A Jaunt Through a Jungle Market (Belén Market, Iquitos, Peru)

How My Quest to Understand Peruvian Food Lead Me to the Amazon

Yucca and cassava
Fish, yucca, and cassava

From my very first week in Peru, everyone told me that if I really wanted to understand Peruvian food and where it’s headed, I had to head to the jungle or selva. It was a bit of a logistical puzzle, but I finally made it to Iquitos-one of the gateways to the Peruvian Amazon. Belén market captures everything to understand about food in the Selva along with all of its mysteries.

The selva beckons

There are many reasons that people visit the Peruvian Amazon. For me, it was all about learning about the food. Peru is a vast country with varied terrain that encapsulates 30 out of the world’s 32 microclimates. On a broad level, the country can be divided into three zones-the coast, sierra, and selva (jungle). I knew that to understand Peruvian food, I had to visit all three regions.

Belén Market-Bringing Together the Bounty of the Amazon

For me, Belén Market was a must-see. I heard that it was an assault of the senses and to be prepared for pickpockets and other scary people that I might encounter. Luckily, I befriended Chef Paz, and he offered to take me along on one of his daily market trips.

Tuk tuks, one of the many elements of déjà vu that reminds me of Southeast Asia
Tuk tuks, one of the many elements of déjà vu that reminds me of Southeast Asia

What I found was not anything especially chaotic or exceedingly exotic but instead a strange sense of familiarity. Belén reminded me of the markets of SE Asia, adding this overall sense of déjà vu that I had felt ever sense I arrived in Iquitos.

I came to Iquitos specifically to learn about the fruit and fish from the jungle which become increasingly popular throughout Peru. Some describe the infusion of ingredients from the jungle into Peruvian cuisine as just the latest gastronomic trend. However, I think it here to stay. The bigger problem lying ahead is having the suppliers,  chefs, and consumers work together to make harvesting jungle ingredients sustainable and beneficial for everyone involved.

Chef Gahry Paz, my market guide
Chef Gahry Paz, my market guide

Since Belén is so huge with several sprawling “arms,” each containing a densely packed array of stalls, we were only able to see a portion of the market. Plus, Chef Paz had a restaurant to run. Given my interests, Chef Paz was keen to point out all of the different fruit and fish throughout the market.

The shopping list of the day
The shopping list of the day

I think that visiting a local market is essential part of understanding the cuisine, and I hope to share what I learned about Iquitos food with you.  Belén market is probably the best place in all of Peru to see fruit, fish, and other ingredients from deep inside the jungle.

Fruit Everywhere

The first stop was to look for the best limes. These limes would go into Chef Paz’s ceviche, a  lunchtime favorite at his restaurant.

Limes, an essential ingredient
Limes, an essential ingredient anywhere in Peru.

There was fruit everywhere-on the table, on the ground, and in random spots in between. There was also activity everywhere. Kids were running and laughing and people were constantly moving produce from one place to another.

I encountered both exotic and familiar fruits.

More exotic fruits:

Left to right: grenadilla, aguaje, cocona

And my favorite:

Camu Camu, my favorite fruit in the jungle
Camu Camu, my favorite fruit in the jungle

Everyday Jungle Ingredients

Don’t underestimate the heat in these tiny peppers. Charapita look like tiny tomatoes and come in a variety of colors, ranging from yellow to red. They pack a fiery punch disproportionate to their size and are an accompaniment to many of the traditional dishes-patacones, tacacho, patarashca, and more.

Ají charapita, the favorite pepper of the selva
Ají charapita, the favorite pepper of the selva

Ají dulce are another colorful pepper found in the jungle. They are very mild, like a bell pepper and are used in stews or accompany fish.

Ají charapita, the favorite pepper of the selva
Ají dulce ranks a solid 0 on the Scoville scale

As someone who is obsessed with cataloging food, I loved this display of some of the most common peppers in the jungle. The second one (pipi de mono) from the left looks a lot like Thai bird’s eye peppers!

Ají peppers from left to right 1) charapita 2) pipi de mono 3) ají limo 4) ají amarillo.

It was fascinating to see the process for making chonta, delicate ribbons from the heart of palms that is commonly found in salads. They carve these ribbons by hand and wrap  them in parcels of bijao leaves. The whole process seemed quite labor-intensive.

Packaging Chonta
Processing and packaging Chonta (ribbons from the heart of palm)

Exotic Ingredients

Now we get to the really exotic stuff, the kind of things you can only find in the jungle or restaurants specializing in Amazonian cuisine. These churros or giant snails are dubbed the “escargot of the selva.” I didn’t get a chance to try them in Iquitos, but I was able to enjoy them at AmaZ in Lima.

Churro, giant Amazonian Snails
Tail of the lagarto (alligator)
Tail of the lagarto (alligator)
Motelo (yellow-footed tortoise and eggs)
Motelo (yellow-footed tortoise and eggs)

They use every part of the animal and the liver of the tortoise is considered a delicacy.

Hígado de motelo (Tortoise liver)

Here’s the most famous exotic ingredient of the selva-Suri, the Amazonian grub worm. It’s the kind of thing that guides like to dare their clients to eat and has been featured on Andrew Zimmerman’s Bizarre food.

Suri are usually eaten grilled, but they say that eating them alive is a cure for certain ailments. When I tried to probe and ask which ones, I got a very general answer that covered anything from mild annoyances that won’t go away to more serious conditions for which you should see a doctor.

Fresh Suri ready to grill

Fish of the Amazon

Tigre, one of the main types of fish found in the Amazon
Tigre, one of the main types of fish found in the Amazon. For the Amazon, this is considered an average sized fish.

There fish of all different shapes and sizes-all that day’s catch .

Top: scaling fish, middle (left to right): doncella, tucunaré, bottom: carachama, doncella, sábalo

Here’s paiche, the most prized of the fish swimming the Amazon. It’s the largest freshwater fish in the world. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the fish in its entirety this time around.

Giant filets of Paiche

And here is dried Paiche rolled up and ready to take home.

Dried paiche
Dried paiche

Breakfast

Specials of the day
Specials of the day

Markets are often the best places to eat. However, this might not be your idea of traditional breakfast food.

Fried Toronja
Fried Toronja

There was a lot of delicious looking food cooking on grills scattered throughout the market. Whole fish (of many types), plantains, and bijao leaves were common themes.

The aroma of fresh fish being grilled filled the market.
The aroma of fresh fish being grilled filled the market.
Patarashca, fish grilled inside bijao leaves
Patarashca, fish grilled inside bijao leaves

The crocodile vendor turn out to be the most persuasive so I had a hunk of the tail for breakfast and took the rest to go.

Crocodile for breakfast
Crocodile for breakfast

Meat Section

In any market, the butchery section is where things get real.

I love how there’s not the distance between people and meat as in the US. Meat and the process it goes through is just part of the circle of life.

Cecina and chorizo
Cecina and chorizo

I even tried a bit of jungle paté:

Things Organized Neatly

Ají, purple corn, potatoes, and carrots-everyday staples
Ají, purple corn, potatoes, and carrots-everyday staples

The paradox of the market was that it full of frenetic activity; yet there was an inherent sense of order underneath. In some ways, there didn’t seem to be an order.  Things just flowed. For example, there weren’t any right-of-way rules, but people still got to their destination. However, the vendors were extremely proud of their offerings, and it definitely showed in the way they arranged their items. The beauty of these arrangement rivaled any of those that I’d seen in fancy organic markets in SF and NYC.

People

Of course, the best part of going to any market is the opportunity to interact with the vendors and producers of food. The Iquitos accent took some getting used to, but there’s a lot communication that can take place without spoken words. By simply smiling or pausing to investigate before taking a photo, you can show your genuine interest in their product and way of life.

At more local markets like this one, the vendors aren’t as pushy about trying to sell you something and understand that travelers don’t have have much immediate need for a giant fish or slab of cecina. I appreciate that many tour companies try to make connections with vendors on their clients’ behalf and buy supplies at local markets.

Other Markets

A market is not only a window into the soul of a cuisine, but also a glimpse into the rhythms of everyday life. For most people, fitting a market trip would be enough, but for me I could not get enough of the markets in Iquitos. Here are some of the other markets that I came across during my week stay in Iquitos:

Your Turn

  • Iquitos-There are about ten flights to Iquitos from Lima every day. Alternatively, it’s a 2 day boat ride (multiple routes available).
  • Belén Market-You can see the market featured in this article for yourself.  There’s no formal address but everyone in town knows where it is. It’s 9 blocks from Plaza the Armas. It’s recommend that you go early and be extremely careful of pickpockets. Consider hiring a guide.
  • Chef Paz (Putumayo #468, Iquitos)-Only a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas, serves affordable, modern versions of Peruvian classics. Recommended: ceviche, sushi rolls (acevichado), the chaufa with elements from the jungle, juices, and cocktails.
  • Amaz-See what amazing things chefs can do with Amazonian ingredients.

I’ll have more Iquitos picks next week in my guide on How to Eat in the Selva.

Please Share

If you enjoyed this post please pin and share wherever you get your social media.

Thanks

Special thanks for Chef Gahry Paz for taking me to the market and then taking the time to help me label the hundred plus photos that I took. He and his family were very friendly and helped teach me about the traditional food of Iquitos.

Thank you to Derek Ralston for correction a sizable error in this first version!

31 Comments Add yours

  1. Sibéal says:

    The jungle pate sounds like something I definitly have to try! Nice post – food is such an important part of travel and seeing the local culture, and your market photos are so full of life. Btw I love your blog layout 🙂

  2. Ellis says:

    I visited the Peruvian Amazon at Manu National Park. Unfortunately I had no chance to visit such a market. Such different foods from the mountain atreas in Peru. Veryu interesting

  3. kallsy says:

    Wow! My mouth was watering as I continued to see so many delicious foods. You have me craving some authentic ceviche and wanting to try some new foods as well. I’ve never tried Camu Camu! Also a friend of mine just got back from Peru and they had some of the biggest snails I’ve ever seen… bigger than my fist!

  4. I admit, I don’t necessary have the stomach for ‘eccentric’ foods, but I do love to try the local delicacies from time to time! Great tips here!

  5. We love markets… your post explains why it is so fun! I love trying new foods, although some of those are a little too much for me…

  6. Bobbi says:

    Can the taste of the crocodile be compared to anything? I enjoyed reading this. I am not so much a foodie, but you had be intrigued!

    1. Sutee says:

      As cliche as it sounds, crocodile tastes a little like chicken but with a bolder taste. The texture is chewy, but I quite enjoyed it, especially with the grilled flavor.

  7. Omg, I am so jealous right now after reading this great post. For years I have wanted to visit the amazon jungle and never go around to it. Peru is high on my list and now I really need to make sure I get there soon.

  8. Kelly says:

    Oh man, this looks amazing. I wish I had made it to Iquitos whenI was in Peru but I had no malaria pills. So thansk for sharing so that I feel like I have been to a market there. Love the photos!!

  9. Wow, what a nice and unique experience. Great post

  10. We really enjoyed visiting the markets in Peru as well and talking to the locals.

  11. I loved the exotic variety of fruits. I have never heard of some of them let alone see them! The variety of peppers, so colourful and hot! The neatly arranged vegetables were beautiful and everything looked delicious!

  12. Sheena says:

    Wow, the market looks incredible. They are such a great introduction into the food culture of a place.

  13. Sourav Aggarwal says:

    Would love to eat these fruits…!!

  14. You’ve described it wonderfully I feel I’ve been walking through the market with you. Thanks for sharing

  15. Tonya says:

    What an incredible experience! Your trip fascinates me. I’ve always loved visiting Farmer’s Markets in the states (where I primarily travel) and find it interesting, even here, to see the different offerings from the various regions. How fortunate you were to be able to explore the market with a local- a chef no less! I’m looking forward to learning more.

  16. What an experience to visit the local market! I would have mistaken the tiny peppers (Charapita) for tiny tomatoes as well!!

  17. Sheena says:

    I’ve visited Peru but not their Amazon as I went to the Columbian region. I wouldn’t associate the Amazon with food so it’s fascinating that that is what led you there. I love learning about the different ways people travel

  18. Belen Market looks so amazing. Wow that food must smelled and tasted so scrumptious.

  19. Very interesting post! I am not sure if I can eat those exotic foods. Have you tried them all? I was surprised with the Tiger, it just an average size, yet so big already. And about the worms, if I am not mistaken people in Thailand or Cambodia also have the same exotic food.

    1. Sutee says:

      I didn’t get a chance to try everything. I find that I just don’t have enough meals in a trip to try all of the diverse dishes in Peru! I definitely had my share of bugs in Cambodia:)

  20. The markets in Peru remind me a lot of ours here in Panama. Pretty much the same ingredients and display. We have to buy most of our meats at a grocery store though, but we do have fish vendors that are set up in the same areas. Nice photos.

  21. Meat definitely looks different in the marketplace in the states. It’s interesting how Farmer’s Market type of experiences are so different around the world. I would be all over the locals, my inquisitive mind would be asking them tons of questions about their food. Your photos really showcase the freshness, in a good way, of the market in Peru.

  22. Ivy says:

    Oh my! We always make an effort to check out local markets and would love to visit this one. Count me in on the exotic fruits and seafood galore. I’d stay away from the grub worm though, worms are my worst nightmare haha.

  23. I love how colourful fruit is so close to where it’s produced. I always feel so cheated by fruit when I go to the supermarket back home. I love that you took a guide. Sometimes markets can be so overwhelming. I’ll definitely take some tips from this for my next trip.

  24. We love wet markets like these where you can buy fresh ingredients at very reasonable prices. In fact, here at home, we usually do our groceries in wet markets rather than in supermarkets.

    A lot of a region’s culture can be experienced in wet markets. Snotty children running around, gossipy madames chopping off chunks of fish, men laughing loudly over a bottle of spirits….ah, it’s the life!

  25. First of all, I just have to say how much I love your blog, posts and videos alike. Markets and traditional foods or recipes have been some of my favorite discoveries about Ecuador. These photos and experiences are similar to some of ours in this neighboring Amazonian neighbor. We can’t wait to explore Peru!

  26. Maggie says:

    You can learn so much about a country from their local markets! How cool that you met a chef to show you around. Although I think it would be a little disconcerting to see a whole alligator tail ready for cooking haha. I love how that’s just normal there!

  27. Loudy says:

    Even if You dont mention that you visited Amazon to learn about food it’s very clear from your post. Very nice post so many various food and that Tiger fish is a first time that I see it.

  28. Digital Travel Guru says:

    I loved this post on markets & food, your photos are absolutely stunning & information you have given so interesting to read. I’ll be sharing this on my Facebook.

  29. Riely says:

    I always am in search of the best markets when I travel. Something about seeing fresh fruit all stacked up in rows of colours. And I agree the best part would be to interact with the vendors. Those were the biggest snails (churros) I have ever seen! I would never eat a turtle. They are becoming quite the endangered species. Great overview of the market. You can really get a sense of their custom dishes.

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