Amaranth is a highly-nutritive tonic herb. It should always be cooked before being eaten and it should be grown in a low-nitrogen situation. It is gluten free and a must have for those suffering from gluten intolerence.
What is Amaranth and where does it come from?
Amaranthus, a herb, is an ancient food of the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America and of India as well. It is collectively known as amaranth or pigweed. In India, it was earlier called Rajgara meaning 'royal grain'. It is a member of the Amaranthaceae family and is an annual beautiful broad leafed bushy herbaceous plant that reaches a height of 5-7 feet or 1.5-2 metres.
The word comes from the Greek amarantos, the ‘one that does not wither’ or the never-fading flower. And one of Aesop’s Fables (6th century BC) compares the Rose to the Amaranth to illustrate the difference in fleeting and everlasting beauty.
Approximately 60 species are presently recognized, with inflorescences and foliage ranging from purple and red to gold. Although several species are often considered weeds, people around the world value amaranths as leaf vegetables, cereals and ornamentals.
Amaranth (just like quinoa) is a pseudocereal because of its flavor and cooking similarities to grains. It contains exceptionally complete protein for plant sources. It also provides a good source of dietary fiber and dietary minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and especially manganese.
Milled from the seeds of the amaranth plant which can be grown in the garden also, the amranth flour has a higher percentage of protein and the amino acid lysine, and is more fibrous. It has a slight kick (like pepper) and can be used in biscuits, crackers, breads, and baking as well as a muesli or porridges. It is expensive and does not keep well as a flour.
How to Select and Store
- Amaranth flour can be found in prepared cereals and other baked goods, such as crackers, cookies, and breads, and is also available packaged as a whole-grain flour.
- It should be stored in an airtight freezer bag in the refrigerator or freezer as this will prevent the highly beneficial polyunsaturated fats from becoming rancid. It can be stored for about 2-3 months if in the refrigerator or upto 6 months in the freezer.
- Cooked amaranth seeds keep for a maximum of 3 days refrigerated and the leaves for 1-2 days at hte most.
- Select seeds that have a uniform colour and do not have a bitter or musty smell. Black seeds in the amaranth mean that the wild pigweed has got inbetween the cultivated amaranth.
The seeds are eaten as a cereal grain. They are ground into flour, popped like popcorn, cooked into a porridge, and made into a confectionery called alegría. The leaves can be cooked like spinach, and the seeds can be germinated into nutritious sprouts.
While Amaranth is no longer a staple food, it is still grown and sold as a health food. Amaranth species are also cultivated and consumed as a leaf vegetable in many parts of the world.
- In Indonesia and Malaysia, leaf amaranth is called bayam, while in the Philippines it is known as kulitis.
- In India the leaf is added in preparation of a popular dal called thotakura pappu.
- In China, the leaves and stems are used as a stir-fry vegetable.
- In Congo, it is known as lenga lenga or biteku teku. The leaves are also used in a Caribbean soup called callaloo.
- In East Africa amaranth leaf is known as mchicha – “a vegetable for all”.
- In Nigeria, it is known as efo tete or arowo jeja – “We have money left over for fish”. It is a very common vegetable, and it goes with all Nigerian carbohydrate dishes.
Quick Serving Ideas
- Sprout Amaranth seeds and make into sprout salads, sandwiches, fruit salads or even as crunchy snacks.
- Crack the seeds like popcorn and mix with onions, green chillies, salt, amchur (dried mango powder), chopped green coriander, and a little virgin mustard oil for zinging in the ears.
- As a delicious grain side dish, try out slightly cooked amaranth seeds. Add 1 cup of seeds to 2 1/2 cups of half water half stock and bring to boil. Lower heat and cook until seeds are tender. You can add, turmeric, salt, gingeroot and some fresh coriander.
- Amaranth is also used to make breads, muffins, pastry, pasta and other baked products. To make bread it is essential to add wheat flour but when you are making pancakes or pastas 100% Amaranth flour can be used.
- Amaranth leaves taste much like young sweet spinach leaves and are best in salads. The mature leaves can be blanched and hten steamed, stir-fried, or sauteed.
- Several studies have shown that amaranth seed or oil may benefit those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease; regular consumption reduces blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while improving antioxidant status and some immune parameters.
- In traditional medicine Amaranth is especially recommended for people with a low red blood cell count.
- It is also widely used in Herbal Therapy to control itching as it has antihistamine compounds. To benefit, brew 2 teaspoons crushed amaranth seeds in 3 cups of boiling water for 15 minutes; strain. Dab over the itchy area with a cotton cloth.
- In the Cuzco area of Peru, amaranth's flowers are used medicinally for toothaches and fevers.
- In Equador, amaranth flowers are boiled, leaching their vibrant colour into boiling water which is added to aquardeinte rum to create a drink said to purify the blood and help normalise the menstrual cycle
- The rich purple red colour of the amaranth was also traditionally used cosmetically both as a food dye for maize and quinoa and as a rouge.
- It is also used extensively as an ornamental plant.
- Amaranths are recorded as food plants for some Lepidoptera species and used as a catch plant for pest control.
Growing Amaranth at home
This is a moderately easy plant to grow. The two species of grain amaranth most commonly grown are Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus hypochondriacus. It is drought-tolerant, provided there is sufficient moisture during the early growing period. Frost plays an important role in the harvest of the crop.
Since amaranth is an annual crop native to the southern latitudes of North America and to India and Nepal, it does not mature completely where the growing season is short. A frost is necessary to terminate the crop’s growth so that the plant material will be dry enough to harvest.
- The area planted with Amaranth, needs to receive full sun and the soil must be well drained. If you plant the amaranths in containers they need to be fairly large as the amaranth becomes a bush.
- The seeds should be planted early in the season, 10 to 12 inches apart and cover them lightly with soil. The amaranth seeds tolerate some groupings but they prosper more when spaced apart.
- Fertilize the amaranth once or twice during the growing season. The fertilizer needs to be for flowering plants with low or no nitrogen. Take care not to over-fertilize the amaranth. Doing so may result in damage to the plant.
- Spray the stalks and ground lightly with water during wet seasons. Water the plants once or twice a week during the dry seasons.
- Protect your plants from insects and disease. Although amaranth plants are resilient, there are some insects such as aphids that prefer flowering plants. In humid areas, mildew becomes a problem. Check your plant for mildew once a week. If disease, insects or mildew become a problem, treat the plant early with Neem water or other herbal fungicides.
- Maintain the area around the amaranth. Remove any weeds growing around the plant as they stunt its growth.
The best time to harvest amaranth commercially is in dry weather three to seven days after the first frost. Most presently available varieties maintain too high a moisture content to be harvested mechanically before a killing frost.
Amaranth is cleaned with screens, by winnowing, with a fan or other blowing device. After harvesting, it is important to further dry the crop to ensure it won’t mold in storage. It can be left on trays in the hot sun or placed near an indoor heat source. Unlike beans or true grains, amaranth has no hulls to remove.
The greatest problem facing the development of amaranth as a crop is finding markets for the grain. The crop has only been grown commercially during the 1980s, and the markets are still very small. However farmers that grow amaranth have marketed their crop in a number of ways. Some sell small bags of the whole grain or flour by mail-order. Many of these purchasers are allergic to wheat products. Other growers sell to local or regional health food stores or restaurants. There are also a few middlemen who buy grain from the farmers and market it to the larger health food companies that have developed grain amaranth products.
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