It’s a tiny seed that fits on top of a pin and looks more like birdseed than a healthy dinner, but this ancient Incan staple is no Plain Jane: it’s a protein-packed superfood. Read on to find out why.

Keen-WHAT?—What It Is

With a mild, nutty flavor and a texture similar to that of couscous or rice, quinoa (seriously, it’s pronounced KEEN-wa.) is actually related to leafy green vegetables like kale and Swiss chard. But leafy greens lack the dense protein content of the quinoa seed, and it’s this unique nutritional makeup that makes it so special. First and foremost, quinoa is one of the only grains or seeds that provide the nine essential amino acids our bodies can’t produce themselvesNutritional Quality of the Protein in Quinoa Seeds. Nair, BM,, Raules, J. Foods for Human Nutrition Jan. 1992; 42(1): 1-11.. Quinoa is most noted for its large amount of lysine, the amino acid most directly responsible for tissue growth and repair. A one-cup serving holds 442 mg of lysine— or about 5% of the daily-recommended intake for a 150-pound person (the USDA recommends 31 mg per day, per kilogram of body weight). The seeds are also very high in fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganeseNutritional Quality of the Protein in Quinoa Seeds. Nair, BM,, Raules, J. Foods for Human Nutrition Jan. 1992; 42(1): 1-11.. In 1993, NASA recommended quinoa for a program that plants key crops aboard spaceships to feed astronauts on long-term missions. If it’s good for astronauts in space, it’s got to be good enough for mere mortals on earth, right? Keep in mind all this goodness does come at a price. Quinoa’s relatively expensive for what it is— about $4.50/12 oz., which is roughly double the price of quality brown rice.

Delicious, Nutritious, Bootylicious — What It Means To You

Quinoa comes in three varieties—white, red, and black—all of which are extremely versatile and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Step one is to rinse the seeds of their naturally occurring saponin coating, a bitter compound that protects the plant from birds and other animals. (Most commercial quinoa is pre-washed, but a quick rinse at home will get rid of any excess bitterness.) The most basic preparation is to cook it like rice. Combine one part quinoa with two parts water in a pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Feeling inventive? Saucy even? Try one of the following:

  • Mix cooked quinoa with some beaten eggs, breadcrumbs, and seasonings of choice, form into small patties, and fry ’em up in a pan! (Here’s the Greatist recipe!)
  • Add them to soup to serve as a natural thickener.
  • Add some sugar and orange zest to the quinoa cooking water. Then use this sweet quinoa as a stand-in for oatmeal with some fresh fruit and brown sugar.
  • Mix with pasta sauce and fillings and bake like pasta.
  • My personal favorite? Mix-and-match quinoa salad! I make a big batch each weekend along with some steamed vegetables and grilled chicken. Each morning, I take a little of each and combine them in a well-sealed container with a tablespoon of my favorite dressing. It’s a quick, easy, and healthy lunch packed with protein to keep me full all afternoon.

Here’s what expert Julie Procopio has to say: “I love quinoa because it’s a complete protein, and is easy to digest. It’s high in fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin, and iron, which is why it is known as ‘the perfect grain.’ My favorites are quinoa stuffed peppers, and quinoa flakes cooked with vanilla soymilk, blueberries, and maple syrup for breakfast.” READ THIS NEXT: 50 Creative Recipes to Eat More Quinoa Updated April, 2012.