There are over 60 species of Amaranth, a summer annual weed. Amaranth is tightly packed with flowers, and its foliage usually ranges from red and purple to green and gold. It is absolutely gorgeous, standing over 6 feet tall.
This ancient plant is very dear to my heart. I come from a Mexican (or Aztec) as well as Spanish lineage, so on one side, Amaranth has nurtured my ancestors for over 8 thousands years! On the other side, the Spaniards tried very hard to eradicate this sacred plant and even made it illegal for the native people of Mexico to grow and consume it. It is truly a fascinating story, but first allow me to introduce Amaranth properly.
Amaranth is an excellent source of the important amino acid Lysine and the primary proteins Albumin and Globulins. This amazing plant also contains a good amount of minerals, calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and contains 77% unsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic acid, which is essential for optimum nutrition. No wonder the word Amaranth comes from the Greek Amarantos, meaning “one that does not wither” or “unfading flower.” No doubt Amaranth is key to vibrant health and longevity.
Amaranth also contains important phytochemicals and peptides that help lower hypertension and inflammation. And the good news is it’s completely gluten free! Often mistaken for and regarded as a grain, actually it is a seed – a pseudo-cereal, if you will, since it has similar density and nutritional quality. No wonder the Mexicans or, as the Spanish called them, Aztecs regarded this plant as sacred.
The ancient people of Mexico called Amaranth Huauhtli and used it as a primary source for their caloric consumption. It was used to prepare ritual foods and drinks. The Aztec month Panquetzaliztli (December) was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, god of the Mexican tribe, and deity of the sun, war, human sacrifice, and patron of the city of Tenochtitlan. During this time, many dances, songs, prayers and human sacrifices were performed. They would create a statue of Huitzilopochtli from Amaranth seeds and honey. Everyone partaking in this sacred ceremony would then have a bit of the Amaranth deity, inviting their god to live within them.
When the Spanish conquistadors witnessed this ritual, they where horrified because it was too close to their Christian ritual “The Eucharist” or “holy communion,” in which Christians share bread to recognize the presence of Christ, thus eating his body in order that he may live within them. The conquistadors also acknowledged the power Amaranth gave the native people. They saw it as a true warrior food strengthening the Mexicans physically and spiritually. The conquistadors were threatened, so in order to weaken and control the culture, they stopped this entire festival and made Amaranth an illegal crop. Yes, the cultivation of Amaranth was completely outlawed.
The Spanish indeed succeeded in imposing their culture, language, religion; and the festivities were subsumed under the Christmas celebration. However, they were not able to stop Amaranth. Gratefully, Amaranth survived and made it all the way to South America. In fact, it has made it all the way to Africa and Australia.
Today, however, the people of Mexico still hold onto a part of our ancient ritual, a remembrance of strength and resilience. We make round Amaranth cakes called Alegrias, meaning joy. These popular confections, made from popped amaranth, honey and dried fruit, are round, representing the sun. The name came naturally from feeling joyful when eating something that really nurtures you from the inside out.
May I note that the seeds are not the only edible part of the plant. I love eating the leaves in salads or sautéed. They are highly medicinal. In fact, I sometimes juice an entire stalk and sit quietly, thanking and honoring this amazing plant.
Here’s my favorite way to eat Amaranth … Enjoy!