Ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth and millet are often referred to as ‘supergrains’ – a reputation that stems from their excellent nutritional attributes. The heritage of these grains goes far back to biblical times. Nutritionally superior in some aspects, but very similar in others, they offer a wealth of essential vitamins and minerals as well as fibre and phytonutrients.
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a small disc-shaped grain, first cultivated in the Andes of South America. A staple food of the Inca people and referred to as the ‘mother of all grains,’ quinoa has a slightly higher protein content than other grains and a more ‘complete’ amino acid profile. Like other grains, quinoa is low in fat, high in fibre and gluten free, for those with coeliac disease. With a light, fluffy texture and slightly nutty flavour, quinoa can be eaten as an alternative to rice, pasta, barley, cracked wheat and even porridge. You should always soak and rinse quinoa before eating or cooking as the grain has a naturally bitter-tasting outer layer, designed to deter birds from enjoying the crop.
Amaranth is one of North America’s oldest crops and a staple grain of the Aztec people that has been cultivated for over 8,000 years. A tiny, (1-2mm) round ball, amaranth is one of the highest protein grains and has a slightly peppery taste. The protein found in amaranth is of very high quality – containing the essential amino acid, lysine (often lacking in many grains). Amaranth is versatile and can be used for a variety of uses – as a substitute for rice, popped like popcorn as a snack, or puffed for use in breakfast cereals. Amaranth flour can be used as an alternative to wheat flour for baking.
Millet is a staple in the diets of some African and Asiatic people, but eaten much less commonly in the Western world. It features the traditional cuisine of Western India in flat breads, sweet desserts or savoury stews with meat, beans and vegetables. The protein content of millet compares favourably with that of corn and wheat. The tiny grain comes in a variety of colours and has a mild flavour, which is why it is often toasted before cooking.
Buckwheat is most familiar to Australians and is more closely related to rhubarb than to wheat. The name ‘buckwheat’ comes from its triangular seeds which can be toasted to bring out its rich, nutty flavour. Buckwheat has similar nutritional properties to other wholegrains in terms of quality protein, fibre and is also rich in antioxidants.