Friday, January 18, 2008
Amaranth: nutritious, delicious, and ecological
Amaranth is an amazing food. It contains more calcium than milk, more protein than soy, more iron than spinach, contains the important amino acid lysine which helps with brain and cell maintenance, is high in antioxidants, and is ninety-two percent digestible. The seed itself possesses a natural nutrient ring that protects the nutrients during milling or popping, and finally this wonderful gluten free seed is 92% digestible. In short it is a wonderful food source that when combined with other nutritious foods like cacao, sesame seed, corn, and chia can help to foster a balanced diet.
As a plant it is also quite amazing and ecological. Its roots penetrate the hard earth and promote water infiltration, its roots help to hold the soil along terraces or other inclined areas, and like a weed it helps to bring nutrients to the surface. Furthermore, it is self seeding and requires very little maintenance. Finally, as if this was not enough, the leaves of the amaranth plant are edible and highly nutritious containing more iron than spinach. From an aesthetic point of view amaranth makes a wonderful and attractive, not to mention edible, component in any urban or rural garden.
As chocolatiers who are deeply inspired and influenced by what the millenarian food traditions in Mexico we enjoy and celebrate amaranth as a food that can be blended with cacao, instead of milk to create wonderful thick, rich, and soothing chocolate drinks that are good for the mind, body, and soil.
It was during the time of the conquest that the Catholic Church banned the growth and use of amaranth in Mexico. They justified this by associating it with the Aztec blood rituals. However, the slight crimson hue of the amaranth, especially combined with cacao and perhaps with achiote and other ancient chocolate ingredients could have fueled these allegations. Instead the Europeans promoted the growth of wheat and other grains, and the amaranth and other traditional foods and food cultivation techniques developed in an intensive agricultural system were pushed to the margins, and kept alive in secret. In the case of amaranth, only last year we met members of one family from the highlands of central Mexico whose task it was to protect and conserve the amaranth seed during the time of its suppression by the Catholic Church and colonial powers. This same elderly woman, spoke to us of the name given to the treats made with amaranth near the Day of the Dead, and All Saints Day. They are called alegrias, and this is because there is something in the amaranth itself that the peoples of Mexico have long associated with a feeling of well-being or happiness. Perhaps it is the feeling of being well nourished, or perhaps it is the anti-oxidants, or perhaps it is some other element in the amaranth that gives it this property.
Amaranth was one of the four pillars of the Mesoamerican diet, and combined with beans, corn, and chia would have created a nutritious foundation for an advanced society. It is our belief, that the agricultural and culinary knowledge of Mexico is not that of an undeveloped or primitive culture, but the fruit of a highly advanced and wise civilization that learned to chart the passing of heavenly bodies long before the European calendars were refined. The wisdom embodied in these ancient cultivation techniques, be they polyculture milpas or floating chinampa gardens, the nixtamalization of corn or extensive terrace cropping are only some of the footprints and legacies left from a sophisticated culture that gave us the food of the gods.....cacao.
Nonetheless it is apparent that the abolishment of this important food was not only a crime against the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, but also a way of blinding the Western world to the virtues of this wondrous food crop. In Ontario today, amaranth is known as pigweed and is feed to pigs and rarely to humans. The proper machinery and techniques for its harvest are wanting, and although there is a growing market, it is uncertain how many years it will take before Southern Ontarians, and in particular farmers, realize the value and the virtues of this ancient seed. In terms of seeds, we are still searching for and experimenting with different seeds to try and discover which are the best varieties to grow in this climate for human consumption.
At ChocoSol, rather than combining our chocolate drinks with milk, we choose to use milled amaranth seed, which helps to thicken up the chocolate, compliment its nutritious and medicinal virtues, compliment the ecological way in which our cacao is grown, and compliment the cacao in terms of digestibility, for unlike milk which contains lactose, fats, and oxidants that block the medicinal and nutritional properties of cacao, amaranth synergizes and reinforces them and is highly digestible in itself..
To celebrate this warm cup of drinking chocolate we have created the vanilla amaranth chocolate drink that appeals to young and old alike, and is not too strong or bitter.
And to acknowledge the absurdity of the Catholic Church banning the use of amaranth claiming its usage in blood rituals, we have created Aztec Blood Chocolate, which also contains amaranth, vanilla, achiote, and sometimes chilies and other ancient spices and flowers.
In small batches we have also experimented with Choco-alegrias, that combine cacao, popped amaranth, sesame seed, organic honey, chia seeds, and a hint of sea-salt. These are treats that we choose to bring out near the day of the Dead.
Another popular chocolate combination is cacao, hemp seed, popped amaranth, dehydrated cane sugar, and a hint of sea salt. This recipe is known as Oaxaca Crunch because the proportions for this recipe were developed during our preliminary investigations with chocolate in Oaxaca 5 years ago.