What’s our problem with quinoa?

It’s flavoursome and nutritious – so why do so many of us struggle to embrace
the divisive South American seed? Writer and unapologetic quinoa fan
Rhodri Marsden reckons that, basically, it’s because we’re British.

What’s our problem with quinoa?

Some call it a ‘fashionable seed’ or a ‘versatile superfood’. Others dismiss it as a ‘fancy grain’, even though it’s not a grain and looks a bit like sand. But for those eager to move on from the gluttonous excesses of Christmas, quinoa can point you in the direction of wellbeing and vitality, thanks to its nutritional dissimilarity to brandy butter.

Google data reliably informs us that internet searches for ‘quinoa’ experience a massive spike every January as people seek to establish exactly how good for you it is and, more importantly, what to do with it. But for every person who embraces quinoa as a healthy option, there will be three or four who ridicule it as the exclusive foodstuff of the middle classes – or, worse, hipsters.

Quinoa risotto with pumpkin and spinach


In national surveys, pollsters have found the word ‘quinoa’ to be synonymous with elitism. It is said that Marmite is a polarising foodstuff, but it seems that quinoa has the power to precipitate class war. For the haters, it doesn’t matter that the Bolivians who’ve chomped on this stuff for millennia describe it as comida de los pobres (food of the poor), or indeed that you can find it sitting in boil-in-the-bag pouches in any British supermarket you care to mention.

Nope, quinoa breeds a furious inverted snobbery, where anyone who eats it is considered to be a privileged brat who goes on endlessly about how they experienced a moment of self-discovery during a winter break in Machu Picchu.

Let’s face it, the British have previous in this regard. After a wartime spent munching Spam and the National Loaf, it took decades for us to embrace foods from other countries and to stop eyeing spaghetti or baguettes with suspicion. Our wariness was best summed up by Peter Kay’s impression of his incredulous dad while abroad (“What? Garlic bread? Am I hearing you right?”), and even today we meekly order from menus by pointing at whatever sounds least weird.

Garlic bread


There’s a reason why we order houmous over tzatziki or earl grey instead of lapsang souchong, and why restaurants can’t shift those boxes of gewürztraminer in the wine cellar. It’s because we’re scared of food and drink whose names we can’t say properly. We reject the endive, chipotle and caipirinha; we plump for the lettuce, the ketchup and the Pimm’s.

''It’s because we’re scared of food and drink whose names we can’t say properly.''

This swirling psychological trauma is the real problem people have with quinoa; it has nothing to do with it costing £6.60 a kilo or uncertainty over how long to boil it for – it’s because they don’t like saying it. That discomfort manifests itself with taunts, where any Brit who dares to say ‘keen-wa’ is roundly mocked – but hey, that’s what it’s called. It’s not quinoa’s fault and doesn’t mean anyone eating it has just sashayed off a first-class flight from La Paz.

What I’m trying to say is that quinoa has a branding problem, and if it were renamed ‘protein granules’ we wouldn’t be in this situation.

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