seen it featured in restaurants such as Los Angeles’ Pitfire Pizza and San Francisco’s Town Hall and Anchor & Hope.
Alter Eco isn’t the only importer of quinoa, which is also marketed stateside by the Quinoa Corp. (which is credited with introducing Americans to the grainlike seed in the late 1970s), TruRoots, Eden Foods, and several other companies.