If you were wandering southern Mexico (doesn’t sound too bad right now), you might stumble across a plant in the mint family.
It’s a pretty plant, with large blue flowers, and it grows almost as tall as you. If the plant was in seed, you could shake a bunch of the tiny orbs into your hand. They’re mottled in color, and don’t immediately look like the kind of food you’d go out of your way for. But these seeds, from the chia plant, are definitely something to get excited about.
I first heard about chia when someone told me about iskiate, an ancient drink made from the seeds said to give you endurance while running. (Well, actually, I first heard about chia in regards to chia pets, one of the most bizarre products ever marketed in the United States. But that’s another story.)
After some experimentation, I was unconvinced about the powers of chia to help my running, yet I still loved the little seeds. And it turns out that even if they don’t make you into an instant ultra-marathoner, they’re still packed with nutrition. Rich in healthy fats and protein, they also contain a good dose of vitamins and minerals. Add more antioxidants than blueberries, and you have something that’s an excellent addition to your diet.
Yet, all that nutrition isn’t really the reason these little seeds are so exciting. Rather, it’s their sliminess. Now, before you get grossed out, give them a chance.
You see, chia seeds are hydrophilic. This is a fancy way of saying that they absorb water, much like a sponge. And they absorb a lot of water! The average chia seed can soak up as much as twelve times its weight in water, and as it does, it forms that fore-mentioned slime. Since we’re leading into culinary uses, I’ll call it a “gel” instead. This is undoubtedly cool. Plop some seeds in water, and an hour or two later they’ve expanded into a marvelous goop. But how do they do this?
It turns out that the seeds are covered in microscopic hairs, and as the seeds get wet, those hairs lift up and the seeds release most of their soluble fiber. This soluble fiber forms the gel, which gets stuck in the tiny hairs, creating a neat bubble of gel that makes these seeds very useful in the kitchen. They can be used as an egg substitute in baking, for instance, if the chickens have been lazy.
Mixed into any sort of drink, they turn the beverage into a kid-friendly potion that resembles “bubble tea”. And my wife makes an easy breakfast by mixing a can of coconut milk with a quarter cup of chia seeds. A generous touch of vanilla is put in the mix, then it’s left in the refrigerator for the night. The next morning, it’s turned into a rich coconut pudding. Sprinkle with nuts and berries or your favorite granola and suddenly you’ve got a power food for energetic kids or hard workers.
I know. What you really want to find out is if chia pets still exist. Well, they absolutely do. In fact, they’ve come a long way. There are now chia emojis, and chia trolls, and if you are politically minded, you can get even get your own chia Obama, Trump, Hillary, or Bernie Sanders. Seeing our favorite (or least favorite) political icon sprouting green hair can add a bit of humor to our otherwise polarized political fray.