Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alegria - Past and Future of The Eternal Amaranth

Recently at a dinner party I got served a beautiful salad containing Quinoa. "It is an ancient grain", one of the guest explained. Later, that weekend I saw a bag labeled "kichiwa", while grocery shopping. I immediately recognized it as Amaranth, a grain that is slightly smaller than Quinoa. Quinoa and amaranth are two plants commonly used in Mexican and South American cooking but they are gaining popularity in the US lately. Amaranth is also grown as an beautiful, fluffy ornamental flower (pictured above). Just like quinoa, amaranth is considered a "pseudo cereal" - since real cereals are grasses. Other pseudo cereals are buckwheat and chia seeds.

I didn't tell the other dinner guest but I was very familiar with these ancient foods. Back in Mexico, I used to eat the traditional candy called "Alegria" - it was sold on road stands and markets all over Mexico. Alegrias are similar to rice krispy treats, small bars of popped amaranth glued together with molasses or honey. To the ancient Mexicas this amazing little seed was called "Huautli", to the Mayas it was "Txes" and to the Incas and present time Peruvians - "Kiwicha". The word in Spanish - Alegria, literally means "joy", and it is very appropriate since amaranth is said to be a natural anti depressant.

There were many rituals associated with Amaranth just like the ones for chia seeds in ancient Mexico. But unlike the rituals associated with chia (fertility), the mysterious associations of Amaranth could have been the continuity of life, nourishment, or even immortality. In the time of the Aztecs, enormous statues were paraded among crowds during religious celebrations. These statues were made out of amaranth seed mixed with honey and some times blood. At the end of the celebration these enormous statues were cut in pieces and distributed among participants for a type of symbolic cannibalism and communion with the gods.

Mexican artist Javier Marín creates dynamic, large scale figurative images. One of his projects involves casting large statues out of resin that have amaranth seeds inside them, drawing inspiration from ancient rituals. The images above are the heads of three women, via Iturralde gallery and ArtScene. Judith Christensen writes: "In the materials, as well, Marin fuses old and the new. Western European and indigenous Mexican - is basic to Marin's work. Like Marin's resin, the amaranth produced figures that looked heavy, but were comparatively light weight".

Pictured Ricardo Peralta and Rodolfo Neri Vela (right), 1985. Via Space Facts

In the same manner, combining the old and the new in the kitchen allows us to find interesting, unexpected discoveries. Rodolfo Neri Vela, the first Mexican astronaut back in the 80's was also the first to patent amaranth as the perfect astronaut food. Originally amaranth was selected because of its versatility and its ability to survive diverse conditions, but it also turned out to be one of the few seeds that germinated in outer space.

Amaranth is highly usable. The seeds and the greens are both edible. It is a highly resilient plant, it belongs to a species generally considered a weed. It could help maintains brain functions and the nervous system by regulating serotonin and providing protein. Amaranth is also highly nutritious, it is a good source of vitamins A, K, BC, and C. It is also full of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. It could be well said that Amaranth may be the food of the future! I leave you with these words by John Milton, from his famed poem "Paradise Lost":

"Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven
Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:
With these that never fade the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks."


Learn how to make Abstract Amaranth Candy on my next post!

Learn more about Javier Marín at the artist's interactive website. The website is bilingual, and a very interesting site to navigate. His studio itself is amazing, it was featured on HGTV's "The art of Mexican Design".

Mr. Marín was also the winner of a contest to re-create the altar at the Cathedral of Zacatecas, a UNESCO world heritage site. The project will be unveiled in June the 26, 2010. Learn more about the event at the artist's facebook page.

Read Rodolfo Neri Vela's article about Amaranth in Space (in Spanish) via Buenas Noticias. The photos of the amaranth bars are from that site, taken by Meliton Tapia of INAH

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