Chia is an ancient cereal from Latin America and legend says Mayan and Aztec warriors would eat it to keep their strength and stamina. Since then, chia’s popularity has spread across the world and is now making its East African debut thanks to innovative farmers and health-focused consumers. Laura Secorun found out more about this cereal.
At first glance, Betty’s farm in Masindi, Western Uganda, looks pretty conventional – a field of deep green rolling as far as the eye can see. But Betty is actually an agricultural pioneer because instead of growing maize or bananas, she is cultivating a crop few have ever heard of: Chia seeds.
Granted, when Betty first heard about this mysterious new crop, she was skeptic. The small grey seeds didn’t look very appetizing to her. Who would want to buy them? And if she didn’t sell them, how would she even feed them to her family?
Still, she decided to give chia a try and quickly realized that she could earn more money from it than any traditional crop. Not only does chia sell for a higher price than maize but it is also more resistant to drought and pests. Betty now feeds her own children chia seeds for breakfast and grows hectares of the crop for Dr. Chia, the Kenyan company pioneering the seed’s commercialization in East Africa.
Sabina Karumba is Dr. Chia’s co-founder and says the interest in chia seeds is growing by the day “In the past three years, we have noticed a very high increase in demand from both individuals and restaurants.” Karumba started with a handful of food stands and is now selling her Uganda-grown chia to shops and chefs in all Kenyan counties.
The health appeal is strong. Chia seeds are tiny but loaded with an impressive amount of nutrients. For starters, they are very rich in Omega-3, a crucial supplement for cardiovascular health that is hard to find outside fish. They are also full of minerals. A spoonful alone has as much calcium as a glass of milk and more iron than a serving of spinach. If that wasn’t enough, chia seeds are also rich in antioxidants, key in slowing down the aging process and managing chronic disease.
To be sure, there are plenty of vegetables with similar qualities but none has them all at the same time. And few are as versatile in the kitchen. Chia seeds have a very bland taste, which means they can be easily incorporated into virtually any dish. Toasted, they make for a crunchy snack and a great addition to salads. Soaked, they gain a jelly-like consistency ideal for smoothies and desserts.
Chia seeds are also becoming a popular choice among vegetarians and vegans because they contain all nine essential amino acids to form a ‘complete protein’ and can be used as a substitute for animal products. Just a spoonful of soaked seeds is enough to replace an egg when making pancakes.
“Kenyans are craving healthier food options and chia seeds are a convenient solution,” says Ann Mbugua, founder of the Bridges Organic Health Restaurant. This popular spot in downtown Nairobi specializes in wholesome meals and its chef uses chia seeds in many of their desserts – from the ‘Tropical Fruit Bowl’ to the ‘Iron Man Smoothie’ – a cinnamon-infused blend of oats, bananas and honey.
Mbugua says chia seeds are also a great aid in weight loss, which is a concern for most people trying to clean up their diet. The seeds contain plenty of fiber and can absorb up to 20 times their weight in water. That allows them to expand when digested, leaving diners feeling more satiated and less likely to snack.
Bridges Organic is not the only restaurant bringing Chia into their kitchen. ArtCafe too has several chia-powered items on their menu. “I was so happy to find Chia seeds in Kenya!” says Sabrina Gilles, a German tourist having brunch on the Westgate terrace “they are an easy way to get my nutrients when I’m traveling.” The blonde is sipping on a tall glass of ‘Chia Firecracker,’ a bold smoothie made with chia seeds, honey, banana, melon, passion juice and red chilli.
But smoothies are not the only food that can be made healthier with a touch of chia. ArtCaffe’s bakery is also selling beautiful brown loaves of ‘Chia bread,’ which tastes just as delicious as a whole-grain baguette but packs an added dose of fiber, iron and calcium.
For healthy conscious chefs, this is just the beginning. As Kenyans become more interested in nutrition, this super-food is likely to start showing up in countless other dishes. Dr Chia is already developing cookies and breakfast cereals and Sabrina thinks chia seeds would be great in chocolate cake. “They are like a nutritional Trojan horse,” she says, “you can’t taste them but you can feel the difference.”