Ramdana, Rajgira, Amaranth—one tiny seed, so many names! All over the country, we have eaten this plant for generations in its many avatars—as a green or purple leaf of which we make stir fried subzis, as popped grain mixed with sweeteners or milk to eat as breakfast cereal or in laddoos as a tea time treat, in flours to make rotis, puris, or Halvas of, and a myriad other ways! Ancient Indian wisdom has always recognized this plant as a super food long before the term became common parlance and long before quinoa traveled east.
The Amaranthus is a plant of South American origin, which grew wild there and was first domesticated in the Aztec civilization and in India among a few other places. It wouldn’t be entirely untrue to say, however, that the Indians made the Amaranth their own. There is, in fact, one theory that suggests that the name “Amaranth” comes from Sanskrit words connoting “one that defies death”! Whether or not that theory can be validated, it is sufficient to indicate to us that the entire Amaranth plant is beneficial to our health.
Despite being rich in protein, Amaranth is easily digestible, and in that sense, is quite unlike wheat (wheat protein, i.e., gluten, is heavy and tends to make our digestion sluggish). This makes it an easy choice for people suffering from celiac disease. It is also known to be rich in minerals and amino acids, and has been used in the treatment of inflammations, and in cases of iron deficiency and other blood problems. Ayurveda also recognizes Amaranth seeds to be a rich source of calcium, comparable or surpassing dairy products in their nutritional properties. This is why it has often been prescribed as a beneficial food for young children, lactating mothers, and convalescents.
Amaranth leaves are rich in iron and fibre, and are known to be favourable to diabetics. Stir fried in sesame oil with nothing more than a chili or clove of garlic to flavor it yields a comforting and delicious side that can be enjoyed with any kind of Indian bread or sticky rice. It can also be added to cooked daal or yogurt-based kadhis, and young leaves can be consumed raw in smoothies and salads.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts have also prescribed the juice of the Amaranthus leaves as a cure for diarrhea. Recent research has indicated that the amino acids present in Amaranth help in fighting free radicals thereby helping the fight against cancer.
The humble Amaranth is steering our attention back to the ancient texts and leading us to a more sustainable way of choosing our foods!