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.

Globalization has generated many foes, among them the foodie set of Latin America, lamenting local markets saturated with American fats, hidden in everything from Fritos to fast-food chains.

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.

Agricultural sense?

There is some nationalism behind promoting local specialties, like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's call for his people to consume more arepas, sandwiches made with a traditional corn meal patty rather than wheat bread. And Bolivian Foreign Minister David Chuquehuenca joked in July that recent buzz over the “end” of the Maya calendar this year could signify an end to capitalism and Coca-Cola and the rebirth of mocochinchi, a traditional beverage from dried peaches boiled with cinnamon.

But in many cases refocusing on traditional grains and products makes agricultural sense. Amaranth, like the three surviving varieties of quinoa, and potatoes in colors from red to blue, have been harvested for centuries because they simply grow better than many commodity crops in the particular climates of Latin America, from the chilly highlands of Mexico to the high, dry plains of Bolivia and the temperate rainforest of Chile.

On the island of Chiloe, off Chile's coast at the north end of Patagonia, families used to be referred to not by last name but by the variety of potato they planted, says Francisco Fantini, who edited the award-winning cookbook series "Gastronomia Patagonia."

But they, like farmers throughout Latin America, gave up on selling native crops to the market, especially as government programs promoted major global commodity crops above local foods, despite having to adapt them to non-native climates. For example, agricultural ministries in Chile and Peru monitor the price of products such as rice, wheat, and apples to ensure that food remains affordable, but don't bother monitoring quinoa prices.

'Something typical'

Yet governments are starting to put priorities on traditional foods. In southern Chile, a local office of the agriculture ministry is working with Mapuche farmers to revive the breeding line of the Mapuche hen, a chicken famous for producing pale blue eggs.

The FAO is working with the governments of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador to improve the quality of seeds used to plant native quinoa, potato, corn, and dry beans.

The broader acceptance of formerly exotic foods, such as quinoa, leaves the field open for even more unusual specialties. Toasted giant ants are sold as a packaged snack food in the Santander region of Colombia, while a hot sauce made with Amazonian ants has become a sought-after delicacy in Venezuela.

Such delicacies are gaining popularity not just among Latin Americans but visitors, who used to find it easier to find European cuisine than ant eggs or fried grasshoppers, two specialities of Mexico. Now chefs are recognizing a new potential market, and that is impacting the entire production chain. Mr. Quiñeman, the Mapuche chef, says consumers are increasingly demanding both healthy food – and novelty.

"They want to try something typical of the place,” he says.

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