Quinoa, the protein-packed seed that everyone loves to eat, has taken ahold of our pantries. Even though it hails from South America ― most famously Bolivia and Peru ― many homes north of the equator have found ways to incorporate it into our breakfasts as a porridge, and we’re happy to fry it up into patties for dinner. Not to mention all the different ways you can turn it into a salad.
Since quinoa has become such a staple in our diet, we thought it was time to know where those tiny seeds come from. In other words, how does it grow? If you don’t already know, you’re about to.
Quinoa is harvested from tall green plants. While the plant sprouts are slow-growing at first, the plant eventually shoots up to and beyond three feet. The leaves of the plant resemble that of the edible weed lamb’s-quarter. The two are closely related, which means that the leaves of quinoa are also edible (so if you grow your own, feel free to toss them into a salad).
Quinoa thrives in cooler weather, and is extremely drought tolerant. It can also tolerate high levels of salt, wind and frost, which allows it to be cultivated in high risk areas. That’s why it was a main crop in the Andes, cultivated by the Incas since before 3,000 B.C.
The part of the quinoa plant that we typically eat is the seed. (Remember, quinoa is a seed and not a grain.) In order to get the seed, the plant first needs to flower. This is what flowering quinoa looks like:
And this is a closeup of the flower buds.
Quinoa is ready to harvest when all the green leaves have fallen off the plant, and the plants are just seed heads on a stalk. Quinoa should be very dry when harvested, dry enough that you can’t dent the seed with your fingernail. Sometimes it’s left to dry on the stalk, other times it is dried post harvest.
Once harvested, the quinoa seed is fairly easy to remove from the seed heads. A hard shake can release most of them.
But in commercial production they might use something a little more advanced. Quinoa needs to be polished or rinsed before eating to remove the seeds’ saponin coating ― the plant’s natural protectant from birds and insects ― which can taste quite bitter.
Now that you know how this seed makes it to your grocery store, pick some up and try it in one or two of these recipes.