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“I have cooked a very healthy dinner for you today … it is quinoa pilaf and tomato soup,” said my niece Gauri as my family trudged in from a fun but tiring sightseeing trip to the Highlands five years ago.

As a graduate student in Edinburgh, Gauri had found ways to eat healthy on a budget. The pilaf was the most unusual food that I had tasted. It was small beige grains with a nutty but earthy flavor with a weird sounding name: quinoa (pronounced Keen-wah). I eyed the plate with a little apprehension, but to my surprise the pilaf was tasty.

Ancient in its origins, quinoa has been a staple food of millions for almost 5000 years, and is know with great respect as the “Mother Grain.” Although new to North Americans, it has been cultivated in the South American Andes since at least 3000 B.C.E. The ancient Incas called it “the mother grain” and revered it as sacred.


Quinoa is billed as a grain, but it’s actually a high-protein, gluten-free, super-nutritious seed that is as tasty and versatile as it is healthy. The quinoa seed is high in protein, calcium, and iron, and is a relatively good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins. It contains an almost perfect balance of all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development in humans. One researcher has said, “While no single food can supply all of the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the vegetable or animal kingdoms.”

Quinoa is a small seed that in size, shape, and color looks like a cross between sesame seed and millet. In its uncooked state, it takes the form of small off-white disks with a flattened band around its periphery. As the grain cooks, this band partially separates from the seed but retains its curved shape.

Quinoa is usually a pale yellow color but some species may vary from pale yellow through pink, orange, and red to purple and black. It swells when it’s cooked and has a very mild but distinct flavor, much more interesting than rice or couscous. In appearance, cooked quinoa looks liked cooked couscous sprinkled with little spirals or crescent moons.

As soon as I returned from Scotland, I ventured into a health store and discovered this grain; I then made the quinoa pilaf in my kitchen. But to my surprise, the pilaf was very bitter and inedible. I decided that quinoa is not for me and threw the box of quinoa in the garbage.

Five years rolled by. Recently, I was reintroduced to quinoa at a food sampling in a health store. It was delicious. I decided to give it another try. I picked up a box and followed the instructions very carefully.

The quinoa pilaf was not bitter this time.

I discovered that the key factor in making good quinoa is to wash it several times in water. Quinoa seeds are covered with saponin, a resin-like substance that is extremely bitter and forms a soapy solution in water to make the seed edible. The saponin must be removed, traditionally done by hand-scrubbing and adequate rinsing.

Quinoa is as easy to cook as rice. In fact, it’s cooked exactly like rice, though it needs to be rinsed first. Just throw it in a fine sieve/colander and run it under some cold water, or swish it around in a bowl of water and then drain it.

To cook it, use two parts liquid to one part quinoa.

The grain itself seems to melt in your mouth. But the tiny bands offer just enough tooth resistance to create a minute crunch, affording a varied and pleasant sensation.

Quinoa has a very light, fluffy texture and a mild taste that easily takes on other flavors. If you’ve never had quinoa before, then I recommend starting simple. The next time you’re tempted by couscous or rice, try boiling up some quinoa. And there’s a whole world of quinoa to explore out there: quinoa biryani, quinoa kithcidi quinoa kheer, quinoa salad … the list goes on.

It’s healthy, it’s yummy, and it’s fun to say.

Massala Quinoa

My childhood friend Jayashri Chari made a delicious masala upma for me when she was visiting last month. I substituted quinoa for the cream of wheat that she used.

1 cup quinoa

1 teaspoon oil

1-2 green chilies

1 cup cabbage (finely shredded)

½ teaspoon sambhar powder

2¼ cups water

1 teaspoon limejuice

¾ teaspoon salt (as per taste)

¼ cup cilantro

¼ cup almonds (chopped)

Wash quinoa in water and drain of the water. Repeat 3 times.

Heat a pan, add the washed quinoa, and roast for 3-4 minutes

Heat a pot with a teaspoon of oil. Add chilies and sauté for a minute.

Add shredded cabbage and sauté for 2 minutes. Add water, sambhar powder salt and sugar. Bring it to a boil. Throw in the toasted quinoa and stir. Lower heat, cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook for 15 minutes.

Finally add limejuice, cilantro, and almonds. Mix it gently and fluff the grains

Serve piping hot with a bowl of plain yogurt

Hema’s Hints: This cold pilaf makes an excellent lunch too.

Quinoa Pudding

Here is a pudding that tastes great and does wonders for your health, too.

½ cup Quinoa

2 cups milk

2 cups carrot (shredded)

1 cup boiling water

½ cup sugar (to taste)

5-6 almonds, chopped

½ teaspoon orange extract

Wash and rinse quinoa three times. Drain and keep aside.

Heat milk in microwave and keep aside.

Add washed quinoa to a pan and dry roast for a minute.

Add a cup of hot milk, cover, and cook on low heat for 15 minutes

Place shredded carrots in a bowl.

Add water to carrots and cover for five minutes.

Drain the carrots. In a blender, make a smooth puree of 1 cup of milk and carrots.

Add the pureed carrots to cooked quinoa. Mix in sugar, almond and cook for 5 more minutes finally add orange extract and remove from heat.

Serve piping hot or chilled.

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at