A story of resilience.
Have you ever heard of amaranth?
As someone who lives off a very humble income thanks to the wonderful members of the website, I am always looking for new source foods for cheap, like wheat and nut-based products.
During my studies, I stumbled upon the “superfood” amaranth, with many of the plants grown in this family that can be used for all types of meals and purposes, while boasting an impressive health profile.
There are many types of amaranth plants, and in this piece, I want to focus on species that are still used as a grain, such as Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus.
It is called a ‘grain’, but technically it is a seed, like quinoa and buckwheat.
It is just called a ‘grain’ to not confuse people who are looking for actual seeds to grow the plants.
When harvesting the flowers as grain, we find a food that is rich in protein, containing about 13–14%, and a unique composition of essential amino acids, particularly lysine, often limited in other grains.
Raw amaranth grain is inedible to humans and cannot be digested because it blocks the absorption of nutrients. Thus, it has to be prepared and cooked like other grains.
When it is prepared, I was interested to find that amaranth is a valuable source of complete protein.
It provides both soluble and insoluble fibres — the ones that aid in digestive health, and helps regulate blood sugar levels. Amaranth also boasts a range of essentials, including vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate.
We will talk more about the uses of this grain at the end of the piece, but what struck me most about amaranth isn’t necessarily its health benefits, but rather an incredible story of survival over centuries.
The grain’s resilience and adaptability has contributed to its spread across different societies, where it became a staple food due to its versatility, nutritional value and symbolic importance.
And, as we navigate through turbulent times all across the world, we can be inspired by how this grain is not only helping promote health, but is giving people across the world their independence.
A HISTORY OF SURVIVAL
“Amaranth” derives from Greek ἀμάραντος, which means “unfading”, with the Greek word for “flower”, factoring into the word’s development.
Amaranth, the unfading flower.
And boy, when you read the history of this grain, it sure is a testament to its etymology.
In 2010, the New York Times published an article about the looming ‘threat’ of ‘superweeds’ – those which have developed to be resistant to cancer-causing Roundup.
One of these was amaranth.
When sprayed on a field, Roundup is designed to kill all plants except Monsanto’s genetically-engineered Roundup Ready crops.
But, somehow, amaranth said ‘not on my watch, mate‘.
Just like it did during the Spanish conquest.
Amaranth grain is a centuries-old ‘cereal’ used by indigenous peoples native to South America, but is also grown in China, India, south-east Asia, west Africa and the Caribbean.
Before the Spanish arrived in the Americas, it is said the Aztecs and Maya also cultivated amaranth for ceremonial purposes.
Upon defeating the Aztecs in 1521, Spanish conquerors banned ceremonial religious acts, and since their Gods were worshiped through figures of the grain, as such, amaranth cultivation decreased.
Yet, farmers continued secretly growing amaranth, which sprouted up like a weed in their fields – even as far north as the modern-day United States.
Although the Spanish hurt amaranth growing when they arrived in Central America, Mexico and the south-western United States, Indigenous farmers preserved the seeds.
In Guatemala, amaranth faced another near-extinction when state forces began targeting the Maya people, and burning their fields, during the 1960-1996 civil war.
To preserve their traditional foods, Mayan farmers poured handfuls of seeds into glass jars to bury in their fields or hide under floorboards.
Since then, amaranth has been kept alive in these cultures, and is now returning to the public eye.
Growing networks of Indigenous women across North and Central America who have been sharing ancestral knowledge of how to grow and prepare Amaranth.
Seed exchanges, including those in New Mexico and California, are part of a larger movement to reclaim food systems amid growing recognition of their sustainability and resilience in a time of crisis.
Guatemalan farmers have travelled to the United States to share their knowledge of amaranth with predominantly Indigenous-and Latino-led gardens.
This exchange between North and Central American farmers isn’t just about amaranth as a crop; it’s also about reconnecting to old trade routes that have been disrupted by industrialised agriculture.
A philosophy that could help us all as we head towards an era of fake meat, bugs, and more.
So, we have a super-flower that has survived not only conquests, but the deadly hand of Monsanto.
Not bad at all.
Health conscious shoppers embracing ancient grains will find it in growing numbers of grocery stores in the US, or in snack bars across Mexico, and, increasingly, in Europe and the Asia Pacific.
For many Indigenous farmers in Guatemala and the United States, growing amaranth has provided a degree of economic independence, but it has also offered a route to food sovereignty.
Growing traditional crops has allowed many Guatemalan farmers to support their families from their ancestral homes, rather than working in Guatemala City or coastal coffee and banana plantations.
“Amaranth has completely changed the lives of families in our communities, not only economically, but spiritually,” said one farmer.
More recently, during the pandemic, reports suggest that people with their own gardens, especially in communities that had long lockdowns, felt more secure knowing they had control over their food supply.
In the future, there may come a time when we need grains like this to also survive the era of biofascism.
For now, until that happens, you can grab them online and use them for more modern cuisines.
USES IN FOOD
Amaranth exhibits remarkable versatility as a food ingredient, making it a valuable addition to various culinary creations.
It can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, offering a unique texture and nutty flavour.
Amaranth can be popped like popcorn, toasted, or cooked as a whole grain.
I have a local nutrition shop I can get mine ordered in from, but 500g packs and larger are available for cheap online on many websites as well.
When preparing amaranth porridge, for example, it can be cooked in water or milk, similar to cooking oatmeal, with a recommended ratio of 1 cup of amaranth to 3 cups of liquid.
In Mexican cuisine, it is used in “alegría,” a sweet treat made with popped amaranth, honey, and nuts.
In India, it is used in “rajgira ki kadhi,” a yoghurt-based curry, and “rajgira ladoo,” a festive sweet made with amaranth flour.
In West Africa, amaranth leaves are commonly used in stews and soups.
Another significant aspect of amaranth is its gluten-free nature. It serves as an excellent alternative to wheat flour in gluten-free cooking and baking. Ground amaranth flour.
It can be used as an alternative to rice, pasta, couscous or quinoa. Also used in salads.
Of course, no one single food can provide anyone with all the nutrition they need.
But amaranth has a really impressive nutritional profile and it should be considered as part of a healthy, balanced diet alongside a range of other foods.
What’s that old saying again: ‘You are what you eat’.
Given its story of survival and resistance, I was more than happy to give it a go.
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