Hands down some of the best food I’ve tasted in my life was in Peru. The rich flavors of natural ingredients mixed with various meats and vegetables. Throughout Peru I observed how people harvest an abundance of crops and how living off the land can sustain life for all. From the lowland lake region to the mountainous highlands, and to the valleys and canyons, the landscape contained eatable vegetation. Most all are owned and operated by farmers providing for their family and/or to sell at the local market. Nutrition was simple and basic since the ingredients were locally sourced.
My Introduction to Peruvian Food and The High Land Lake Region:
While in Puno, the city bordering Lake Titicaca, and on an island in the lake the food was basic. Meals were composed mostly of grains, legumes and vegetables. Meat and fruit were sparse. Meat was expensive and mostly eaten on special occasions while fruit had to be transported from the jungles of northern Peru. While staying with a host family I ate lots of quinoa soup; the soup is very common in Peru since quinoa is harvested all over the country. It was rare to pass through a town and not see fields of purple, red and golden quinoa stalks. I also ate loads of potatoes (Peru has 3,000 different types of potatoes!), traditional triangle bread, an assortment of veggies (corn, tomatoes, fava beans, etc.), cow cheese (which I didn’t care for because it squeaked against my teeth when I chewed it), rice and tea. The common tea in Peru is coca tea which is harvested from the coca bush and consumed all over the country as it aids in digestion, combats altitude sickness, provides energy through caffeine and completes any meal. A treat was fresh trout from the lake, caught and cooked daily, which I savored at lunch on a different island. In the city of Puno I found out what a Peruvian “supermercado” was. It was a warehouse sized open-air market with rows for each department. I ventured down the fruit section where women coaxed me to their booth filled with bright mangos, apples, bananas, piñas and tons of other fruits; some to which I didn’t recognize but tried. I wandered through the veggie row, legumes/dry food row (for some sweet potato chips), bread section, spices section, and eventually the meat section where I quickly wanted to become a vegetarian after spotting a table covered in pig and cow heads. The seafood aisle, although stinky, had an abundance of fresh caught trout which is the most commonly consumed fish in Peru used for the famous ceviche in Cusco and the entree I ate most. It was uncommon to consume fish at dinner because the fish is freshest earlier in the day. I appreciated how convenient buying local and fresh was — I found myself wishing the supermarket back home could be a little like the Peruvian open air markets. Foods of the highlands were simple, delicious and nutritious. My time there provided me with a good introduction to the tastes I would encounter throughout Peru.
The Valley Region and Agriculture:
While traveling through the valleys a variety of crops scattered the landscape unless the elevation reached higher than 13,000 feet. The crops were most commonly corn/maze, potatoes, quinoa, carrots, beets, and lettuce. Like I mentioned their are 3,000 types of potatoes, but the Oca types were my favorite. They taste and look like a hybrid of potato and carrot. Corn has thousands of types as well and purple corn is common for concocting interesting recipes. One kind of white corn has kernels as big as your front teeth and is sweet like kettle corn. As for the purple corn, they produce a drink called Chicha, fermented purple corn beer that all ages consume. The alcohol content is low so even toddlers will consume it. The restaurants frequently serve the non-fermented warmed juice containing boiled purple corn, water, lemon and sugar. The purple juice is pretty sweet but tasty! When the crops are planted stalked of quinoa are dispersed throughout all the fields to aid as a natural insecticide and provides nitrogen to the soil.
As I ventured to Colca Canyon the agriculture and foods changed a bit. It was the end of rainy season so paltas (avocados), mangos and herbal flowers were found. At a home stay in the canyon we consumed vegetarian dishes since meat was expensive and consumed on special holidays. The few livestock in the canyon were used for other purposes (cow for milk, sheep for wool, etc.). We had a creamy version of quinoa soup, triangle bread, the best lentil soup I’ve ever had, lots of potatoes, rice and some more cows cheese. For breakfast, I’m not sure if they just cook this for tourists, but we had crepe-like pancakes with banana, chocolate sauce and plenty of coca tea. Not the healthiest, but the fuel was needed for the hiking ahead. While hiking I picked a fresh avocado that ripened in 13 days and gave me a good perspective about the lifespan of an avocado as it is exported. Mangos seemed to have a shorter lifespan until ripe. Prickly pears (cactus fruit) and a sour kiwi type fruit were also in abundance in the canyon. The herbal flowers or plants were arnica (used as a slave to relieve muscle soreness), fungus on the prickly pear cactus used as a natural red dye for wool and cosmetics, and a leaf that contained a white serum that would burn the skin but would be fed to sick animals to heal stomach or intestinal illnesses. The canyon crops proved once again that living off the land was sustainable and an adequate amount of nutrients could be obtained.
Unique Peruvian Foods:
What fuels a four day trek to Machu Picchu? A private chef cooking traditional Peruvian dishes three times a day. The best food I experienced was during the Salkantay trek with Alpaca Expeditions. The chef cooked a variety of fresh meals made from local ingredients. My favorite dishes were: pan fried pesto trout, chicken rellenas (layers of yellow mash potatoes, chicken salad, avocado and carrots) topped with cheese sauce, mango ceviche, wonton lasagna, fried plantains, leche cake with fruit, stuffed yellow mashed potato dumpling with hard boiled egg, chicken/onion/pepper skewers, sautéed steak with veggies, candied pears in sugar cinnamon sauce, quinoa soup, egg and veggie omelettes with triangle bread, shredded carrot and beet salad, and much more. I have never eaten so much or so well while on a trek/camping trip. It provided me with a taste for Peruvian (and other) foods that I may never again have, but might try to cook up myself. I’m determined to fry some plantains and stuffed potatoes in the coming month. On the trek we were in the jungle so banana trees, coffee plants, mangos, passion fruit, avocados, star fruit and many others were abundant. The guide provided me with a white serum from the bottom of the banana stalk that relieved my itchy bug bites. He showed me a large white bell shaped flower used by the Inkas (and present day) as a hallucinogenic if taken in the correct dosage. Too much and you’re dead. The jungle was a fascinating combination of plants and the vegetation proved to be valuable as the markets were full their crops. When in the cities (Cusco, Puno and Arequipa) I found lots of the same kind or restaurants that seemed to serve almost any dish. The menus contained Peruvian, Italian, Mexican and American foods. Everything from burgers, to trout, to pastas, to burritos. Lebanese kabab shops and Chinese (Chifa) restaurants were also scattered about cities. Likely due to the high volume of tourists from all over the world, but all the foods had a Peruvian spin on them. The Mexican food had the typical cow cheese on it and not a lot of spice while the Italian sauces were flavored with more spices (lots of oregano in Peru). The most unique and strange foods I found on the menu were some of the most common in Peru — Alpaca and cuy (guinea pig). I couldn’t bring myself to try them but alpaca is a lean protein and I heard cuy is a savory delicacy that takes over an hour to cook. Another unique find was a Coca Cola product called Inca Cola, which I tried once even though I dislike soda. It is a fluorescent yellow carbonated sugar bomb. Similar to cream soda. I strongly disliked it, but lots of people enjoyed the beverage like our trekking guide who brought a bottle on the hike. As for dessert, chocolate shops were around the main squares and each restaurant offered tortas and fruit that are tough to resist. My favorite dessert was a triple milk chocolate cake paired with a hot drinking chocolate in Cusco.
From the fresh local fruits and vegetables to the succulent seasoned fish to the giant bustling open-air markets and the steaming hot grain soups. Peru is by far one of the easier countries to eat nutritiously and easily consume local food. Peruvians love their food and visitors quickly learns to do the same.