Amaranth comes in many shapes, colours and sizes, and it readily interbreeds, which makes it difficult for taxonomists to sort out the different species. In general they agree on about 60-70 different ones, depending on whom you talk to. There are small, weedy species such as A. retroflexus, with coarse leaves and inconspicuous, bristly flowerheads, or tall and colourful species, with enormous trunks of seedheads – one species is even called 'elephant head amaranth'. Leaves also range from green to red, or can be multi-coloured. The cultivated species tend to grow up to 2m in height, bearing conspicuous brightly coloured inflorescence.
Leaves, stems, flowers, roots and seeds are edible. Humans usually eat the leaves as a spinach-like potherb and the seeds as a grain. But different varieties are usually used depending on which part one wants to eat. Grain amaranth usually has lighter coloured seeds. The flavor of darker seeds improves with roasting.
Amaranth is native to South and Central America and today is grown in mountainous regions of tropical and subtropical countries around the world, especially in Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, India, China and Nepal.
Amaranth is an ancient cultural plant, an indicator species of civilization so to speak, or at least, of habitation. Similar to nettles, it prefers nitrogen rich waste grounds and disturbed land rather than wild terrain.
Amaranth also makes a good companion plant as it traps leaf miners and shelters ground beetle, which in turn feasts on other pests. It is not a very demanding plant and can help to break up compacted soils.
Birds love the seeds of all Amaranth species.
According to archeological findings in Mexico and Peru it seems that Amaranth has been cultivated since about 5000BC, possibly longer. It is likely that it more or less cultivated itself, as it were, by showing up as a weed in gardens or fields, as it still often does. Many different varieties have been developed since. In South and Central America the grain amaranth varieties were of particular importance.
Strictly speaking, Amaranth is not a true grain. True grains are members of the grass family (Poaceae), while Amaranth is a member of the Amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), and more closely related to Quinoa and other Chenopodiums. That distinction also sets it apart nutritionally. While true grains all contain gluten, a protein that makes dough sticky and facilitates the leavening process, Amaranth is gluten-free, making it very valuable for people suffering from gluten allergies or sensitivity. Amaranth is also rich in lysine, an essential amino acid that true grains usually lack. Lysine is absent from corn, which is why Amaranth has served as the perfect complement to the corn based diets of Mexico and Guatemala.
Cultivated species of Amaranth can be roughly divided into two types – those grown primarily for their seeds and those grown primarily for their leaves. However, both leaves and seeds of all the edible species can used. In the grain varieties the seedheads are bigger and can weigh up to 1kg each. The seeds are tiny and whitish, with a nutty flavor. With a protein content of 14% including lysine, they provide an excellent protein source that is almost equivalent to meat. The seeds are also rich in calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorous and potassium.
The seedheads are threshed and the chaff is blown off. The seeds can be ground into flour, popped or cooked into a mush. If cooked, it should be boiled with PLENTY of water as they produce a lot of mucilage. It is not very suitable for making pilafs and the like, but makes a decent polenta. The flour is best mixed 1:3 with wheat or another grain flour for making baked goods. But the best way to consume Amaranth grain is popped. This can be used in mueslis or mixed with honey to make crunchy bars.
In ancient Mexico it was a crop of utmost importance, not just for nutrition, but also for ritual purposes. Before the arrival or Cortes and his men Amaranth was perhaps the most important crop in the Aztec world. The leaders demanded a huge tribute in Amaranth seeds from their subjects and it is believed that it once played a more important role than even corn. Aztecs preferred popped Amaranth. During the festivities of Huitzilopochtli which were celebrated during the Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli (7 December to 26 December) amaranth (huautli) played a central role. After a month of processions, dances and prayers the festival culminated in sacrifice during which an effigy of Huitzilopochtli made of amaranth, honey and blood was broken into pieces and shared among all the participants. The rite had such strong resemblance to the Christian Eucharist rite that Cortes thought it blasphemous and outlawed growing and consuming amaranth. But although the use of amaranth greatly declined it was never totally eradicated and even today, amaranth is used ceremonially in the shape of 'alegros', made of skull shaped ornamental treats made of amaranth and honey that are consumed during the Day of the Dead.
The leaves make an excellent potherb, which is more widely used in Asia. Here it is classified in the category of 'saag' plants, which means 'greens', and often features in curries. Leaves are very rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C and folate, as well as other B vitamins. In Asia, even the peeled root is sometimes eaten.
In Jamaica it is known as Callaloo and famously features in the regional cuisine. It is so popular that it is even sold in cans and shipped to the UK where the fresh leaves are not available.
The Hopis grew a variety known as 'Hopi Red', which they mixed with corn to colour the maize flour. Deceivingly a chemical dye has been named 'Amaranth', (US: Red no 2, illegal in the US since 1976, EU E123). This is derived from coal tar and is believed to be carcinogenous).
Apart from Amaranth's excellent nutritional profile, it has also has some specific medicinal properties. It is considered mildly astringent and used to control diarrhea and bleeding, although there are more effective remedies for this purpose.
It's main strength lies in its cholesterol lowering properties. It is an excellent 'heart-friendly' food that lowers trigycerides as well as LDL cholesterol. It also contains Lunasine, a peptide that is also present in soy and is linked to blocking inflammation in chronic conditions such as diabetes and inflammatory heart disease.
The weedy, undemanding nature of Amaranth makes an ideal crop for difficult and arid terrain, especially in mountainous regions. Amaranth has proven extremely resilient. A. palmeri (pigweed) is considered a noxious 'superweed' that has even developed resistance to herbicides, including glyphosate based ones, such as round-up. A. palmeri is edible, but only palatable during its early stages of growth, while the leaves are tender. It absorbs nitrates and builds up oxalates during its growth cycle, which make it less desirable. Also, as it often appears as a weed on highly 'cultivated' ground, it is very likely to have been getting its fair share of the chemical weaponry that is regularly unleashed on our crops.
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