Introducing Iquitos, the Gateway to the Peruvian Amazon
Iquitos does not have the sheer number of restaurants as Cusco or Lima, but as the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon (selva), Iquitos offers a number of unique culinary experiences. In this guide, I will focus on Iquitos food as an example of the kinds of food you would find in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon (like Peru, the Peruvian Amazon is huge).
Iquitos is a small, sleepy town, that is often treated as a mere stopover towards an Amazon excursion. However, I think it’s more than worth it to explore Iquitos for a day or two. Wake up early and explore the market. Relax and watch the river scene. Then, during the cooler parts of the day, walk around and see a different way of life.
Don’t worry you won’t have to fend for yourself in the jungle. Most tours and lodges are all-inclusive and include all meals. If you have a meal or two in Iquitos you should try some of the traditional dishes. And if you can’t do an Amazon excursion, let the Amazon come to you. Check out Belén market and marvel at some of the exotic ingredients from deep inside the Amazon.
Top Food Experiences in the Selva
- A walk around a jungle market is an eye-opening experience. See how ingredients such as some of the largest freshwater fish in the world, crocodile, giant snails, and edible worms can seem so commonplace.
- Note: I have a whole post about this market! http://www.projectdinnerparty.com/jungle-market-iquitos-peru/
- Try traditional dishes and learn how these dishes evolved to help the natives survive in the jungle.
- Try Amazonian fruits from the market or in juices or gelato.
- Eat with a view whether it’s enjoying ceviche for lunch, overlooking the river, or taking a boat to Al Frío y Al Fuego, a floating restaurant.
- People-watch (politely) and see a glimpse into another world. See how food, culture, and environment are interwoven.
- Try a jungle cocktail. Choose from hundreds of concoctions made with ingredients deep in the jungle ranging from peppers to exotic fruits to snakes.
The Amazon has more than its share of exotic ingredients that can be featured on Bizarre Food, but there are also a whole host of everyday ingredients that are staples local cuisine, which are also becoming incorporated into the the rest of Peruvian cuisine. It’s not all strange insects and giant snails.
Exotic Ingredients: Please check out my post “A Jaunt Through a Jungle Market” for more photos and info about exotic ingredients in the jungle. In this guide, I’ll be focusing more on ingredients used in typical, everyday dishes, ones that you’ll likely encounter.
Plantains are a staple of the Amazonian diet. Even so, I wonder how they ever use all of the plantains. Every market I visit, every surface is covered with plantains. The most common uses are to mash them up to make tacacho and to grill them alongside fish.
Bijao leaves are highly resilient and used to wrap a variety of food such as juanes and patarashca. When cooked with the food, it imparts an aroma to the food.
Chonta consists of delicate ribbons shredded from heart of palms. I was amazed to see how laborious the process for processing the chonta was. The most common use for chonta is in salad.
Exotic fruits are aplenty in the Amazon. Browsing an open-air market is a great way to marvel at the diversity of Amazonian fruits. Belén Market is the largest and most famous in Iquitos, but there are fruit stalls scattered throughout Iquitos. They are hard to miss. Avoid the supermarket-the produce there is surprisingly poor in quality for being right next to the jungle!
I recommend trying cocona and camu camu. Fruit juices are a great way to sample these fruits (see more below).
The fish of the Amazon is renowned throughout Peru not only for their size but also for their flavor and texture. The fish to try in the selva are paiche, doncella, and dorado. Most restaurants in Iquitos serve at least two out of three of these types of fish.
Charapita is the ají (pepper) of choice in the selva. Don’t underestimate the heat in these tiny peppers. They look like tiny tomatoes and come in a variety of colors, ranging from yellow to red. Their acidity and punch make them popular in salsa. The women in Iquitos are also referred to as “charapitas.” I’ll let you make the connection.
Suri-I couldn’t help but to include the most famous and cringe-worthy ingredient of the selva-edible grubworms. Suri don’t have too strong of the taste, but it’s the texture that takes getting used to. As you can see, they are quite plump and succulent. They are commonly grilled but your guide may try to convince you to eat them alive. They are usually kept alive in a bucket and are prepared to order, heightening the experience of trying them for the first time.
There’s much, much more. For a glimpse, check out the glossary at ámaZ’s site (I could only find a Spanish version but there are photos for most of the links).
What to Eat in the Selva
Ceviche in the selva is a variation of the ceviche found throughout Peru. It incorporates local fish including doncella, dorada, and paiche. It also usually features crab and shrimp. If you order ceviche in the selva, be prepared to pick through shells as shellfish is usually served whole. The shells is for presentation but also adds flavor to the tigre de leche. Yucca is often an additional garnish, helping balance the flavors and serving as a palette cleanser.
Juanes is a meal in a tidy package. It consists of meat, rice, egg, and olive, wrapped into a tight bundle with a bijao leaf. It evolved as a way of preserving food by keeping the food safe from the humidity and moisture.
Cecina-is pork that is dried and smoked. The pork is usually flattened to aid drying. Amazonian cecina has a characteristic red color, making it easy to identify. This dish shares its name with a whole variety of smoked meats in Spain (where the name originated) and throughout Lain America.
Cecina is rarely eaten alone; it’s often serviced with rice, plantains, tacacho, or chonta.
Tacacho is a ball formed of smashed plantains, combined with lard and a little bit of salt, and then fried. They traditionally accompany cecina. If not made properly, they can be a bit dry.
The typical salad in the Amazon features chonta, delicate white ribbons shredded from heart of palms. Rounding out the salad is fresh avocado, tomatoes, and a light dressing.
Patarashca is an Amazonian dish where white fish and aromatics such as onions, tomatoes, and chiles are wrapped in bijao leaves and then grilled over coals. The package is sealed so that the fish can cook in its own fat. The scent of the leaf also infuses itself into the fish, resulting in an incredibly flavorful and aromatic dish.
Many restaurants catering towards visitors feature fusion and modern versions of traditional dishes. In this case, fusion also mean fusion between different types of Peruvian cuisine. Amazonian fusion ranges from incorporating Amazonian ingredients into dishes such as chaufa to more radical uses of ingredients such as desserts flavored with cecina (smoke-dried meat).
Juices and Desserts
Camu Camu juice is bright pink and has a tart taste-a bit like pure cranberry but does not dry your mouth out. Camu camu is a super fruit so in addition to its taste it has nutrition qualities. It has 60 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange! Camu camu also been known to provide a natural energy boost and can be consumed in the place of coffee.
Cocona-Cocona is highly acidic so it’s no surprise that it tastes a bit like lime. However, what many people don’t know is that it it’s in the same family as the tomato and the eggplant. Many people remark that cocona tastes a bit like a tomato. In juice form however, I feel that it takes a bit like orange juice but thicker and creamier.
Most places sell juices by the jarra (pitcher). You can ask for a smaller size, but usually the jarra is the minimum. However, they’ll gladly pack you some of it to go (it’s interesting to see what sorts of containers they use).
You can ask for less sugar in the juices. While the fruits in the selva are highly nutritious, many restaurants and cafes make their juices super sweet. If you ask for less sugar, many of the restaurants will make it fresh for you!
Iquitos is also the gateway to the Ayahuasca experience. In the weeks leading up to the experience, you are supposed to avoid spicy and fried foods, caffeine, meat, and processed sugar among other things (this is not a complete list). Many restaurants cater to these restriction and offer “Ayahuasca diet” menu options.
I also recommend having one or two meals in Iquitos on your own. I was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of the restaurants in Iquitos. I split my time between local restaurants and ones catered towards extranjeros (foreigners). One advantage for going off the beaten path is that some of the lesser known places a little further from the malecón, the boulevard that runs along the river, tends to be more economical. Iquitos is fairly small so prices drop pretty rapidly as you walk a couple of blocks away from the tourist area.
Chef Paz (Jr. Putumayo 468), owned and run by Chef Gahry Paz, is a favorite by expats living in Iquitos. It is only a few blocks from the main square but offers quality food at significantly lower prices than the restaurants along the malecon. The menu is Peruvian with Amazonian flavors mixed in. If you have the chance, you should chat with Chef Paz.
La Mishquina (Jirón Próspero 507) is a local eatery that offers menú (lunch special) every day. It features local versions of typical dishes. The dishes are more rustic than touristy restaurants, meaning that you’ll find seafood with their shells intact in seafood dishes and meat with bone-in. The prices are economical and portions also tend to be larger.
El Bucanero (Carr La Marina 124) is the premiere spot to try ceviche in Iquitos. It is frequently mostly by locals and is a gathering place for family and friends. Ceviche features Amazonian ingredients such as doncella, yucca, and small, river crab. The restaurant is perched over a view of the river, making it a perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday while enjoying ceviche.
Mitos y Cubiertos (Jr. Napo 337) is a tidy cafe-restaurant that serves traditional food in a nice environment with splashy artwork. In terms of price, presentation, and portion sizes, it feels like it’s exactly it’s exactly in between a local and touristy place.
Al Frio y Al Fuego (Av. La Marina 138)–To get to this restaurant, you have to take a five minute boat ride which is part of the experience. The floating restaurant is large and there are my choices of view. The menu features modernized versions of traditional dishes along with fusion food.
Ikiítu (Jirón Fitzcarrald 456) is exactly the kind of restaurant I was seeking, but it didn’t exist yet when I visited Iquitos. I found it surprisingly hard to find traditional dishes such as juanes in restaurants. The Paz family felt the same way and wanted to bring back traditional Amazonian dishes. The restaurant was not open at the time of my visit to Iquitos, but I was able to sample a couple of the dishes.
Bars and Cafes
Musmuqi (Antonio Raimondi 382) is one of those bars that is a total time warp. Named after a mischievous monkey god that comes out at night, they specialize in aphrodisiac and healing elixirs made with ingredients from the jungle. Musmuqi has walls of infusions, with over 90 different kinds of elixirs made from everything from herbs found in the Amazon to fruits to ají peppers. Some of these ingredients can only be found deep in the jungle.
Yellow Rose of Texas (Jirón Putumayo 174)-I never thought that I would find a Texas-themed bar in the Peruvian Amazon of all places. It’s worth stopping by for a drink just to admire the decor.
Like their decor that cover every inch of the wall, their menu is packed. It features both western and traditional dishes. Their specialities include fried alligator nuggets and Patarashca (fish grilled in bijao leaves), and barbecue. Their traditional dishes are authentic though a bit pricey.
Fitzcarraldo (Calle Napo 100) named after a Werner Herzog movie, is a well-decorated restaurant and cafe view of the river. It also has a AC room (no extra charge) making it a great place to cool off. It also offers food but at tourist prices.
Iquitos Food Map
The exciting thing is that Amazonian ingredients is now becoming integrated into everyday Peruvian cuisine. They are still considered trendy and come at a slight premium, but you can see the influence of the influx of ingredients from the selva in Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco.
Lima, the political and gastronomic capital of Peru, is actually where a lot of the innovation is happening with Amazonian ingredients.
ámaZ (Av. la Paz 1079, Miraflores, Lima) was one of my favorite dining experiences in all of Peru. I enjoyed their playful manner of introducing you to a whole broad range of Amazonian ingredients. Almost everything on the menu was new to me, but luckily the waiter was very good at explaining and making recommendations.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Conchas Ganga con Camu Camu (fresh scallops with a beautiful camu camu sauce)
- Churos Pishpirones (features giant snails stuffed with chorizo and tapioca to complement the snail meat)
- Pacamoto de camarones tarapotinos (shrimp cooked in a bamboo vessel with sour orange, cocona, and tomatoes).
- The Pacamoto goes especially well with the Tostones and Pan de Queso (cheese bread) to soak up all of the great flavors.
Finally, the Shapshico cocktail was a great blend of Amazonian liquer and fruits. I also recommend the cecina ice cream to round out the meal. (I pretty much recommended every dish that we tried; it’s that kind of place).
Malabar (Av. Camino Real 101, San Isidro) is another restaurant by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino that features Amazonian ingredients. I have yet to try it, but it’s on my short list of places to try next time I’m in Lima.
El Bijao (Av. Ignacio Merino 2051, Lince, Lima)-If you are interested in trying traditional Amazonian dishes while in Lima, this is the place to head. You can find juanes, cecina, and patarashca along with fusion options.
I didn’t get a chance to try El Bijao myself, but you can read more about it at Authentic Food Quest.
Food Trucks, Fairs, and Festivals
You can find food trucks selling Amazonian food in parks and bioferías. Amazonian ingredients such as camu camu and cecina are becoming popular flavors. You can find bottled camu camu juice is stores and cecina is becoming a popular flavor in desserts (yes, smoked pork flavored ice cream).
Mistura, the annual celebration of Peruvian cuisine, is also a good place to try Amazonian food.
Other Gateways to the Amazon
Finally, there are several other towns in the Peruvian Amazon-Port Maldonado and Tarapoto. They are all good jumping off points for explore the Amazon, and I hope to include them in future versions of my guide to Peruvian food.