Protein-packed seeds and edible leaves.
There are around 60 species in the Amaranth family (‘Amaranthaceae’). There is quite a bit of variation among amaranths; some are weeds (e.g. pigweed), some are used as ornamentals, and some are grown as grain crops. Quinoa is also in the Amaranthaceae family, and both quinoa and the grain amaranths are commonly grown in South America, India, and other places for their seed grain. Even most of the grain amaranths are very ‘ornamental’ with inflorescences (flowers) that are red, pink, purple, orange, or yellow. In fact, they are said to be some of the most beautiful agricultural fields in the world!
There are three main types of Amaranths grown for seed grain:
- A. hypochondriacus is the most commonly grown species. It was originally grown by the Aztecs, who called it huahtli. It is very common in South America.
- A. cruentus is known as Mexican grain amaranth, and is the second most commonly grown grain amaranth, originally cultivated in Mexico. It made its way to eastern Asia a long time ago and has been cultivated there for a long time, more for its leaves than its seed. The leaves are popular as a vegetable and as an addition to salads.
- A. caudatus is the third most commonly grown grain amaranth. It was originally cultivated in the valleys of the Andes. This is the one I’ve focused on for this article, though many of the uses and growing methods described below are the same for all three (for both seeds and leaves).
A. caudatus is also known by several other names, depending on where you are and what language you’re speaking. Here are some examples:
- English: Love lies bleeding, love lies ‘a bleeding, tassel flower, tassel amaranth (there are several amaranths, and this is the one that grows the largest tassels), Inca wheat, foxtail amaranth, velvet flower, tassel flower, and quilete (I’ve never heard the last one used, for myself, yet)
- Spanish:Kiwicha (commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries in South America), Amaranto
- Portuguese: Amaranto de cauda
A. caudatus (Kiwicha) produces a protein-rich seed. Each seed is only about the size of a poppy seed, but each plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds or more. Seeds from wild varieties are black, and seeds from the cultivated varieties are a light in color (I’ve seen white, light brown, and pinkish seeds).
Kiwicha seems to be enjoying a slight rise in popularity… but not as quickly as its Quinoa cousin. Quinoa seeds are 3-5 times larger than kiwicha seeds, so it does make them a little easier to harvest and winnow than kiwicha seeds.You’ll occasionally see kiwicha touted as a “superfood”. The term “superfood” seems to me to be more of a clever word usage for marketing than anything else. Just remember that even if it sounds exotic to you, it’s commonplace somewhere else. Maybe somewhere in the world someone is looking at an apple for the first time and saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s a super amazing food! It’s going to cure everybody of everything!” (Okay I’m being a little sarcastic here… I’ll get off my soap box. I think you get the point.) On to some nutritional and cultivation details…
The seeds of kiwicha contain approximately 12-16% protein (a possible reason for its ‘superfood’ claim?), and are particularly high in lysine, methionine, and cysteine (which are essential amino acids). Methionine and cysteine happen to be the only two amino acids that contain sulfur. Kiwicha lacks some of the amino acids found in our common grains, such as leucine and threonine, but because it contains a greater amount of lysine it is a great compliment for some of our common grains (such as wheat, which contains very little lysine) to form a “complete protein”.
Kiwicha doesn’t contain any gluten, so it’s a good replacement for grains for people with a gluten sensitivity. However, when it’s used in bread-making, kiwicha flour is never used alone. It usually replaces only about 10-15% of the wheat flour (certainly no more than 25%). Any more than that and the bread becomes denser, too moist, and less palatable. Gluten is the protein in bread that forms the structure of the bread, so naturally, by replacing some of the wheat flour with a flour that doesn’t contain gluten, the bread won’t be able to rise and hold it’s shape and structure as well. But even though kiwicha flour doesn’t make good bread, you can make 100% kiwicha flour biscuits, muffins, and other quick breads and certain types of pastries.
The seeds can also be eaten popped like popcorn, cooked into a porridge, or added to granola or muesli. I’ve been told that the wild, black seeds have a stronger, more peppery taste which would not make it palatable as a porridge. But from my experience, the lighter-colored seeds from more modern cultivars only have a very light, grain taste and are perfectly suitable as a porridge.