Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

And one thing leads to another... and another...



What was that saying about the butterfly effect that was so popular a few years back? There were a few variations, but it went something like this: when a butterfly flaps its wings in Place X, it will create a (take your pick: wind storm, hurricane, tornado) in Place Y.

But never mind the weather and Timbuktu. The butterfly effect is alive and well right inside your kitchen.

For example, take quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), that unique and wonderful grain which is not really a grain but rather a seed from a plant that's a member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodium). As such, quinoa is more closely related to other chenopods like beets, chard, spinach and even tumbleweeds than it is to oats or rye.

Tasty, versatile, quick and easy to prepare, quinoa has been the darling of vegetarians and others for ages because of its excellent nutritional value. The Incas used it as a special food for soldiers; NASA identified it as an ideal food on long space missions because of its life-sustaining properties.

For a plant, quinoa stands out because it's a balanced source of amino acids, making it a complete protein. Plus it's also a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorous and fibre.

Quinoa's relatively high protein content is pegged variously at 12-18 per cent, although Harold McGee, the world-renowned authority on the chemistry of food and cooking, lists it at 13 per cent, just one per cent less than the average protein content of wheat. However, wheat is hard to pin down in that regard as there are 30,000+ varieties and some, like durum, einkorn, emmer and spelt, contain as much as 15-17 per cent protein

Still, as a nutritional plant source high in protein, quinoa is a dream crop, especially because it can thrive in demanding places with poor soil and challenging climates such as the high Andes, where it originated and most of the world's supply comes from. ("Quinoa" is a corruption of the original Quechua name, "kinwa".)

Now that everybody, including my mom, has discovered the joy of cooking with quinoa  - even Costco has big three-pound bags of the organic stuff - the butterfly wing flapping from Pemberton, BC, to Asquith, Saskatchewan, and beyond is having gale-force effects back on quinoa's roots in the Andes.


According to a recent article in The New York Times, the skyrocketing demand for quinoa in "rich" countries in North America and Europe has been one of those proverbial double-edged swords.

The booming demand for the pseudo-cereal has bolstered the income of farmers who are growing it in some of the poorest regions in South America, namely the high, arid mountain plains in southern. But, like all good things in the free market economy, the increased demand - spurred on by well-meaning foreign aid organizations that encouraged quinoa's export to enhance local economies - has also meant increased prices worldwide.