The other day my friend, originally from Arequipa (in the highlands of Peru) cooked quinoa in the way that she remembers eating it when growing up, back when she used to go to the market with her family on weekends and they would scoop out the seed from barrels.
I first heard of quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) a few years ago when my sister-in-law in Canada cooked it for us. Little did I know that a few years later, when visiting the El Loa region of Chile in the Altiplano, or high altitude plains, near the Bolivian border, I would actually drive past a small, very isolated rural farm growing this grain in a field on the side of a sandy, rocky, barren hill.
This is an ancient grain (or, technically speaking, seed) that has been critical to the diets of people living in the Altiplano for millennia. What you have to understand about the Altiplano – a highland region stretching from parts of Southern Peru to parts of Bolivia and a little bit into the Chilean and Argentinian borders – is that very little grows there. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. In fact, a surprising amount grows there considering it is a dry, isolated, virtually rain-free, plant-free region of the world, with poor, sandy soil, extreme temperatures (very cold at night, very hot during the day) and intense sun.
In this highland desert of Chile, people can grow some corn, a few vegetables such as tomatoes, and herbs. They can raise some livestock (based on my observations mainly just chickens and llamas), and, at higher altitudes, they cultivate quinoa.
As you may know, quinoa has become a trendy food in North America because of its “superfood” status. It appeals to vegans or gluten free cooks because of it is a one-stop-shop for plenty nutrients. This is precisely the reason it has been such a staple food item in the Altiplano for so long: because the people living in this harsh land must have gotten a lot of their nutrients primarily from quinoa. Many people in the region still depend on it in their diet; after all, even with modern technology, it continues to be difficult to transport a wide variety of fresh, nutritious food hundreds of miles, high into a relatively isolated desert land.
Outside of the Altiplano region, quinoa doesn’t seem to be that well-known, at least in Chile. Chileans down at sea level here in Antofagasta, a mere 300 or so miles away, generally don’t know about it unless they have come across it on a vacation to the Altiplano region or in Peru.
I have been wary of quinoa ever since coming across articles about a year ago mentioning how quinoa might be responsible for an unfortunate shift in the Altiplano diet: as growers export all of their quinoa to North America, prices have reportedly been on the rise for the domestic supply and it has been said that local populations have begun to supplement their diet with cheaper, less-nutrient rich, imported options such as corn or wheat products (source). On the other hand, I have also read that the quinoa boom has been advantageous to Altiplano farmers, who are now making a lot of money off these exports, with which they can improve their quality of life (source). I’ve asked a few people who are familiar with these regions if they know what is really happening, but I haven’t found any real answers.
I suspect that the truth probably lies in a mixture of these two scenarios. I imagine local populations who are not involved in or have not benefitted from the quinoa export industry in any way may have a harder time affording quinoa for their families than they did before, and their diets must undoubtedly suffer. On the other hand, the farmers who do receive a fair price for the grain may in fact have more opportunities now to help improve their quality of life and the quality of their business. I believe the key is to somehow make sure farmers and local populations are receiving a fair price for the grain. In my opinion, it’s up to all of us to be aware consumers and sensitive to this need.
I’ve had two, presumably traditional Altiplanean, quinoa dishes. The first was in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The quinoa was fixed like risotto: creamy with plenty of freshly ground black pepper, basil and some local herbs, mushrooms and served with a sweet tomato jelly. Bread in San Pedro is sometimes made with quinoa. I’ve even heard that sweet cakes can also be made with the grain. I’ve also been told quinoa can be stirred into soups and stews (but use less than you think you will need: it expands dramatically in liquid).
The second time I had a traditional dish was the other day with my Peruvian friend. Again, it was cooked similar to risotto. It is first cooked in water, then milk and cheese is added. She said that when she was growing up, her family used to use this as a side dish for chicken or served with stew (instead of rice).
A few days ago I tweeted that I had tried this more traditional Altiplanic dish from the very region the grain is grown, and got a few requests for a recipe on Twitter. That inspired this post. My friend does not go by a recipe; she just remembers her family’s traditional way of making it. She roughly described it to me, and then I reproduced it on my own. All of my measurements are approximate, too. It’s worth noting that I am not duplicating her recipe exactly. However, I believe this gives the sense of how quinoa is fixed in this part of the world and I am very satisfied with the results. I like this warm, creamy, risotto-style approach to quinoa and will definitely be fixing it as a light lunch or side dish in the future.
Now, here’s the recipe! Be sure to see my notes below.
Quinoa Inspired by a recipe from Arequipa, Peru
- 1 cup quinoa
- 2 cups water
- 2 garlic cloves
- 3/4 cup of evaporated milk**
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup of shredded or cubed white cheese of your choice****
- Optional: flat leaf parsley, Peruvian aji amarillo powder, or a pinch of cayenne.
- Add quinoa, water, and garlic cloves to a saucepan. Bring the water to a gentle boil then simmer the quinoa in the water with the garlic cloves until cooked. (About 15 minutes.)
- Take off the heat and stir in the evaporated milk. Let sit for 5 minutes, covered.
- Remove the garlic cloves and stir in the cheese until melted.
- Serve immediately.
Note: in “nouveau Peruvian” cuisine, more flavour is added through the addition of fresh aji amarillo (a traditional hot/sweet orange pepper used extensively in Peruvian cuisine). A sort of pesto sauce made from fresh flat leaf parsley could also be stirred in. A pinch of cayenne powder might substitute for the aji if you cannot find it.
* The off-white variety of quinoa, which is also the most commonly found in this region and elsewhere, is the only variety my friend knew of growing up in Peru (as opposed to the red, black or other novelty varieties found on the market in North America). You may need to rinse the quinoa before cooking it; check instructions on the package.
** We cannot get fresh milk in these regions, and the irradiated milk we do get cooks strangely, which is why I suspect canned evaporated milk is used. I imagine you could use fresh half and half or whole milk instead.
*** Shredded romano or parmesan cheese would be best. A soft, bland white cheese would also work well; I used cubes of mantecoso, which is my favourite type of white cheese in Chile with a flavor similar to monterey jack.
(Note: please do not reproduce this recipe elsewhere without written permission or linking directly to this post. Thanks!)