Not long ago, a pregnant friend of mine made me a delicious veggie bowl with a grain I’d never heard of before. Amaranth grain, she said, was packed with nutrients, so it had become her new favorite alternative to rice and mega-popular superfood quinoa. Given that she’s a lot more thoughtful and concerned about what she puts her body that I am (for obvious reasons), I took note. Soon, I was seeing the stuff everywhere—on restaurant menus, on Pinterest, and in prime placement at Whole Foods. “Is amaranth the new quinoa?” I wondered.
As it turns out, the pseudocereal is an ancient crop that dates back 8,000 years, when it was a dietary staple for the pre-Colombian Aztecs. In the Aztec culture, amaranth was actually believed to provide supernatural powers. When the Spanish conquered the region, it was outlawed (and the crops even burned) in an effort to control the Aztecs.
The broad-leafed, bushy plant amaranth grows about 6 feet tall and produces a bright magenta flower that can contain up to 60,000 seeds. A relative of quinoa, amaranth is gluten-free and a source of complete protein; it contains all the essential amino acids, including lysine, which is lacking most grains. It’s also relatively high in fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.
One might expect such a powerhouse to be lacking in flavor, but it actually has a wonderfully nutty, earthy taste. Better yet, it can be used for a variety of culinary purposes. In Mexico, it’s “popped” like popcorn for a quick, crunchy snack or breakfast cereal. Popped or puffed amaranth and honey are used throughout Mexico to make alegría candy bars (and fun fact: in Spanish, not surprisingly, alegría means “happiness”). Amaranth can also be simmered to replace or be mixed with rice, quinoa, or other similar grains as a savory side or veggie/meat bowl ingredient. With a porridge-like texture, it can also be used to make polenta or be added to soups. What doesn’t this delicious crop do?
Interested in trying it? Click through a few yummy amaranth dishes below—click each photo for the full recipe.