Though perhaps the least-known Andean vegetable species, kañihua is highly important both for the land and inhabitants here. It is a plant from the Chenopodiacee family that only grows at altitudes above 3,800 meters on the southern belt of the Andes in Peru and on the Bolivian plateau.
The kañihua reaches a height of about half a meter with bright red- and yellow-spotted leaves and stems. The green parts of the plant are rich in calcium, a characteristic that proves important in times of drought.
It is a very hardy species that adapts well to dry, salty terrain and low temperatures conditions not uncommon on the Peruvian plateau.
However, the unique nature of this grass lies in its microscopic granules (about 1 millimeter in diameter), which are used to make fine brown flour, called kañihuaco in Quechua. This flour is used to make the oven-dried kispiño, cakes, refreshments, soups and even hot drinks.
Kañihua is 14-18% protein, with a high level of lysine (2.5 times more than in corn) and three other essential amino acids; therefore, it is a good substitute (if only partially) for animal by-products, such as milk, that can be difficult to obtain high in the Andes.
The problem is that with the current methods of processing used by agro-industrial companies, it is impossible to evaluate the quality of the finished product. As a result, much of the nutritional value is being lost.
Kañihua was domesticated by the pre-Columbian people well before 1000 BC. Up until the early 2000s, the plant was still cultivated on 4000 ha distributed between the Peruvian departments of Puno, Cusco, Apurimac and Huancavelica. Currently, however, cultivation has shrunk to 2000 ha.
Many farmers have chosen to grow more popular crops, like oats and medicinal herbs, which are then used for dairy production.
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Photo — Oliver Migliore
Photo — Archivio Slow Food