The first time I knowingly tried a dish containing amaranth, was during a meal at a small vegetarian cafe in San Francisco in 1992. It was billed as a tabbouleh style salad. Because I enjoy preparing and eating tabbouleh, I knew I had to give it a try. The server advised that the salad was hearty enough to stand alone as an entire lunch. The simple dish was not only quite filling, I really enjoyed the flavors and satisfying textures.
Naturally, I wanted to find out more about this arcane food, so I researched it at the public library when I returned home to Nebraska. I found several recipe books listing amaranth as a main ingredient for various types of dishes. I also discovered that amaranth is not only a grain, it is also eaten as salad greens. Why hadn’t I heard about this interesting food before?
I later found out that amaranth is often used in commercially available “natural” food products. I checked out the local health foods store and found various granolas and musli type breakfast foods that use it. The whole seeds are available in bags and the ready-ground flour is a popular product.
As is the case with many of today’s staple foods, amaranth is a plant that is native to the Americas. I found out that amaranth was used by the native peoples as a protein-rich grain and as a leafy vegetable for thousands of years. Amaranth was particularly useful in Central and South America. Apparently, the largest known cultivation of it happened during the height of the Aztec civilization in the fifteenth century.
Ever since the indigenous peoples shared amaranth with the European explorers and settlers, the food is now grown in scattered locations across Asia and Africa. There is even some limited production of it in parts of the United States. The markets for the grain are still relatively small, but continue to expand, each year. Research is still ongoing regarding amaranth’s use as forage for livestock animals.
The current public interest in amaranth is linked to the grain’s purported nutritional value. US grown amaranth contains more than 15-percent protein and contains high amounts of the essential amino acid, lysine. Amaranth is a high fiber food and is low in saturated fats. Some studies, such as one at Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, have linked amaranth to cholesterol reduction in laboratory animals.
Even though the green parts of the amaranth plant are not readily available to most people, the seed grain is available for purchase in most parts of the world. Most commonly, amaranth seed is ground into flour that is used in breads, cereals for cooking, granola, cookies, noodles and as a supplemental ingredient in several baked products. One way to eat it, that I have not yet tried, is to pop it like popcorn.
Apparently, amaranth is relatively easy to grow and is fairly maintenance free once it passes the initial growth stage. There are some USDA bulletins regarding amaranth as a crop, available to people who are considering it for their farms. Prospective growers can also find many other resources on the Web.
All this information about amaranth has stimulated my appetite, so I’m going to prepare some amaranth and quinoa porridge now.
The Blue Jay of Happiness found an obscure verse by John Milton.
“Immortal amaranth, a flower which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life,
Began to bloom, but soon for Man’s offence,
To heav’n remov’d, where first it grew, there grows,
And flow’rs aloft shading the fount of life.”