How My Quest to Understand Peruvian Food Lead Me to the Amazon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And my favorite:
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
They use every part of the animal and the liver of the tortoise is considered a delicacy.
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.
Fish of the Amazon
There fish of all different shapes and sizes-all that day’s catch .
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.
And here is dried Paiche rolled up and ready to take home.
Markets are often the best places to eat. However, this might not be your idea of traditional breakfast food.
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 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.
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.
I even tried a bit of jungle paté:
Things Organized Neatly
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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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!