Sushi quinoa? Top secret project under way in B.C.

B.C. government is funding the development of sticky sushi quinoa but the details are still a mystery.

B.C. Ministry of Agriculture is giving $4,750 to B.C. company to develop sticky quinoa

Quinoa producers say there are over 3,000 varieties of the grain and farmers need to pick the right variety to adapt to Canada's climate. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Sushi-lovers in B.C. could soon ask restaurants to wrap their California roll with quinoa instead of white or brown rice. 

The government is helping fund the development of 'sushi quinoa', a stickier, fluffier variety of the ancient grain. 

"I think there is a big market for sushi," said Norm Letnick, Minister of Agriculture. "Given people's potential desire to have something that doesn't have rice in it, I would imagine that there would be a market for that as well."

The grain is native to South America and has grown in popularity in the last few years. The United Nations even declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.

The superfood contains all the essential amino acids, is protein-rich, gluten-free and easily digestible. It also cooks much quicker than rice and can be prepared in a number of ways. 

Details are a secret

Vancouver's Top Tier Foods, which makes ready-to-eat quinoa side dishes, received $4,750 to figure out how to make quinoa more sticky and suitable for sushi. 

"It's a very exciting project," said Blair Bullus, president of Top Tier Foods. The company is also working with students from British Columbia Institute of Technology to develop the idea.

But Bullus isn't revealing any details of how it's being done because the company is still in the innovation phase. 

Industry experts say so far no one is growing quinoa on a large scale in B.C. 

A Saskatchewan company that has been working with quinoa since the early 1990's has been approached by Top Tier Foods Ltd. to develop sushi quinoa. 

"We want to breed a sticky variety and a variety that is more fluffly," said Michael Dutcheshen, vice president of sales and marketing at Northern Quinoa Corporation. 

But how they will do that is still a mystery.

Tough grain to grow

"There are 3,000 varieties, you have to pick the right ones for your location and then adapt it to Canada — it's like the potato, can't plant all of them, have to see what works for you," he said. 

Dutcheshen says part of why quinoa isn't being grown in B.C. is because it just recently gained popularity and picking the right variety for the climate is trial and error. 

"It needs equal day morning and night and needs high altitude," he said. 

The development of sushi quinoa is part of 16 new projects receiving funding to innovate the agrifood industry in B.C. 

The funding is part of  federal and provincial commitment to develop and innovative the industry under the Growing Forward 2 agreement to provide up to $13.4 million between 2013 and 2018. 

So far, 95 projects have received almost $8 million in funding, with more funding still available for other projects. 

To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled What is the future of farming in B.C.? on the CBC's Daybreak Kamloops.

With files from Tina Lovgreen


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