It was a lot of fun to sprout chia seed on my Chia Pet™ hedgehog; it brought back memories of my childhood, when my dad – of Japanese origin but with a profound love and respect for Mexican culture and crafts – did the same on a green-glazed clay ram, a handcraft from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. These animal figures covered with chia sprouts, have been, and continue to be, an important element for altars in Oaxaca, set up at Catholic homes for the Friday of Sorrows (Viernes de Dolores), observed a week prior to Easter. Chia seeds themselves (pictured in close-up, at the top of this post), however, have been present in many other forms in Mexican culture, way before the arrival of Spanish conquerors, and the subsequent conversion to Catholicism.
Chia (Salvia hispanica) is a plant of the sage family, native to Southern Mexico and parts of Central America; although chia sprouts were not grown for consumption in pre-Hispanic Mexica (Aztec) communities, there were two kinds of chia seed that were appreciated for nourishment, either whole or ground, also used to extract oil, and very importantly, as part of tributes and religious offerings. The Codex Mendoza (circa 1541) provides evidence of the high value of chia crops, considered third only behind corn (maize) and beans.
There are other species of chia that have been consumed by humans for centuries. Salvia tiliifolia, known as lindenleaf sage, or Tarahumara chia, was probably originally found in central Mexico, but extended its range to the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and parts of Southern United States. Salvia columbariae is known as golden chia, desert chia, or simply chia, as it has been used in the same way as Salvia hispanica, an important food source for indigenous groups in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, in the USA, as well as the Mexican northern states of Sonora, and Baja California.
In 1871, botanist Edward Palmer reported about many plant specimens from Southern USA and Northern Mexico, including chia, in his work “Food Products of the North American Indians”, considered a pioneering work in ethnobotany. One of his articles, regarding chia, was published in July of 1891 in the journal ZOE: A Biological Journal (vol.2 no.2, pp140-142); he describes chia as associated with both food and drink since the “early histories of Mexico”, citing evidence of chia seed as part of offerings in pre-Hispanic findings of human remains, and comparing its high nutritional value to that of flaxseed. Palmer also describes some of the cooking techniques to make use of chia, most often by roasting and grinding of the seed, then used as meal to prepare bread (usually mixed with flour), porridge, puddings, and famously, mixed with water to produce a “mucilaginous mass several times larger than the original bulk, sugar to the taste is added”, a paste so recomforting that, as Palmer says, was “one of the best relished and most nutritious foods while traveling over the deserts.” This preparation may be diluted further with water and fruit juice, such as lime, as done by the Tarahuamara people in Copper Canyon, part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Calling themselves Rarámuri (also their language), these indigenous groups are notable, amongst other things, for their resilience and speed, using running as a type of persistent hunting (running down deer and wild turkey to exhaustion), and a powerful form of prayer and dance.
In the last decades, chia has gathered great attention for its high Omega-3, protein, fibre and essential minerals content, as well as cleansing and curative properties. Notably, Edward Palmer remarked of chia: “as a food both nutritious and palatable, it deserves to be better known” and “it may come to be as universally esteemed among civilized as it is among the aborigines of the region where it grows.”
Many people add dry chia seed to their dishes, and that is generally safe, as long as there is moisture in the food; there was a case reported in 2014 which described a patient who ate dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water; because the seeds quickly absorb liquid and then gel, their volume expanded in the esophagus, and caused a blockage. For this reason, I always hydrate the seeds before using, even if they will be added to moist food, such as yogurt or oatmeal. In my kitchen, I have a bin with food-grade chia seed (photo below, left); in the photo below, right, one tablespoon of dry chia is being added to half a cup of water:
As mentioned above, the seeds quickly absorb liquid (photo below, left) and after just a few minutes, the contents of the jar have completely gelled (photo below, right):
From this point, the gelled seed may be used in many ways:
1) Add to beverages, such as smoothies, fruit juice, or use to prepare the popular agua de limón con chía (limeade with chia).
Chia Limeade – Agua de limón con chía
8 cups water, in a pitcher or other serving container
2 tbsp agave syrup, or to taste OR ¼ cup sugar, OR another sweetener, to taste
3 limes, washed, for juice only
1 tbsp food-grade chia seed, or more, to taste, hydrated in ½ cup water, as above
Dissolve sweetener in the water (photo below, left); slice limes in half, then squeeze their juice into the pitcher (photo below, centre); pour in the hydrated chia, and mix (photo below, right):
Refrigerate until serving time, or add ice cubes, and stir before pouring into glasses, to distribute seed amongst individual servings:
2) Add to cereal or yogurt bowls. Mix gelled chia seed in, or first drain through a fine mesh (photo below, left), then use as a topping, as shown in the photo below, right, part of a fancy bowl of yogurt blended with frozen berries as a base, also decorated with dragon fruit balls, banana flowers, more frozen berries, and granola:
3) Grow sprouts for salad or sandwiches. A fellow blogger asked if the Chia Pet™ sprouts were edible, and I answered with the prosaism of not trusting the seeds that come with the kit, since there might be pesticides and preservatives in them that could mean a trip to the hospital if consumed. Starting with a batch of the gelled food-grade chia, though, is widely done. Pour the gelled chia in a fine colander, rinse under running water, then place the colander over a bowl, and cover with an opaque lid (photo below, left). Rinse the seed in the colander under running water at least once a day, and keep covered until the seeds start to sprout. In the photo below, centre, hydrated seeds on day one; by day two, there was already an abundance of sprouts (photo below, right):
Replace the cover with a clear lid, to allow light to reach the sprouts, and keep moisture in (photo below, left); continue rinsing as before. The sprouts will start turning green (photo below, right, on day three):
Continue rinsing once a day, as the sprouts grow (photo below, left, on day five), until sprouts are about one inch long. In the photo below, right, a small clump of chia sprouts, ready for eating:
The brown shells are a tad bitter, so they may be easily removed, to taste, before adding to salads, or as filling in sandwiches. I used them as they were, placing a few brown shells strategically as the mouth, nose and one eye of a chia (edible) pet lamb, as seen below, complete with green pepper legs, and a smear of ranch dressing:
Other uses that I have yet to try are:
4) As egg replacer. Mix 2 teaspoons of ground chia seed with 3 tablespoons of water; allow to soak a few minutes, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a raw egg, then use in recipe instead of one whole egg (I take they mean in baked goods or sauces, not as an actual egg for breakfast!)
5) As poppy seed replacer. Use dry chia seed in baked goods in same quantities as poppy seed, for example, in a lime loaf.
6) As a thickening agent. Use gelled seed for cold puddings, finish soups, etc.
I have Bob’s Red Mill™ organic chia seed, but it was mostly sold out on Amazon™ when I did my search; there are many other different brands listed, that I have not tried, but I am offering two examples. For your convenience, click on the images below for products available on Amazon™. DISCLAIMER: Any reviews included in this post are my own, for items I have purchased, not provided by any company; as an Amazon Associates Program affiliate, I might receive a commission for any purchases originated from the links below, at no extra cost to you (thank you to readers who have bought other products starting with a click from my links!):
I am sharing my post at Thursday Favourite Things #525, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.