Quinoa: It's An Ancient Grain

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Raw QuinoaThe other week, when visiting some old friends at their home in Redwood City to dine on sous vide leg of lamb, I was somewhat surprised/amused that the lady of the house had chosen to serve a salad of quinoa as an accompaniment.

"Quinoa, eh?" I said to the man of the house. He shot me a little look that said, "Oh crap, you're not going to bring that up again, are you?"

Well, yes, I am. I'm even writing a little blog post about it.

So there.

When we were in college, this friend of mine and I were out at some sort of social gathering where eating occurred. There was a woman present from his World Arts and Cultures department whom he was trying to impress. I remember her as very attractive in a Berkeley/unwashed/sandal-wearing/patchouli-smelling sort of way. In other words, just up my friend's alley (at the time), so to speak.


He sat next to her on a long bench. He complimented her outfit, saying something to the tune of "I really like your skirt. It's so... Third World." When this failed to win her over, he stepped things up by making a comment about the food on her plate:

"Ahhh, keen-waaaah," he said with deliberate flair. "That's an ancient grain, you know."

Frankly, if any man said this to me, I would have been automatically intrigued. Was he kidding? Was his field of study ancient grains? Was he really that interested in my diet?

Whatever this girl was thinking, she was relatively unmoved by my friend's covert attempts at wooing, which means (in my book) that she couldn't have been very interesting (or smart) to begin with. No matter how many yards of Third World fabric she had on.

And I can't say that I'm sorry, since I'm rather fond of the woman he ended up marrying. I mean, she knows about the quinoa pitch and serves it up as a loving, quiet joke.

Like sous vide lamb and quinoa salad, my friend and his wife are an excellent, interesting pairing.

Quinoa Salad

Quinoa Salad

I've chosen to go, if not Third World, then New World with this one. Quinoa, tomatoes, and corn* (or, as 1/8th of my ancestors call it, maize), just like my friends did.

Quinoa, if you didn't know by now, is an ancient grain-- it's been cultivated in the Andes for at least 5,000 years. Though the locals regarded it as sacred, I think it may be a stretch to call it, as some do, "The gold of the Inkas." I somehow doubt Pizarro would have been satisfied had the captured emperor Atahualpa offered him a roomful of quinoa as his ransom instead of actual gold.

Of course, Pizarro wasn't exactly satisfied with a roomful of real gold either, since he eventually had the poor emperor strangled.

A roomful of quinoa would have been a hell of a lot cheaper, if you ask me.

Corn in husk

The addition of corn is an inspired touch, given the fact that the Spanish so scorned quinoa as "food for Indians" and detested its sacredness that they banned the cultivation of the grain, forcing the conquered people to grow corn in its place.

Apart from the added sweetness, corn adds a delicious touch of cultural tension.

Besides, it's fun to play with corn silk. Think: Farrah Fawcett hair.

Serves six.


For the salad:

1 cup quinoa

2 cups cold water

2 ears of sweet yellow corn (about 2 cups)

A tablespoon of oil to coat the corn

1 cup diced (or simply cut in half) cherry tomatoes

1 cup diced squash (I chose a darling little green type the name of which I have forgotten. It adds a bit of color and is, of course, New World)

As much goat cheese as you like, which is entirely optional, since goats were introduced to the New World by the Spanish.

For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (Virgins, though it has been argued, were not introduced by the Spaniards, so they're okay to use.)

1/4 cup white wine or champagne vinegar

A pinch of salt

As much freshly ground pepper as you like


1. Rinse quinoa in cold, running water. Drain. It is best to use a mesh strainer for this exercise, otherwise you likely wash most of the grain down the sink.

2. In a medium pot, place quinoa and two cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and lower heat to a simmer. This takes about 15 minutes. Remove cover and fluff quinoa with a fork. Let cool.

3. Rub corn with oil (you can use corn oil, for all it matters, but I used olive oil), put the ears in some sort of roasting vessel like a cast iron pan or what-have-you, and place vessel in a 400°F oven to roast, turning occasionally to brown. This takes about 15 minutes, so you might as well be doing this while your quinoa is cooking. You do read through a recipe before executing it, don't you? Good. I thought so. The corn is finished when the kernels are turgid with juice. Remove corn from oven, let cool enough to handle, then cut from cob. Set aside.

4. When quinoa and corn are cool, add them to a large bowl. To these two culturally conflicting grains add the diced tomato and squash. Toss gently with a large spoon.

5. To make the vinaigrette, place all vinaigrette ingredients into a mason jar, apply the lid tightly and shake it vigorously until the oil and vinegar have emulsified. Pour dressing over the quinoa salad and toss again gently.

6. Transfer your salad to the serving dish of your choosing-- hopefully some sort of Pre-Columbian pottery vessel-- and sprinkle with the purely-optional cheese. Serve with lamb to your only-slightly-annoyed husband.

* You might notice the presence of red onion in this photograph. It was merely an experiment in flavor. It added an unnecessary sharpness to the salad which I have since omitted.