19 Nov 2018

What is amaranth?

author Ashley Owen
A symbol of Aztec power and a staple in the modern kitchen, find out why this naturally gluten-free grain has been cultivated for at least 8000 years, and why it's so good for you.

The origins of amaranth

The festival of Huitzilopochtli, one of the most important festivals of the pre-conquest Aztec world, saw people decorating their homes and trees with strings of brightly coloured paper flags. They paraded in ceremonial dress, singing and dancing their way through the streets of Tenochtitlan and Cholula.

The brilliant red plaster of colossal stepped temples stretched defiantly into the sky; a symbol of Aztec power. Rows of flag-covered houses flapped in unison. The people chanted prayers, dancing rhythmically and thumping their drums, the emperor standing at centre stage, adorned with a ruffle of Quetzal feathers.

For the people of Mesoamerica, the gods were not separated from nature. Rather, the characteristics of nature were interpreted into the personalities of different gods. In turn, the influence of the gods could be seen in the natural world.

Amaranth is a perfect example of this exchange between the natural and the divine. This tall plant, with its broad, green leaves, was so important that during Huitzilopochtli, the community used its seeds to build a divine statue.

So, while this powerful grain might be new to Western kitchens, it has been revered since ancient times in other parts of the world. And, indeed, it still is. Celebrations for the Mexican Día de los Muertos still feature skulls decorated with amaranth seeds.


Amaranth seeds or amaranth grain?

Amaranth is a pesudocereal. This simply means that it is a seed which acts like a grain. While that might sound unusual, some of your other pantry staples fall into this category, too. Buckwheat and quinoa are both pseudocereals, although we often think of them as grains.

A food becomes a pseudocereal by virtue of how we eat it. And, since amaranth has been eaten much like any other grain for thousands of years, it happily sits within the pseudocereal family.

Amaranth grain is smaller than other 'grains' such as quinoa, and looks quite seed-like. It has a pleasant, nutty flavour, and it's also very versatile. You can eat amaranth grain in place of rice, bulgar or quinoa alongside a hot savoury meal. When cooked with liquid it has a thickening effect similar to that of oats.

However, amaranth also works very well with sweet flavours. It can be ground into a brilliant gluten-free flour and used in baking. Its nutty flavour works brilliantly in cakes and cookies.

Another popular way of eating amaranth is to pop or puff the seeds. This is just like making popcorn from corn kernels, and it gives the amaranth a lovely crunchy, fluffy texture. Puffed amaranth is a great way of topping sweet and savoury dishes, or mixing into cookies for a bit of added crunch.

So, now you know how easy it is to use amaranth, let's look at its benefits.