Kiwicha: An Ancient Peruvian Superfood Seed

As a native Peruvian, I've always been driven to share my knowledge about the foods that originate from the region. And as a registered dietitian, I am particularly interested in the health properties of many Peruvian foods.  Hence, in 2012, I set out on a cross-country adventure to discover the origins of, and best uses for some the most potent foods on the planet—Peruvian superfoods.  Armed with the latest scientific research and a hearty appetite, I traveled from the fertile farmlands of the Andes, to the depths of the Amazonian jungle to explore these foods.  Along the way, I visited open markets, restaurants, humble food stands, and family kitchens, stopping to gather stories and recipes from local chefs, food bloggers, farmers, fishermen and abuelitas.

While Peru is home to many unique foods, one of my favorite and most interesting discoveries was that of Kiwicha.  Long known for its healing properties in the Andes and Amazonian regions, this precious resource has now reached the U.S. and other international markets.  So this is an exciting time to start learning more about kiwicha and how to integrate it into your diet.

Kiwicha, also known as amaranth or “mini quinoa” is a small pseudo cereal noted for its dense nutritional content.  Kiwicha has been farmed in Peru and other areas of South America for over 4,000 years and was widely used as a subsistence crop before the Spanish conquest whereby consumption of kiwicha was banned and was instead used to construct animal statues for religious ceremony.

Still regarded for its ceremonial significance, kiwicha is used in the present day during Day of the Dead festivities; the grain is popped and mixed with sugar to form a candy called alegria, usually in the shape of a small figurine or skull. Kiwicha is also commonly used to prepare turrones, a popular treat made of popped kiwicha and molasses, chicha (kiwicha beer) as well as pilaf, hot cereal, snack bars and granola. Some more unique usages for popped kiwicha (see video below) include its usage as a breading for meat and meat alternatives but also as filler in items like meat loaf and various quick breads and candies.

During the 1970s there was a renewed interest in kiwicha for its health and nutritional benefits and it has only continued to gain popularity. Kiwicha is considered an anti-aging food due to its cumulative anti-carcinogenic, anti-hypertensive, anti-oxidant, and anti-lipidemic properties. Kiwicha contain all 10 essential amino acids, making it an optimal plant protein for vegetarians. It is also high in the amino acid lysine, distinguishing it from other grains which typically contain very little lysine and need to be combined with other foods to make a complete protein. In addition to being gluten-free, it is high in fiber, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and manganese.

Kiwicha contains phenolic acids, carotenoids, and flavonoids which impart antioxidant properties.  It also contains squaline, an organic compound found in some plants, which acts as an anti-cancer agent and may be cardio-protective as well due to its ability to lower LDL, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.  A half cup serving of cooked kiwicha provides 125 kcal, 4.7 grams protein, 2 grams of fat, 23 grams of carbohydrate, and 2.5 grams of fiber.

Try adding Kiwicha to your diet to boost health and vitality. But remember, there is no one miracle food. By adding a variety of nutrient-rich superfoods to a smart diet of whole grains, fresh fruits, lean meats and good fats, you can jump start your health and increase your longevity. The recipe and video below are a great way to explore this incredible ingredient.

Kiwicha Chicken Nuggets

While researching kiwicha and other power foods in Cuzco, I noticed local restaurants using the grain to “bread” meats. That’s when I realized kiwicha makes a great gluten-free option for coating chicken, as in these kid-friendly nuggets, or even for a more adult-style baked chicken dish.

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 cup popped kiwicha (3 tablespoons raw)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the chicken into 1½-inch cubes. Set aside.
2. In a bowl, mix together the popped kiwicha, cheese, salt, thyme, and basil. Dip the chicken pieces into olive oil to coat, and roll each in the kiwicha mixture to evenly bread the chicken.
3. Place the coated chicken pieces on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes, turning the chicken over after 10 minutes.

Per Serving: Kcal 191, Protein 16g, Carb 5g, Fat 12g, Sodium 766mg, Dietary Fiber 1g
Daily Values: Fiber 2%, Vit C 0%, Vit A 1%, Vit D 0%, Calcium 8%, Iron 3%

Recipe from Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes.