As one of the most iconic television catchphrases of the ’80s and ’90s, it was that very tune that put Chia Pets on the map. Are you ch-ch-ch-chanting it yet? In case you missed the catchy commercials, the “pets” are animal-shaped terracotta pots, sold with three packages of chia seeds that eventually sprouted “hair.” Chia Pets are still produced, but are remembered as a fad more than anything else. How then did their namesake seeds emerge on the culinary scene with superfood status some 20+ years later? Where did they come from? Why are chia seeds so popular, and what are Millennials using them for?
What’s in a Name?
The chia plant, formally named Salvia Hispanica, is native to central and southern Guatemala and Mexico with roots that can be traced all the way back to the Mayan Empire.
Legend has it that the “runners” – those responsible for transporting messages back and forth between tribes – consumed large quantities of the flowering plant because it gave them tons of energy. Chia is the Mayan word for “strength.” The evolution of chia seeds, however, was later attributed to the Aztecs who not only ate them for endurance purposes, but also incorporated the seeds into their everyday fare, alongside corn and beans.
Packing a Punch
With the standard American diet becoming less nutrient-rich and chronic illness on the rise, modern-day dietitians, nutritionists, and scientists have looked to ancient civilizations to find natural health solutions, like chia. One tablespoon of chia seeds contains a higher concentration of antioxidants than a small bowl of blueberries, more calcium than a glass of milk, and up to 8x the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids included in a similar serving of salmon. The seeds are also excellent sources of Vitamin B3, a known anti-inflammatory agent. From a weight loss perspective, one ounce of chia comprises 42% of the recommended daily fiber intake, helping people who eat it feel fuller, longer.
Little Seed, Big Trend
Boasting so many beneficial attributes, it’s no wonder chia seeds are becoming a mainstream ingredient in households and restaurants alike. ABC News even deemed “Chia Seeds the ‘It’ Food of 2013” in a report released earlier this year. According to the article, one of things that makes the seeds so attractive is how easy they are to eat. In addition to popping up on supermarket shelves across the nation – in everything from bars to drinks – there are a myriad of ways to incorporate chia seeds into meals. The seeds can be eaten as is, sprinkled atop yogurt or blended into smoothies. If you give them a couple of days and a few drops of water, they will sprout and make excellent salad toppers, as well.
Chia seeds readily dissolve into liquid, expanding to create a substance that resembles gelatin – and acts like it, too. The gel can be used in baking, as an egg substitute (Combine 1 tablespoon of ground chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water for every egg). The seeds act as a binding agent that will thicken gravies, puddings, and soups; they can even take the place of pectin in jam.
Want to make your own jam at home? Here is a versatile recipe, which can be whipped up with almost any type of fruit. The finished product is delicious spread on toast, dolloped on ice cream, or served as a condiment with roasted meat.
Concord Grape Chia Jam Recipe (Makes 1 Cup)
2 Cups Concord Grapes, Removed from the Stem
2 Tablespoons Honey or Maple Syrup
1 Vanilla Bean, Split
2 Tablespoons Chia Seeds
Squeeze the grapes out of their skin, so that only the pulp remains (It’s fine if a few skins sneak in). Set the skins aside, as they will be added back in.
Combine the grape pulp, honey, and vanilla bean in a medium-sized nonstick saucepan. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium heat.
Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, and continue to simmer, stirring, for approximately 5 minutes. The grapes will begin to burst. Mash the remaining grapes with a fork until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. At this point you can push the mixture through a food mill to eliminate any seeds (I left them in for this purpose, as I think the crunchy texture is a nice change of pace).
Return the pulp to the pan. Slowly stir in the grape skins, and chia seeds. Simmer the jam for an additional 12-15 minutes, until thick.
Remove from the heat, and allow to cool. The jam will become more gelatinous, the cooler it gets.