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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chia Seeds: Aztec Miracle, Modern Superfood

A limonada, or limeade, with chia seeds from a favorite San Miguel restaurant, Flash Fish

Chia Seeds:  Aztec Miracle, Modern Superfood
by Victoria Challancin

My first exposure to chia seeds came not from a health food store, not from my extensive love of plants and ethnobotany, not from my constant delving into food anthropology and culinary history.  No, my first glimpse of chia seeds came from my brother, who couldn't have cared less about any of those lofty topics.  It came in the mail.  It came as a surprise.  It came as a joke.

In 1975, when I was in graduate school at the University of Georgia, I was working hard--working at my studies, working as a research assistant,  working as a teaching assistant, working under a fellowship.  Although I loved my work, I was in need of some occasional cheering, which often came via my brother, who loved to send me presents, most of which made me smile.  On this particular occasion, as I ripped into a neatly bundled gift from him, I burst into giggles when I unwrapped the best present ever:  a really ridiculous version of the then popular Chia Pet.  Of course, my brother sent it for fun, with no awareness of the door he was opening.

I dutifully made a paste of the seeds, smeared them on my terra cotta Chia Head, waited for them to sprout, and then ate them with self-righteous glee.  I knew they were healthy and in those days I was the epitome of health: an Earth Mother who bought hundred-pound bags of wheat from local farmers so I could grind my own flour, a grower of 65 different kinds of herbs (not all culinary), a purist who loved the idea of all things natural and healthy.  The chia sprouts fit in perfectly.

Years later when I moved to Mexico, I came to appreciate them anew.  Here they appear in all sorts of dishes, especially in limeade, as in the agua fresca pictured above from one of my favorite local restaurants, the fabulous Flash Fish.  They also play a part in pinole, but we'll save that for another post.

What are Chia Seeds?

Chia is an edible seed that comes from a plant in the mint family, native to the Americas, called Salvia hispanica L.  Although other indigenous groups in North America also used and valued chia, they didn't cultivate it, but rather gathered it from the several varieties (specifically Salvia columbariae B.) that grew in the northern deserts.  As early as 3500BC, the Toltec and Teotahuán civilizations were cultivating chia, long before the arrival of the Aztecs, but it is from the Aztecs who contributed to the importance of chia as a food crop.

Etymology:  Research shows possibly conflicting sources of the origin of the word chia.  Some sources say it comes from the Mayan for "strength" or "strengthening.'  Others say it is derived from the Aztec, or Nahuatl, word chian, which means "oily".  We do know that the modern Mexican state of Chiapas got its name from the Nahuatl "chia water or river."  Confusingly as well, the Latin for chia is Salvia hispanica L., which suggests that the plant is actually Spanish in origin, but that is because Linnaeus, the "Father of Taxonomy," described the a species of cultivated plants in Spain.  The chia plant is indigenous to the central Valley of Mexico regardless of any confusion with its name.

The seed:  The seeds themselves are tiny brown, gray, black and white mottle-colored ovals with a diameter of about one millimeter.  

Botany:  Chia is an annual herb which grow to about one meter in height, with opposite leaves 4-8cm long and 3-5cm broad.  Its purple or white flowers are produced in numerous clusters in a spike at the end of each stem (see the image below from the Florentine Codex).

Properties:  Chia seeds have hydrophilic properties, which means they have the ability to absorb more than 12 times their weight in water, thus offering the ability to prolong hydration of the body.  The high oil content of chia sees makes it one of the richest vegetable sources for the essential omega-3 fatty acid (it has approximately three to 10 times the oil concentrations of most grains and one and a half to two times the protein concentrations of other grains).  They are also a complete source of dietary protein, providing all the essential amino acids.  Chia seeds produce a high-viscosity mucilage, or gel, that causes a slow conversion of carbohydrates into sugar for energy, thus providing more energy in a steady release (for this reason it is often called "The Indian Running Food").  See below for a further list of benefits.  

A Brief History of Chia Seeds

The ancient Aztecs knew a thing or two about making the most of what Nature provided.  The ancient Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was located on a marshy lake, where many crops, such as chia, were grown atop woven mats made of tree bark, that were spread with soil and then floated upon the water. Chia became so important to and valued by the Aztecs that it actually was used as currency:  the government would demand chia seeds as part of the tribute conquered tribes were forced to pay them.

Chia's role in religious rituals is also well-documented by the Spanish chroniclers.  It was so highly prized that it was used as an offering to the gods in ancient Aztec religious rituals, a fact that almost led to its extinction after the arrival of the Spanish, who banned its cultivation for this very reason.  Attempting to impose a new culture on the indigenous people, the Conquistadores tried to replace chia and most of the other crops favored by the Aztecs with European grains and vegetables.   Lucky for us, it didn't totally work.  For the last 500 years since the conquest of Mexico, chia survived only in certain isolated regional pockets, but survive it did.

Chia also played an active role in medicine as well.  Used as a poultice to help heal wounds, topically to relieve joint pain, internally for colds and sore throats, and as an eye wash to ease sore eyes from the ravages of the desert, chia played an important practical role in the daily life of the Aztecs as well as being a staple food in their diet, along with corn, beans, and amaranth.  Chia oil was also used as an emollient for the skin.  

As important as chia may have been in Aztec religious ritual, medicine, and the making of cosmetics, it was its nutritional value that really made it such a prized commodity.  A single tablespoon of chia seeds could sustain Aztec warriors and runners for an entire day, providing stamina, endurance, and energy.  Used by the Aztecs as a beverage, ground into flour, and pressed for oil, chia had a long shelf life that only added to its value.

From the Florentine Codex, created between 1540 and 1585, a woman drinks chia seeds before giving birth.  I found this image here.

Health Benefits of Chia Seeds

There has been a modern revival of chia seeds, which are currently being touted as a modern "superfood."  With good reason.  Check out the following list to see why there has been a resurgence of interest in this fascinating Aztec crop, truly a miracle food.

Why Eat Chia Seeds?
  • For Nutrition:  a complete source of dietary protein; very high in soluble fiber; contain high amounts of Omega 3 and 6 oils; have antioxidant properties
  • To Provide Energy (provide the raw materials for building flexible cell membranes to let in oxygen and nutrients and provide an easy outlet for CO2 and other cellular wastes)
  • To Boost Strength
  • To Bolster Endurance
  • To Stabilize Blood Sugar (by slowing down both the release of carbohydrates for digestion and the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar for energy, thus preventing suden spikes in blod sugar)
  • To Aid Intestinal Regularity (via the soluble fiber)
  • To Reduce Cravings (and Induce Weight Loss)
  • To Provide Easily Absorbed Dietary Fiber (this also lowers cholesterol levels and allows for the slow release of carbohydrates that produce long-term sustained energy)
  • To Improve Cardiovascular Health (due to the high levels of heart-healthy Essential Fatty Acids)
Also, Chia Seeds:
  • Contain Vitamins and Minerals: large amounts of B vitamins, calcium, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and boron (Chia seeds are known to be nutrient-dense)
  • Are Digestible Without Grinding (and are quickly absorbed)
  • Have Long Shelf Life
  • Are Convenient to Use
  • Are Gluten-Free
  • Have Low Sodium Content
  • Help Retain Electrolytes (especially during physical exertion or bouts of diarrhea)

An Aztec mural depicting the harvesting of chia seeds.  I found this image here.

Recipe:  Agua Fresca de Chia
Chia Limeade
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

Note:  To learn more about the aguas frescas of Mexico, see the post I wrote here).

1/2 cup lime juice
Agave nectar, to taste (approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup) or sugar (or other sweetener of choice)
10 cups water
1/3 cup chia seeds
Optional garnish:  lime wedges, a sprig of mint, or a sage leaf or two

Dissolve the sweetener in the lime juice, add the water, and stir to mix well.  Add the chia seeds, whisking with a fork or whisk to remove any lumps.

Serve over ice with garnish of choice.

A Note on Using Chia Gel

Because chia seeds swell up to nine times their size in the stomach, they are beneficial to those trying to lose weight and, in fact, are aften called a dieter's dream food.  Eating chia seeds  will help fill you up, reduce hunger, and give you an energy boost all at the same time!

Mixing chia seeds with water (in about a one to nine ratio), will form a nutritious gel that can be used to bulk up food without adding calories.  It also has metabolic benefits due to the increased intestinal transit time, delayed gastric emptying, and slow rate of glucose absorption.

Add this gel to a variety of dishes to expand the bulk (thus replacing fat) and enrich nutrients without sacrificing the flavor of the original dish (see below for specific suggestions).

Recipe:  Chia Gel
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

2 cups water
1/3 cup chia seeds

In a clean glass jar, add water and stir water with a fork or whisk, adding the chia seeds slowly to the moving water to avoid clumping.  Once seeds are incorporated, stir again, and set aside for 10 minutes.  Stir again to break up any clumps. Store for up to two weeks in refrigerator.

To add bulk to your food without diluting flavor (a handy diet trick!) add the chia gel in a roughly 50/50 proportion.

Add to yogurt, butter, salad dressing, smoothies, nut spreads, mayonnaise, salsa, sauces, oatmeal, fruit juice,--just use your imagination!


Recipe:  Chia Milk
(Recipe from Eat Fat:  Your LIfe Depends On It)
Makes 5 cups

4 tablespoons chia seeds
2 tablespoons walnuts
2 tablespoons raw sesame tahini
2 tablespoons unheated, unfiltered honey
Dash of vanilla (optional)
5 cups water

Soak seeds and nuts overnight in 3 cups of water in a glass jar or glass.  Pour into blender jar, add 1 cup water, and blend at medium speed.  With blender running, add tahini, honey, vanilla, and one more cup of water.  Blend only until smooth.

Use within a week as a substitute for other forms of milk.


Recipe:  Chia Butter

1/4 cup chia gel  (see above recipe)
1/4 cup softened better

Blend chia gel and butter in blender until smooth.  Use as you would regular butter (but with half the calories and fat content!).


A few pictures of what is to me irresistible comfort food:

Two fresh shrimp tacos with spicy salsas from Flash Fish

Twofers from Flash Fish:  two mini shrimp tacos and two grilled  mini fish tacos or corn tortillas...yum

Flash Fish Restaurant
Salida a Celaya #71
Open 12 to 5 Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday
12 to 9 Friday and Saturday
Closed Tuesday
Cell phone:  415-107-3455

And for a bit of randomness...
Moroccan Scarves...because, like Chia Pets, they make me smile

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.  
Please do share recipes, but ask for permission before using text or images.  Thanks!


Lynne said...

I never knew anything of chia seeds! Just thought they were decorative growths on pieces of pottery! Thanks. The agua fresca looks delightful.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Hehe that's a cute story about how you first came across them! :P And chia butter? How fantastic an idea is that? I've eaten them in cereals but you show how versatile they are!

alcuban said...

Thank you for a beautiful and well researched blog. We've been putting chia seeds (from the Mega supermarket) on our cereal every morning and they are incredibly sticky. You have to wipe off the plates before putting them in the dishwasher otherwise the seeds will be kicking around forever.

al lanier

Lucas said...

Now I have the Chia Pet jingle stuck in my head! Ch-ch-ch-chia!

Victoria Challancin said...

Glad I could help, Lucas. Unfortunately, now it's stuck in mine as well!

Akika (Ichigo Shortcake) said...

Thanks for all the chia seed info! I never knew a lot of the things that's good about it.

Mexico Cooks! said...

You might also like this chia recipe--it's one of my favorites. I particularly like it because it adds texture and consistency to what might otherwise be a 'drinkable' yogurt.


Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks, Ben. Always appreciated. In fact, I just had papaya with yogurt and chia seeds for breakfast--with Mexican Hot Chocolate, of course! Happy Holidays.

Estrellita said...

This is great. I am supposed to incorporate chia seeds into the diet I just began. The agua fresca looks like just the thing I need.

Platanos, Mangoes and Me! said...

Another post to keep and I will definitely try this. Who knew that these little seeds had so much power.

I am going to buy them.

Eha said...

This surely will be the most worthwhile thing I'll read all weekend and more! Chia seeds have appeared in Oz food & health literature awhile now: I must admit I have not paid much attention. Yours will probably be the 'best lecture' I'll find on the topic: they will be tried and tested and used soonest :) ! Thank you!!

Nagi@RecipeTinEats said...

This post helped me to know more about chia seeds. And wow! They can be use in a lot of things!

Anonymous said...

Good sharing, for healthy purpose, Chia seeds offer the highest volume of Omega-3, as well as addition fiber (soluble and insoluble) along with vitamins or perhaps minerals you don’t usually get whenever you take sea food oil. Chia seeds giving you long lasting energy during the day moving in deep, restful sleep during the night time. Read more about Chia seeds at:

prince chhabra said...

Great, i like the info you share about chia seed