Native to Bolivia, Chile, Peru and parts of Mexico, quinoa is a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium) whose seeds are traditionally used in soups, made into beer and ground into meal for making porridges and cakes.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) has been sustaining civilization in South and Central America for thousands of years. The tiny seeds of this plant were highly regarded by the Incas, and played a fundamental role in their empire. The Incas referred to quinoa as chisaya mama, or "mother of all grains," and believed that the plant provided warriors with strength and stamina in battle. The Incan emperor himself traditionally sowed the first seeds of the season with a special gold implement.
Though the Incas — as well as many present-day quinoa-lovers — referred to quinoa as a grain, the plant is actually an herb that thrives in cold, high elevations. While it's mostly grown in South America, farmers in the Rocky Mountains and in the Pacific Northwest have recently begun cultivating quinoa as well.
Quinoa production in the United States has been spurred by the recent increase in demand for the tiny seeds from health-conscious consumers. A good source of protein, calcium and amino acids, this so-called "superfood" also contains health-protective compounds such as polyphenols and quercetin, powerful antioxidants believed by some to reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.