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October 10, 2023
The Joy of Amaranth Cannot Be Denied

Growers with personal connections are choosing to center the ancestral food in their work.

It’s early September in the Rabinal mountains of Guatemala, and Maria Aurelia Xitumul Ivoy’s backyard is in full flower. There’s a rainbow of rue, yarrow, chiles, escobilla, and aloe, but amaranth’s vivid, five-foot-tall orange stalks still pop out brightly. A grower, healer, and educator, Xitumul Ivoy cultivates amaranth as a staple ingredient in her household, pounding the grain into flour for creamy, sweet, and nutty amaranth atole, but mostly she’s growing amaranth for the future. “I really love sharing amaranth and its story with my own children and with schoolchildren, because it is a plant that—just like us—has suffered a lot of injustices of colonization,” she says. “But still the plant flowers and is here.”

From the Maule River in Chile to the Great Plains in North America, amaranth has been grown and used in cooking and ceremonies since time immemorial. In the Peruvian Andes Mountains, the ancient Incas grew the resistant plant in high-altitude plains where the seeds were boiled for a hearty breakfast porridge. In the American Southwest, ancestral Puebloans harvested wild amaranth greens, and ancient Hohokam farmers of the Sonoran Desert mastered irrigation to domesticate seeds and grow their own stalks. The Aztecs—properly known as the Mexica—cultivated amaranth on chinampas, floating garden beds, beside corn, beans, and squash. A staple crop, amaranth seeds were ground into a flour to make tortillas and tamales, but they also occupied an important space in ceremonies. where seeds were honeyed together and shaped into animals, plants, and figures of gods to be shared and eaten.

It was when the Spaniards’ arrived in the Aztec Empire in 1519 that amaranth rapidly became seen as a tool of paganism. In 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered the burning of all amaranth fields in the Valley of Mexico, a command that would be repeated by conquistadors throughout Latin America. Historical narratives often characterize this action as solely a reaction to Spaniards’ fears that amaranth would pose a threat to establishing Christianity in the so-called new world—but amaranth also kept the empire physically strong, socially resilient, and economically interdependent. Despite efforts to eradicate the plant, the growth of the grain couldn’t be halted completely. Wild amaranth continued to thrive, and those living out of sight from enforcement saved and planted seeds in resistance. Today growers with personal connections to amaranth and its history are choosing to center the ancestral food in their work.

Today growers with personal connections to amaranth and its history are choosing to center the ancestral food in their work.

“I first learned of amaranth in 2007 when I started working with Qachuu Aloom, because [at the time] [amaranth] was one of the first seeds they were starting to bring back,” says Xitumul Ivoy. Qachuu Aloom is a Rabinal-based collective organization primarily led by Maya Achì women who are determined to preserve native seeds and ensure a future in which communities feed themselves while working in harmony with Mother Earth. Their mission finds roots in the aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War, when Maya protests against the repressive government led to a 36-year-long conflict that decimated fields and agricultural plots. Again amaranth faced near removal. But growers like Xitumul Ivoy refuse to let this plant be forgotten. Instead, they’re building a knowledge base for the plant to thrive.

“I started learning about everything, from the seed—how it was planted in the ground, how it grows, how to harvest, and the whole processing of the amaranth,” she says. “I learned about the different nutrients the plant has and the many dishes you can make with amaranth, and the reverence our ancestors and grandparents had for the plant.” Today Xitumul Ivoy is part of an expanding network of growers in Rabinal and surrounding municipalities who are cultivating three native varieties named after members of Qachuu Aloom: Elena’s Red Amaranth, Juana’s Orange Amaranth, and Aurelia’s Green Amaranth. For her, preserving the cultural and agricultural traditions of amaranth offers healing and the ability to envision joyous change for generations to come. She sees this vision when toasting her amaranth seeds: “They pop, turn color, and dance around the pan—just like us, these seeds are being transformed.”

A majority of Qachuu Aloom’s collective who are growing amaranth utilize the fruits of their labor for a nutritious and versatile staple in the kitchen; the greens may be sautéed and mashed into cakes to be fried on a skillet, used for tortas, and added into stews. The seeds are processed into a flour that’s stirred into milk or baked into amaranth bread. But growers also generate income by selling to Qachuu Aloom’s commercial kitchen, where their yields will be combined into hundred-pound bags ready for processing. These communal heaps of sun-colored spheres might be toasted, popped, and honeyed together for alegría bars, mixed with pumpkin seeds and coconut for granola, ground into flour, or bagged as is to be sold in community stores located in lowland and mountain villages around Rabinal.

Collectives like Qachuu Aloom and growers such as Xitumul Ivoy who are rehydrating these seeds are rekindling a relationship to amaranth not only as a plant but also as an ingredient—an influence that has stretched across North America. Cooks and chefs familiar with the ancestral food are re-creating and reimagining traditional amaranth recipes in restaurants, commercial kitchens, and cookbooks. In doing so, they are reintroducing the high-protein and high-iron pseudograin that grew native to the land long before European colonization brought wheat, barley, and rye.

At Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, Chef Crystal Wahpepah sells indigenous amaranth bars through her restaurant’s website, combining amaranth with native berries and stone fruits in three flavors: wild rice amaranth, chocolate chokecherry, and chocolate rose hip. In Denver, Colorado, Chef Andrea Murdoch of Four Directions Cuisine looks toward her Andean roots in her catering and meal prep work, for dishes like amaranth corn pudding with wojapi, a berry sauce, topped with fresh berries.

Seena Chriti, owner and CEO of Paktli Foods in Cincinnati, Ohio, is another chef who is part of this cross-border movement of uplifting amaranth. “This food needs to be told, remembered, and not forgotten,” she says. Chriti grew up in Mexico, where she begged her parents for alegrías, a sweet street snack made from puffed amaranth. “They just made me happy,” she says. It’s fitting, as “alegría” means happiness in Spanish, and her alegría-inspired brand Paktli is named for the Nahuatl word for joy.

Chriti began making her alegría-inspired treats in 2020, when the slowness of COVID-19 lockdowns inspired her to act on her thirty-year-long dream to re-create her favorite childhood snack at home. “I tried to [source] my ingredients from places in Mexico, but it was hard to find large quantities of the quality I was looking for at a cost that was affordable,” she says. Instead, she sourced buckwheat, quinoa, chia, and amaranth from a US-based company specializing in organic and gluten-free ancient grains. In her home kitchen, she tried out different combinations of ancient grains, dried berries, and nuts. Ultimately, she decided to bind her ingredients with chocolate instead of the standard honey, and to combine puffed amaranth with the sister grains of quinoa and millet for added texture. Later that year, when a friend convinced her that her snacks were really that good, she decided to begin selling them.

“This food needs to be told, remembered, and not forgotten.”

One or two days a month, Chriti gathers a team of seven women to make her snacks by hand out of Findlay Kitchen, a nonprofit food business incubator in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. “I used to only be able to make 300 in a day—now I can make 3,000,” she says. Chriti is careful to call her Paktli products snacks or treats rather than cookies, in honor of amaranth’s nutritional value, which was prioritized by Mesoamerican civilizations so many years ago. “I just love that they knew [amaranth] was good for them,” she says. “They didn’t have the science to tell them it was a superfood—they just knew.”

At Findlay Kitchen, the day’s batter calls for puffed amaranth, quinoa, millet, bittersweet chocolate, cacao nibs, and dried blueberries. Everything is done by hand in a buzzing dance: dark chocolate melts with a continuous protector stirring to ensure no burning. Loopy, chocolaty spirals are poured atop pre-puffed quinoa, millet, and amaranth—picture Rice Krispies crossed with a popcorn kernel—and the berries and cacao are then mixed in. Using a rolling pin, the seedy batter is pressed into a tray of 12 custom molds with patty-shaped cutouts reminiscent of a Connect Four gameboard. Alegrías are traditionally rectangular, so Chriti opted for circles to highlight that her Paktli bars are in conversation with alegrías but not a copy. Once formed and cooled, they are popped out of their plastic confines. In the end, they look like palm-size Mother Earths, with different puffs, cacao nibs, and berries signifying different terrains.

Chriti has been able to scale up by attending conventions and forging connections with independent grocery stores, coffee shops, and curated stores. Paktli products can be found in more than 40 storefronts across Ohio, Kentucky, and the cities of San Diego and Paris, Texas. Still, in three years of increasing her staff and stockists, Chriti says she has struggled to make any profit. Despite this, the ancient plant and its history keep her returning to the work. “I do this in honor of amaranth, and the people who have been cooking with the grain forever.”

Photo: Paktli