Growing up in Peru, we ate many foods that you don’t see as often in the United States. Quinoa, for instance, was everywhere—we used it to feed both people and chickens! In recent years many of the foods I remember from a Latin American diet have become available in the US, and it turns out they have highly beneficial nutritional profiles. That they do should come as no surprise—many of these are the foods of the Incas, on which those great people built a vast empire. Today I want to introduce you to the five food wonders of the Incan world, and suggest you try them out for yourself.
The Incan empire is less familiar perhaps than the Romans, but it shouldn’t be; by the 16th century its borders extended from Machu Picchu in Peru north to Ecuador and south along the Andes through modern-day Chile and Argentina. The Incas had to manage a huge territory, including communicating across vast distances, so it’s no wonder they were known for their fighting skills, their endurance, and their strength. Clearly, they benefited from some good nutrition! In fact, with an empire whose beginning pre-dates the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, the Incas were fueled by a diet made up of nutritionally dense, New World foods. Here are five of them.
1. Quinoa: The Incas called this staple of their diet Chehisaya mama, meaning “mother of all grains,” and yet quinoa is not actually a grain—it’s a seed. And what a seed it is: one cup of quinoa has 8 grams of protein, is high in calcium, protein, and iron, and is a good source of Vitamin C as well as several B-Vitamins. It is high on the lycine/thiamine system, so in combination with other grains it creates complete proteins. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to make, and versatile to eat. Quinoa cooks in about 15 minutes with two cups of liquid to a cup of quinoa. (Check out my YouTube demonstration on how to cook quinoa.) Use it as a rice substitute in stir fries, pair it with fish and vegetables to make a complete entrée, or put it in a salad or under a soup as a carbohydrate source. It’s even a breakfast food—boil it with milk, add walnuts and blueberries, and it’s a delicious alternative to oatmeal.
2. Kiwicha: You may already know this seed by its more common North American name, amaranth. It’s often called “mini-quinoa,” but kiwicha is a much smaller seed. It is very high in protein and has a more complete profile of amino acids than most other grains, and it is rich in iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphoros, and copper—minerals essential to healthy physical functioning. Adding kiwicha to your diet can help decrease plasma cholesterol, stimulate your immune system, and potentially even inhibit tumors. It also improves hypertension and reduces blood glucose. In short, it can help support your body’s essential systems. Kiwicha is like quinoa in one other respect—how it’s cooked. Prepare just as you would quinoa or rice, and eat it in a pilaf-like salad. Delicious!
3. Pichuberry: This small, smooth fruit is known in Peru as “Inca berry,” but it was so successfully spread by the Spanish after their conquest of the Americas that in Africa it’s known as the Africa berry, and in Australia it’s called a Cape gooseberry. Its health benefits are manifest: the pichuberry contains powerful antioxidants and twenty times the Vitamin-C of an orange; it boosts immunity and vitality, and there is even promising research suggesting it prevents cellular aging and the onset of cancer. In Peru it is known as the anti-diabetic fruit because it reduces blood sugar by stimulating the production of insulin. And its nutrient profile (Provitamin A, B-Complex vitamins, thiamine, nyacine, phosphoros) is associated with liver fortification, lung strength, fertility, and food absorption. It makes a great salad when paired with quinoa, tastes incredible with dark chocolate, and is a delicious replacement for blueberries on your morning oatmeal.
4. Sacha Inchi: These seeds of the Inchi plant are often called Inca-peanuts, and they are one of the best plant sources for the Omega family of fatty acids. With 48% Omega-3, 36% Omega-6, and rich supplies of Iodine, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E, the Inca-peanut has major health benefits in terms of restoring your lipid balance, encouraging the production of HDL (high-density lipoprotein, responsible for transporting lipids through your bloodstream), and fighting conditions like heart disease and diabetes. You can certainly eat Sacha Inchi like you would other nuts, but you might prefer to buy the oil and use it to dress salads in place of olive oil (with its low burning-point, it is somewhat tricky to use as a cooking oil).
5. Purple Potatoes: Potatoes are a remarkably diverse and nutritious New World food—in Peru there are over 3,000 kinds! The one that was particularly eaten by the Incas was the purple potato, which has started to appear in North American supermarkets. The anthocyanins in the potatoes give them their distinctive purple/blue color; these natural chemicals are flaminoids—substances with powerful anti-cancer and heart protective effects. Flaminoids also stimulate the immune system and protect against age-related memory loss. These potatoes are delicious, with a distinctive nutty, earthy, slightly bitter flavor. I prefer to roast them: I use a pump mister filled with olive or peanut oil—not an artificial cooking spray—to lightly spritz the quartered potatoes, which I then spread in a roasting pan, sprinkle with kosher salt and a little garlic powder or Italian seasonings, and roast for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Once the potatoes are cooked they are a great carb source for a variety of meals; I make a batch on Sunday, and use them through the week scrambled with eggs for breakfast, in a salad for lunch, or reheated with chicken or fish for dinner.
All of these delicious foods have begun making an appearance in North American supermarkets, and are still in the fully natural, nutritious state they were in when they sustained the Incas through the building of a great empire. Try them out. Your health and your taste buds will thank you.
Manuel Villacorta is a nationally recognized, award-winning registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, in San Francisco, California. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good!