Mexico City hosts the annual Festival of the Olive and Amaranth over the two weeks of 30th January – 14th February this year.
Traditional Mexican dress is worn and dancing takes place while tastings of different olive oils are enjoyed throughout the weeks. Hotcakes made with amaranth flour are the customary foods made during this festival. But amaranth plants very nearly became extinct.
The Aztecs believed that amaranth plants had supernatural powers and they mixed the seeds with human blood and shaped the mixture into effigies of their idols that they then ate during religious ceremonies. But after the Spanish conquest in 1519 this all changed. The Spanish banned the growth of amaranth plants in order to end the pagan practices associated with them. But it still continued to be cultivated in a few pockets of the South Americas. Today it has seen a resurgence in popularity and in the U.S. it is grown in a few states including Colorado, Illinois, and Nebraska.
The amaranth plant has more than 60 species and grows up to 7 feet tall with broad leaves and showy flower heads, each plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds. This easy to grow plant is actually an herb rather than a grain and amaranth flour is produced from the seeds.
Amaranth is used in many parts of the world in numerous different ways. In the home of the forthcoming festival the Mexicans make it into a form of popcorn then mix it with sugar whereby it is known as a confection called alegria. The milled and roasted amaranth seed is also used to create a traditional drink called atole which is a mixture of amaranth flour, milk, cinnamon, vanilla and sugar. In Bolivia, they brew chicha or amaranth beer from fermented seeds.
The amaranth leaves are also eaten in a similar way to spinach, not only in the South American countries but over in India too. The Indians also make laddoos which are very similar to the Mexican alegria. In Nepal they make a thin watery porridge from amaranth seeds and also use the flour for chappatis. Amaranth flour doesn’t contain any gluten so it must be mixed with other flours for yeast breads, but it is fine for making flatbreads, pancakes and pasta.
Modern research into the amaranth plant confirms what the Aztecs already knew, that it is indeed a ‘super’ food. It contains three times the fiber of wheat and has five times the iron content. It also has twice the amount of calcium as milk. All in all, amaranth is a unique and versatile ingredient that is not only healthy and wholesome but also comes with a rich and florid history.
Photos courtesy of flickr - orphanjones, queenofsubtle, chow vegan and ianiv