Amaranth, also known as huauhtli
, comes from the Amaranthaceae
family and includes sixty different genus and some 800 species. Three are currently domesticated and cultivated: Amaranthus hipochondriacus
, originally native to Mexico; Amaranthus cruentus
from Guatemala and southeast Mexico; and Amaranthus caudatus
, of South American origin.
is derived from the Greek amarantos
, meaning “that which does not wither.” Cultivation of Amaranthus
cruentus in America—first undertaken by the Maya—dates back five to seven thousand years.
with corn, beans, squash and chia, amaranth was a fundamental part of the pre-Hispanic diet, whose practitioners discovered the seeds could be stored for extensive periods for use in time of food scarcity.
seeds were a main ingredient in atoles
, tamales, pinole
and tortillas; their leaves were eaten as vegetables; and amaranth was even considered a ritual food. Researchers speak of amaranth use in different ceremonies on the religious calendar, which Spanish authorities subsequently forbade. This—in conjunction with native-crop replacement by species the conquistadors introduced—led to a significant drop in amaranth cultivation. Native Americans who planted, consumed or stored amaranth were liable to have both hands mutilated or could even be put to death.
, amaranth production and consumption was deeply rooted in indigenous villages and has continued without interruption to the present day.
grows even in adverse weather conditions, drought, high temperatures or salty soils. It is an herbaceous plant that bears edible leaves and long spikes on their tips that contain seeds.
Amaranthus hypochondriacus L is Mexico’s most widely consumed species; its common names include quelite, pigweed, alegría, amaranth and quintonil. Mexicans eat its tender stems and leaves, as quelite, in salads, soups, stews, as garnishes and to stuff tamales. The seeds are the most used part. Amaranth has valuable nutritional characteristics, a higher protein content than corn or wheat, and is rich in carbohydrates, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium, in addition to being low in fat.
The most popular way to eat amaranth in Mexico is as part of a sweet called an alegría, featuring popped seeds. In smaller batches, amaranth seeds are ground and mixed with corn to make tamales, atole and pinole; with wheat flour for cakes and biscuits; and crushed to make different types of antojitos. They are also important to cosmetics, dyes and even biodegradable plastics manufacture.
Mexico’s central plateau produces the largest amount of amaranth distributed inside and outside the nation, in Tehuacán in the state of Puebla (organic product; Slow Food Bastion) as well as in Mexico City’s Tulyehualco, Xochimilco district, and in the states of Tlaxcala and Hidalgo. There it is planted several times yearly and production peaks from November to January.