Ancient Grains of Ecuador

by Sarah Owens


Before I started baking with a sourdough culture, I was one frustrated gastronome.  Ancient grains were (politely speaking) not something that settled well on my stomach.  After an acute attack, I tested negative for celiac disease and was instead treated (twice!) with antibiotics.  When I continued to have digestion problems as well as nutritional deficiencies and rheumatic symptoms, I did some extensive research.  I became enlightened of the often unreported complications of phytates in the daily diet and consequently my health changed for the better.

A crunchy loaf full of sprouted quinoa, chia, and amaranth as well as soaked oats and barley and pre-gelatinized corn.  Baked in a ceramic vessel in Cuenca, Ecuador.

A crunchy loaf full of sprouted quinoa, chia, and amaranth as well as soaked oats and barley and pre-gelatinized corn.  Baked in a ceramic vessel in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Phytates (sometimes referred to as phytic acid) are a way of protecting important nutrients for future plant generations.  These nutrients aren't available to us because they would rather be used to nourish new seedlings as opposed to feeding hungry humans.  Phytates hinder our digestion, ensuring that the valuable seed is passed ready to germinate.  If we were ruminants, we would produce the enzyme phytase that would help eliminate phytic acid.  

Grain including barley (cebada) and corn (maiz) sold for agricultural germination.

Grain including barley (cebada) and corn (maiz) sold for agricultural germination.

The harmful action of phytic acid doesn’t stop there.  Not only does it  present a digestion issue, it also chelates or binds with essential nutrients, inhibiting assimilation into your system.  All of that iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc you thought you were getting from conventionally leavened whole wheat bread or ancient grains breakfast cereal?  You’re probably not absorbing much of it.  Studies have shown that a slice of white sourdough bread has more available nutrients as well as a lower glycemic index than a slice of conventionally leavened whole grain bread.  True story.

Crops including taro, amaranth, and maize, growing at the base of the Pumpapunga ruins in Cuenca Ecuador.

Crops including taro, amaranth, and maize, growing at the base of the Pumpapunga ruins in Cuenca Ecuador.

Sprouted wheat (trigo) sold at the Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Sprouted wheat (trigo) sold at the Mercado 9 de Decembre in Cuenca, Ecuador.

So how to harness the nutrition of ancient grains?  Other than soaking and/or sprouting, fermentation with a lactic acid culture found in sourdough will help to neutralize phytic acid. By lowering the pH and encouraging phytase enzyme activity, fermenting with sourdough has allowed me to harness the nutritonal power of ancient grains.  You can imagine my delight to be visiting a country that is teeming with variety in every mercado!

Quinoa and Amaranth growing in a demonstration garden at the ruins of Pumapungo archaeological site in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Quinoa and Amaranth growing in a demonstration garden at the ruins of Pumapungo archaeological site in Cuenca, Ecuador.

The beauty of Ecuador is that many selections of these sometimes low-yielding or climate-specific heirlooms can only be found here.   An added bonus is that Ecuador has had a somewhat ambiguous constitutional ban on GMO crops since 2008.  For a sometimes frustratingly dysfunctional country, the farmers and peasants value their genetic heritage and have been lobbying for protection.  Let's hope the pressure from the biotech industry doesn't change the current administration's mind.  For now, there is an amazing variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains that have been grown here unadulterated for millennia.  In what is currently the territory of Ecuador, the beginning of agriculture appears to have taken place 6,000 years ago in the Valdivia Culture of the Santa Elena Peninsula. 

Endless possibilities of ancient grains at the mercados in Ecuador.

Endless possibilities of ancient grains at the mercados in Ecuador.

Corn may be the 'grain' available with the most abundance of varieties.  The contribution of corn to the diet constituted an essential factor in the development of the Andean societies.  Numerous research points to the Central American Region as the area where corn originated.  Las Vegas on the Ecuadorian Coast is where the 8,000 year old remains of a corn in the process of domestication were discovered.  Later in Valdivia, a variety called Kcello ecuatoriana was discovered as being 4,300 years old.  

With the cultural history and rich soil that lends so well to growing nutritious non-GMO crops,  I have been playing around with everything I can get my hands on!  My only regret is that I don't have more room in my suitcase....