Thomas column: Chia puddings and pets
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
What a difference a few decades can make.
Back in the 1980s, consumers lined up by the tens of thousands to purchase Chia Pets, those terracotta figurines of people and animals coated with chia seeds that sprouted and took on the appearance of green hair or fur when watered. Today, more than just household decorative novelties, the tiny oval-shaped seeds are prized as a nutritious source of fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Chia seeds are harvested from the Salvia hispanica plant and were cultivated for food in Mexico and Central America thousands of years ago. But being a bit slow to catch on, I never attempted to consume any until breakfast one day at a chain breakfast restaurant in Florida two years ago.
While scanning the breakfast menu for something a little healthier than bacon, eggs, and hash browns, there it was - a “superfoods bowl” built on a bed of chia pudding. I was hooked.
But along came the pandemic, so what was a stay-at-home chia pudding addict to do for the past 12 months? The only option was to prepare my own.
There was no real mystery to the dish since the ingredients were listed on the restaurant’s website: “Coconut milk chia seed pudding with fresh bananas, berries, blackberry preserves, and house-made granola.” The fruit, preserves, and (store-bought) granola proved no challenge, but how to make chia pudding? Fortunately, there were plenty of online recipes and, after a bit of experimenting, I prepared an excellent facsimile.
It couldn’t be simpler. Pour a 13-ounce can of organic unsweetened coconut milk into a bowl, add half a cup of chia seeds, a few drops of vanilla, and 1-2 tablespoons of sugar. Stir, cover with plastic and leave overnight in the fridge. Miraculously, without any cooking or conventional thickening agent added, the pudding will have congealed the next day.
To serve, simply place a tablespoon or two of the blackberry preserve (or other fruit) into a bowl and swirl around with the back of the spoon to coat the bottom and sides. Spoon in the pudding and top with fresh fruits such as bananas, blueberries, kiwi, strawberries, and/or raspberries, then sprinkle with granola.
Chia pudding has the texture of rice or tapioca pudding and thickening occurs due to the hydrophilic nature of the seeds. This means they are “water-loving” and can absorb more than 10 times their weight when soaked in liquid such as coconut milk, releasing a gelatinous substance that is a water-soluble fiber giving the soaked seeds their congealing power.
The seeds appear as two main color varieties: lighter ones that are creamy pale and darker ones that appear black/brown to the eye. They are nutritionally similar, with the darker variety containing a little more antioxidant.
Aside from their self-gelatinizing property, what’s also fascinating about chia seeds is the elaborate markings on their dry seed coats - a dazzling display of spots and swirls that can only be appreciated under magnification. It’s as if nature’s artist was determined to flaunt its infinite originality on each tiny seed canvas.
Billions of chia seeds have probably existed over the millennia and quite likely no two have the identical appearance, much like the random growth of those micro-leafy sprouting Chia Pets.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.