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Although it’s assumed to be a grain and commonly referred to as one of the ‘ancient grains’, quinoa is actually a type of seed.

The quinoa plant is part of the amaranth family. It’s distinctive by its long stalks which either grow vertically upwards or trail along the ground. The part we know as quinoa refers the small seeds, which grow in clusters along the tips of the stalks.

These seeds are the ones available to buy in shops. When dry, they resemble tiny lentils, but when cooked, they take on a distinctive pale-yellow disc shape with a curly white ‘tail’, which is the seed’s germ.

Quinoa is prized for its many health benefits and its versatility in cooking,

But, before we go on, if you’re wondering how to pronounce quinoa - it’s ‘keen-wah’.

Where does quinoa come from?

Quinoa is an ancient staple food which originated in South America along the foothills of the Andes mountains.

Family farms and smallholdings have cultivated the quinoa plant in the Andean region of South America for thousands of years.1

Despite quinoa’s long history, it’s only been during the past 15 years or so that UK shoppers have been able to pick up a bag of quinoa at their local supermarket.

Different types of quinoa

Even if you think you know quinoa, there’s more to discover!

There are actually hundreds of different types of quinoa in existence, with white being the most commonly cultivated followed by red and black.2

  1. White quinoa is the most commonly available type. Mostly, when people think of quinoa, this is the type they’re picturing. White quinoa is renowned for its mild flavour. It behaves like white rice and is excellent as a rice substitute in hundreds of dishes.

  2. Red quinoa is increasingly popular in the UK. It’s nuttier than the white variety, but the taste profile is very similar. Red quinoa adds a vibrant pop of colour to dishes.

  3. Black quinoa is earthy in taste, but is cooked and used the exact same way as white and red quinoa.

You can also buy quinoa pasta, quinoa breakfast cereal, quinoa crisps and quinoa bread.

How to make quinoa

To cook quinoa, you should start by giving it a rinse.

Have you ever rinsed legumes and notice they foam slightly under running water? This is down to saponins, a chemical compound which is found naturally on some plants partly to stop them being eaten by herbivore animals.3 Quinoa has these saponins too. They’re removed by the quinoa producer, but a swill around with your fingers and final rinse is advised.

A colander or wide-mesh sieve won’t cut it with quinoa as you may lose half of it down the sink. Invest in a fine-mesh strainer, or you could use a piece of muslin cloth to strain the quinoa.

You’ll need to use a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to water. If you like your quinoa mushy, for example if you’re making a sweet pudding, you can add a little more water. If you prefer it on the dryer side, such as for a salad, 1:2 water to quinoa is ideal.

Bring the water to a boil and add the quinoa. Boil for a minute or so before turning the heat down low and simmering covered for 15 minutes.

You’ll know when it’s ready because the grains will have swollen and taken on a pale colour with the seed germ (the white curly part) visibly detached.

Fluff the quinoa up with a fork and it’s ready to be used in a dish. If you’re wondering how to flavour quinoa, use stock instead of plain water for a richer, savoury taste.

Some ideas on how to use quinoa

Quinoa salad

For a twist on the Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh, replace the usual bulgur wheat with quinoa. Combine 100g cooked quinoa with two handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes, a big bunch of parsley (finely chopped) and a medium sized chopped cucumber.

Drizzle it with olive oil, the juice of a lemon and a crushed garlic clove along with salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the salad ingredients are tossed well with the quinoa. Serves two.

Puffed quinoa

Popcorn is one of our favourite light snacks. But did you know ‘puffed’ or ‘popped’ quinoa is just as easy to make and just as delicious?

Sprinkle rinsed and dried quinoa into a pan. (Dry them out on a baking sheet in a hot oven if you’re impatient). Then, simply add them to a hot pan, shaking the pan for a minute or two and listening they begin to pop. When the popping sound slows, they’re ready. Let them cool in some greaseproof paper for a few minutes.

Popping quinoa makes it crispy and with a toasted flavour. You could add a teaspoon of sugar or plant sweetener, cinnamon, salt or paprika, depending on your tastes.

Find more quinoa recipes here:

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Last updated: 11 August