My kids usually are pretty good sports about trying unfamiliar food. Yet no amount of cajoling, begging or double-dog-daring could get my daughters to taste chia, a protein-packed member of the mint family that’s best known for its pee-wee sprouts kids have been growing in animal-shaped planters for more than 30 years.
“You mean the stuff on a Chia Pet? No way!” Olivia declared, when I mentioned there was a bowl of chocolate pudding made with it chilling in the fridge. “That’s gross.”
Chia seeds aren’t the most appetizing of ingredients (they look like sand, or possibly fleas), and that’s before I learned the seeds turn into a slimy goo when you mix them with a liquid. (More on that later.) Or saw that the cookbook that got me thinking I should explore this latest “superfood” included recipes for cat food, bunny drink, horse chow and livestock feed.
Then again, as Christopher McDougall makes the case in his 2009 nonfiction bestseller “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” chia (pronounced chee-ah) is one of those recently “rediscovered” foods with which we all should be better acquainted, teenagers included.
Easy to grow and super nutritious, chia was an essential supplement in the ancient Mayan and Aztec diets, and the seeds also enjoy a long culinary history in northern Mexico’s Copper Canyon. To fuel the extraordinary endurance runs they’re famous for — 50 to 100 miles at a time, in huarache sandals — its reclusive Tarahumara tribe for centuries has made a “home-brewed Red Bull” out of chia seeds mixed with water, citrus juice and honey (they call it iskiate.) Hopi Indians are believed to have eaten the seed before embarking on epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean.
“If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia,” writes Mr. McDougall, “at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”
That’s because gram per gram, chia has almost three times more iron than spinach, twice as much potassium as banana and five times as much calcium as milk. It’s also superpacked with protein, omega-3s, omega-6s, iron, zinc and antioxidants. It’s got fiber, too, enough that it’ll clean out your innards like a miniature push broom. And did we mention it’s vegan, and gluten-free?
There is a slight hitch: Because chia aborbs up to 12 times its weight in water, it turns into a gel as soon as it hits the liquid in your stomach. But that’s actually a plus, once you get used to it, because that slows the conversion of carbs into sugar, improving your endurance during exercise. Chia also helps keep you steadily hydrated and maintain your electrolyte balance.
To a runner who’s always looking to go faster and longer, it all adds up to a pretty good reason to give the seeds a try. Hence, the pudding my daughter turned her nose up at but which I’m happy to report was pretty tasty, once I got past its gloppy, tapioca-like texture.
Native to north central Mexico and south to Guatemala, chia was pretty much lost to the world after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, who valued the crop so much it was used as currency and offered to the gods; the Spanish had no time for plants they couldn’t grow back in Europe. Chia’s rediscovery in the last two decades is due mostly to the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project, a project begun in 1991 with the goal of reintroducing lesser-known crops that once energized so many in Latin America for commercial production. In the U.S., chia is found mainly in specialty markets and health-food stores, where a small but growing group of fans is happy to extol its virtues.
Uncommon Market in Bethel Park has carried the seed for about two years, and while shoppers sometimes are reluctant to try it, once they do they can’t seem to get enough of the stuff, says owner Janet Gralka. And it’s not just women over 50 who are buying it for their husbands’ colonic health.
“It’s people in their 20s — health conscious,” she says. Her daughter is but one example: she stirs it into yogurt and makes smoothies with the seed.
Chia isn’t cheap: a 10-ounce container of white Salba chia seeds grown in Peru costs $5.99 at the South Hills store, while the bulk price at East End Co-op in Point Breeze is $9 per pound; at Whole Foods Market, it’s $6.99 per pound for bulk or $16 for a 15-ounce bag of its organic 365 brand. But as Wayne Coates demonstrates in “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” (Sterling, May 1, 2012, $14.95), a little bit of Slavia hispanica goes a really long way. Most of the book’s recipes call only for a teaspoon or two of raw seeds, or a cup or less of chia “gel,” made by whisking 13/4 tablespoons of chia seed into 1 cup of cool water. Too much chia, in fact, can lead to digestive distress if you don’t already eat a lot of fiber, so you may want to slowly introduce it into your diet: there are 5 grams in one tablespoon.
Probably the easiest way to sneak chia into meals is to simply sprinkle the seeds — raw or toasted — on top of your favorite foods like eggs, yogurt, rice, salad, oatmeal, etc. You also can stir the tiny seeds into a smoothie, shake, slushie or fruit drink, but be prepared — if you don’t guzzle it fairly quickly, you may have trouble swallowing after the seeds start trapping liquid (chia gets slimy when it gets wet). Or, slip a few teaspoons into your favorite cookie, cake or muffin recipe. Your kids will never know the difference, other than a slight crunch.
Because chia is mucilaginous — gluey — it also can be used like flour or cornstarch to thicken soups and gravies.
To incorporate chia into baked foods, grind seeds in a clean coffee mill, high-speed blender or food processor until they resemble sand. Then substitute the milled chia for one-quarter of the flour called for in a recipe. But don’t feel as if you have to; unlike tough-shelled flax seed, which has to be ground, chia seeds are just as nutritious when ingested whole. Easier still is to buy it already ground. For vegan baking, 1/4 cup of chia gel acts as an egg replacer.
Don’t cook much? Chia also can be purchased as an oil capsule and in prepared products such as cereal, drinks, bread and energy bars.
The new Whole Foods Market Wexford carries the organic Greens Plus Omega 3 Chia Energy Bar ($2.29).
For those who’d rather slurp the seed, there’s the Mamma Chia Pomegranate Mint Vitality Beverage ($2.19).
You can find even more chia products on the Internet. Amazon.com, for instance, has more than a dozen snack foods made with the seed, including fruit bars, crackers and tortilla chips. GT’s, which helped introduce the U.S. to a fizzy, organic fermented tea known as kombucha, offers three flavors of chia-spiked Synergy, a juice variety of the tea: cherry, grape and raspberry.
You can find the ProBar Fruition Strawberry, which earlier this month won one of Prevention Magazine’s 26 “healthiest food award” at theprobar.com.
Moroccan Carrot Salad
This easy side dish goes just as well with roasted chicken as it does with grilled meat or fish.
- 1/4 cup chia gel (recipe below)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper, or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 8 carrots, grated
- Salt to taste
- Crushed red pepper to taste
- White sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk together the chia gel, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and pepper. Add shredded carrots and gently mix to combine and evenly coat carrots.
Season with salt and crushed red pepper. Garnish with sesame seeds, if using.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
— “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” by Wayne Coates (Sterling, 2012, $14.95)
This gel won’t affect flavor, but it will increase the nutrient profile of your favorite foods. Stir into salad dressings, condiments, even peanut butter and jelly.
- 1 cup cool water
- 1 3/4 tablespoons chia seeds
Pour water into a sealable plastic or glass container. Slowly pour chia seeds into water while briskly mixing with wire whisk. Wait 3 or 4 minutes and whisk again.
Let mixture stand for 10 minutes before whisking again. Seal the container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and use as needed. Whisk before using.
Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding
My kids wouldn’t touch this tapioca-like pudding, which looks like it’s full of itsy bitsy frog eggs. (I know — gross!) It actually ended up being pretty tasty.
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon instant coffee powder (optional)
- 1/4 cup chia seeds
- 1 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons honey, or to taste
Mix cocoa powder, brown sugar and instant coffee (if using) in a bowl; stir until no lumps remain. Fold chia seeds into mixture. Pour milk into bowl and stir to incorporate; let mixture sit a few minutes before stirring again. Repeat resting and stirring a few times over the course of 20 minutes.
Cover the bowl with plastic, and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. Drizzle honey over the pudding to serve.
Serves 1 to 2.
Chia Strawberry-Banana Sorbet
This is an easy and absolutely delicious dessert, and your kids (or spouse) will never know they’re eating something so healthy. It also will hit the spot after a long run.
If you’re feeling adventurous, substitute different frozen fruits and juices; next time I’ll try it with mango and orange juice.
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 16-ounce bag frozen strawberries
- 1 ripe banana
Combine seeds and juice and let them soak for a half-hour. Whirl soaked seeds and juice with berries and banana in a blender until well mixed and smooth. Serve immediately. To make this a smoothie, add more juice. Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture (bajaaz.org)
This is a variation of chia fresca, the all-natural energy drink that sustains the Tarahumara tribe of Northern Mexico on their epic long runs. It’s refreshing, but it will get gelatinous if you let it sit too long (think of a half-set bowl of lime Jell-O). So, bottoms up!
- 3 tablespoons chia seeds
- 5 cups cold water, divided
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
In bowl, mix chia seeds with 1 cup water. Let stand 15 minutes. Drain, and rinse the seeds.
Mix remaining 4 cups cold water and the sugar in a medium pitcher, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and stir to combine. Mix in the chia seeds. Garnish with mint leaves and serve over ice. Serves 4.
— Marcella Valladolid, Food Network