Back on Latin America's menu: purple seaweed, blue eggs, and amaranth
As traditional foods like quinoa gain popularity world-wide, many in Latin America are seeking to get their own residents to delve into plates that were the superfoods of their ancestors.
Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City
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But, not unlike its rise economically and diplomatically, now Latin America has also declared culinary independence, resurrecting traditional foods like quinoa, amaranth, and blue eggs.
"There is a growing appreciation for traditional products," says Juan Carlos Quiñeman, a chef who grew up in an indigenous Mapuche community in southern Chile and has created award-winning recipes using traditional ingredients such as luche, a purple-black seaweed used in soups. "Chefs are taking pride in representing a region, using the recipes they knew as children, and putting them, for example, on the menu at a hotel."
They are also seeking to get their own residents to delve into plates that were the superfoods of their ancestors. In Mexico, amaranth, a plant whose seed is consumed as a high-protein cereal was a major component of both the Aztec diet and their religious rituals. But after the conquest of the Spanish and their quest to convert Aztecs into Christians, amaranth was banned. Today, says Jose de la Rosa, coordinator for historic patrimony for the Secretary of Culture of Mexico City, “it is beans and corn that are given more importance when it should be amaranth.”
That is starting to change. Mexico City, this month, is going to give amaranth the status of cultural heritage, both for its historic importance and its nutritional properties, joining a list of just a half-dozen other events and monuments given such status, says Mr. de la Rosa.
Becoming 'widely known'
People like Mary Delano, a biochemical engineer in the central Mexican state of Queretaro, have been fundamental to raising awareness about amaranth in Mexico. In 2005, Ms. Delano founded the organization called Mexico Land of Amaranth, which seeks to help overcome poverty and malnutrition in Mexico by teaching local communities to grow amaranth in their homes. At the time, she says, it was really only found in organic stores or in traditional granola-like bars known as "alegrias."
So far her group has worked with about 100 communities, Delano says. “Our vision is that it not only become widely known in Mexico, but in the world,” she says.
If amaranth takes a page from quinoa, the round, nutty-flavored seed native to South America, her vision won’t be far out of reach. Quinoa's world production almost tripled to 78,000 tons in 2010 from 23,000 tons in 1990, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.
The UN even named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. But the new rage has a downside. Production is booming but hasn't kept up with demand – even in quinoa's home territory in the Andes, a pound of the grain often costs well over a day's pay for a typical worker in Peru or Bolivia.