Amaranthus spp, commonly known as Amaranth, is in the Amaranthaceae family.
There are numerous species of Amaranth in the British Isles. The BSBI Plant Atlas lists twelve species, and the genus was introduced most likely during the 1700s.
I remember first paying attention to Amaranth when I explored plants in Laos.
I stayed on the forest’s edge for a month in a shack by an icy-cold turquoise pool and waterfall.
It didn’t take long to find my local plant guide, a man named Pon.
Pon had been in the Laos army and had lived continuously in the forest for four years.
Four years straight with lots and lots and lots of creepy crawlies you pray you will never meet.
I can deal with dangerous wild animals; you can usually see them, but those barely visible insects are more dangerous in my mind.
And if you are three days away from medical treatment, well, I’ll leave the consequences to your imagination.
I spent a reasonable amount of time with Pon, photographing and documenting the local uses of the forest food plants.
With Pon, I was in good hands because although I was in Northern Laos, there were still unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War, and the chance of stepping on one was a genuine concern.
Then there were the poachers. More dangerous than the other animals that inhabited the forest.
So, as happens quite often on my adventurous plant journeys, we went into the forest with a gun.
I met Amaranth before I met Pon.
It’s a curious plant. It is a blend between wild and cultivated, and humans have eaten it for thousands of years.
In East Africa, people eat the seeds and use the leaves and young shoots as a delicious vegetable. They consider it a grain crop, similar to how they use maize.
Early in the year, the underlying taste is mild, not spicy or bitter. It can, therefore, be used as a base for many dishes.
The young, tender leaves and shoots can be used raw in salads and vegetable dishes from spring to summer.
You can briefly fry them in oil for vegetable crisps or steam them for a side dish.
Amaranth is excellent as a replacement for spinach, great as a puree, and as fillings for strudels, crepes and oven-baked dishes like lasagna and pizza.
You can finely chop it for patties, sauces, vegetable soups, and bread dough.
In autumn, harvest the mature seeds. Shake or twist the grains from the seed heads. The seeds taste like corn. They can be nibbled raw, roasted, added to patties, sprinkled on salads or dried and processed into a coffee substitute.
You can grind the dried seeds and add them to bread dough or use them as gluten-free flour for pastries.
You can also cook them into a porridge with water or milk. Alternatively, you can sprout the dried seeds.
The plants contain betacyanin pigments (the same found in beetroot) and are rich in vitamin C, B1 and beta-carotene (100g grains cover the daily requirement).
Amaranth has an 18% higher protein and mineral content than traditionally grown grains.
The proteins contain many essential amino acids. The plant is very high in calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.
In addition, it contains up to 60% carbohydrates, primarily starch. The fat content (9%) is rich in valuable, unsaturated fatty acids.
Not only are amaranth species high in nutrients, but these nutrients are in a very favourable ratio for human nutrition.
However, Amaranth also contains small amounts of indigestible tannins.
It also takes up heavy metals, so be sure to harvest from soil that does not have a history of industrial usage.
It is used a lot by the Acoma of New Mexico. They first roast the seed, then pulverise it into a fine powder. Subsequently, cook this powder until it becomes dense, shape it into balls, and consume it as a type of dumpling.
You can also parch the seeds before cooking them into a mushy porridge.
Amaranth is a traditional plant food of Canadian Indigenous peoples and is nutritionally rich and diverse.
In its stems, leaves, and shoots, per 100 grams of fresh weight, it contains substantial amounts of minerals: 334 mg of calcium, 77 mg of phosphorus, 10 mg of sodium, 622 mg of potassium, 210 mg of magnesium, 0.2 mg of copper, 2.0 mg of zinc, 6.0 mg of iron, 4.2 mg of manganese, and 24.7 mg of chloride.
Additionally, it provides 10 grams of water, 14.5 grams of protein, and 5.9 grams of fat.
This composition makes it a valuable source of macro and micronutrients, offering significant health benefits.
Expanding on the culinary applications of amaranth, a diverse range of recipes highlights its versatility. These additional uses include:
Creamy amaranth porridge: This protein-rich porridge, cooked with milk of choice, offers a hearty breakfast option, especially when topped with nuts, fresh fruit, and chia seeds.
Millet amaranth buddha bowls: A healthy dish featuring a blend of curry-spiced millet and amaranth, complemented with tofu, broccoli, kale, avocado, and pine nuts.
Gluten-free savoury amaranth waffles: Offering a crispy and nutty alternative to traditional waffles, these can be served with savoury toppings like a fried or poached egg and a light pear fennel arugula salad.
Gluten-free amaranth tortillas: These nutritious tortillas can be filled with various ingredients to create delicious tacos.
Amaranth granola: Homemade granola using amaranth, naturally sweetened with maple syrup and seasoned with cinnamon, pairs well with Greek yogurt or nut milk.
Amaranth tikki: Savoury Indian patties made from a mixture of grated potatoes, amaranth, yogurt, and green chilli paste, pan-fried until golden brown.
Chocolate puffed amaranth bars: High-protein dessert bars combining wholesome ingredients like pumpkin seeds, dates, dried cranberries, and puffed amaranth, coated in melted chocolate.
Protein power lentils and amaranth patties: Nutrient-rich patties ideal for weeknight dinners, made from red lentils and amaranth, served as burgers or with a side salad and roasted potatoes.
Amaranth spice cookies: Ideal for the holidays, these cookies use amaranth flour and a warming spice blend, with adjustable sugar content for healthfulness.
Tabouli with amaranth grain: A fresh and zesty side dish where amaranth replaces bulgur, complementing grilled proteins.
Amaranth flour tortillas with avocados: Healthy tortillas incorporating amaranth and avocados, suitable for quesadillas with salsa and guacamole.
A list of Amaranth species found in the British Isles
- Amaranthus albus L. “White Pigweed”
- Amaranthus blitoides S.Watson “Prostrate Pigweed”
- Amaranthus blitum L. “Guernsey Pigweed”
- Amaranthus bouchonii Thell. “Indehiscent Amaranth”
- Amaranthus caudatus L. “Love-lies-bleeding”
- Amaranthus cruentus L. “Purple Amaranth”
- Amaranthus deflexus L. “Perennial Pigweed”
- Amaranthus graecizans L. “Short-tepalled Pigweed”
- Amaranthus hybridus L. “Green Amaranth”
- Amaranthus hypochondriacus L. “Prince’s-feather”
- Amaranthus powellii S.Watson “Powell’s Amaranth”
- Amaranthus retroflexus L. “Common Amaranth”
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