Ancient Aztec Crop Grows on Outer Cape

Oct 26, 2017

Amaranth grows at Stephanie Rein's farm in Truro.
Credit Elspeth Hay

Amaranth was a key crop for the ancient Aztecs, but fell out of favor after European explorers arrived because of its association with pagan worship. This week on the Local Food Report, Elspeth Hay learns about a modern day crop of amaranth growing at the home of Truro farmer and educator Stephanie Rein.

People think amaranth is a grain, says Rein, but it’s actually what’s called a pseudo-cereal. It's not in the graminacea, which is the grasses and grains. Instead it's more closely related to a beet or spinach. Amaranth flour is the seed of the plant all ground up.

These seeds are tiny—about the size of a poppyseed and either black or tan—but one plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds. Researchers believe the Aztecs got roughly 80 percent of their calories from the plant before Europeans arrived. And it turns out that in addition to turning the seeds into flour or eating them popped like popcorn or even cooked whole, you can also eat the leaves.

The flavor is similar to spinach and Rein says she thinks it would be good julienned and steamed, or sautéed.  There are many varieties of amaranth; Rein has grown two, one called Love Lies Bleeding, a very droopy variety, and a new variety which is more upright. The leaves are red and the flowers are bright magenta.

Amaranth flour can be used to make breads and cereals, and the seeds can also be popped like popcorn or cooked into a porridge. Rein is planning to harvest the seeds from the new variety she's growing with the kids she teaches as the farmer in the school for the Truro and Wellfleet elementary districts.

The kids have been studying amaranth and examining them and now as the seeds dry they’ll do the seed collection and seed saving for both the schools and the Truro Public Library seed bank.

Amaranth seeds from a dried flower.
Credit Elspeth Hay

You can find a recipe for cinnamon laced amaranth porridge here