Foods of the Américas: Amaranth, the Outlaw Grain

María Elena Gaitán
6 min readNov 19, 2017
Huaútli — banned by the Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church since 1519

Huaútli is the Aztec name for a plant so important to the people, it was banned by the invading Spanish Empire led by Hernán Cortez and the Catholic Church in 1519.

Today huaútli is most commonly known as amaranth, a super-food gaining worldwide recognition as a high-protein plant edible that could easily figure into the solution for world hunger. Although not considered a grain, the tiny amaranth seeds contain eight to nine grams of protein in a one cup serving, offering a nutritionally complete plant food that has all the essential amino acids needed by the human body, without gluten.

Pre-columbian cultivation of huaútli (amaranth)

Together with corn, beans and chia, amaranth was a key part of the near-perfect core diet of Mesoamerican Indian civilizations, and a tribute item demanded by the Aztecs. But the invading conquerors prohibited its cultivation and consumption calling it an ungodly pagan food, something full of sin. So for hundreds of years under the rule of Spain, amaranth all but disappeared from the face of the earth except in the highlands of Oaxaca and to the south among the Mayan people where its cultivation most probably began some 10,000 years ago.

Amaranth was a primary crop not only important as food, but central to the spiritual and ritual life of Mesoamerican indigenous civilizations; its precious seeds and leaves were nutritious and therapeutic; it was an offering to the gods as well as the ingredient used by midwives to bathe newborn babies; it was mixed into a paste and transformed into miniature reproductions of the child’s future attributes: a bow, an arrow, the hunter’s instruments; or perhaps a flower or an animal spirit-guide. Amaranth was not only food and medicine for the body it was also valued as a divine plant.

The Midwife or Tlamatlquiticitl attended to the comfort, support, hygiene and spirituality of the mother and the newborn, including the baby’s first bath which contained amaranth- Mendoza Codex,16th century

Prized as a gourmet food, amaranth was traditionally prepared like corn: cooked, popped or ground into a flour masa for tortillas, tamales and atolli (atole), a traditional hot beverage.

María Elena Gaitán

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