Long before the Spanish discovered South America, the native populations knew how to cultivate an incredible array of plants. They developed elaborate irrigation systems, and terraced the steep Andean mountain slopes to make them more suitable for growing food.They acclimatised their seed to grow at high altitude and grew corn, lima beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chilli peppers, avocados, peanuts, chocolate, and raised llamas and guinea pigs.Starvation was not a big worry for the Incans as they were able to get through times of food shortages, famines and droughts relatively unharmed.
This was because they were able to preserve and store many crops and other foods. In the high elevations of South America, food was able to be freeze dried by leaving food outside overnight in the frosty temperatures. It is estimated that at any given time in Incan history, 3-7 years worth of food were stored in state warehouses for times of food shortage.
South America, and in particular Peru, is considered an important global hub for genetic diversity of world crops. For example, in Peru alone, there are 35 varieties of corn, 20 types of native fruits, 15 species of tomatoes, and there are 8000 species of potatoes that are native to the Andes region.
It is interesting that only a very small number of these varieties are commercially available and that at times on our trip, the food of South America seemed quite monotonous.
As a result of the huge diversity in food sources each region developed its own traditional foods. Small and large scale farming was evident as we travelled throughout the countryside of South America.
Traditional key ingredients in South American cooking were adapted and modified, and blended with the newly available foods from Europe, Asia and Africa. All of this combined to become the diverse and exciting cuisine that exists today. The rest of the world has become interested in the cuisine of South America, and new combinations of global cuisine will continue to emerge.
But the time – honoured culinary traditions of South America remain intact. If you have not explored them already, new or old, don’t miss out. You will fall in love with South American food, we did.
Corn (Maiz, Choclo) has been cultivated in South America for more than 5,000 years, and is possibly South America’s biggest food contribution to the rest of the world. As previously mentioned, there are over 35 varieties of corn found in Peru alone, yet only two varieties are available commercially. Corn is the key ingredient of many staple dishes such cornbread, casseroles and pise and of the chicha – corn beer.
Potatoes rival corn as the oldest and most important South American crop. There are over 8000 species native to the Andean region and hundreds of these varieties of potatoes are still cultivated there today, so it’s no surprise there’s an infinite array of potato recipes. Potatoes are fried, mashed, freeze dried, baked and combined with sauces into many beloved dishes.
Peppers (Ajis) are the most important seasoning ingredient in South American cooking. There are both sweet and hot varieties, and they are used in many creative ways, like in the colorful marinades for ceviche.
Tropical Fruit: South American cuisine makes great use of the incredible assortment of tropical fruit available. Coconut, cherimoya, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, lucuma, and passionfruit – the list goes on and on. I especially enjoyed the raw guava, having only ever eaten it as child out of a can. It was a lovely treat indeed, a smooth and tasty fruit and every so cheap to buy.
Queso fresco/ Queso Blanco: This fresh cheese is another staple of South American cooking. Queso fresco is a lightly salted, unripened cow’s milk cheese that is added to sauces and crumbled on salads and eaten with a biscuit that tastes rather like a shortbread. This is a delicacy that we do not much care for.
Quinoa: The ‘super food’ “Quinoa” is a food that has been cultivated in the Andean regions of Peru ,Chile and Bolivia for thousands of years. The Incas and Aztecs really knew what they were doing when it came to nutrition. Quinoa, the ‘mother seed’ was a major part of their diet, second only to the potato. The Incans held it a sacred food. They called it the “gold of the Inca’s” for its value in increasing the stamina of their warriors; it often supplied entire armies on the march. In fact, in their attempts to control and destroy the native South American Indians and their culture, the Spanish conquerers instigated a campaign to destroy all quinoa fields. It became illegal to grow quinoa, with those caught doing so being sentenced to death.
Despite appearances, Quinoa is not a grain like wheat or barley that come from grass plants. Quinoa comes from a plant that’s more closely related to beets and spinach. Wherever it comes from, quinoa is considered a ‘super food’, a super source of protein, containing all 9 amino acids essential for tissue development.
It is higher in calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc and lower in sodium compared to wheat, barley and corn. It is also low in saturated fats, but does contain some healthy fats. The high protein levels found in quinoa make it a great food for vegetarians. It’s also gluten free, so is a great substitute for those who can’t eat wheat or barley products. Oh how I love to be healthy when I travel.
And – it makes a delicious soup. In most restaurants this soup will be served as a matter of course whether you order it or not. And as usual there are some good one and some bad ones. Cooked in a very similar way to rice, it can be your base to a very healthy soup; just add veges!
Nevertheless after a month in Peru we do grow weary of this staple food.
Guinea Pig: And then there is what amounts to a dare for many visitors to Peru; guinea pig. It’s a traditional food in Peru, with families in the countryside having kept colonies of the little animals in pens in their kitchens. Within reason I like to try new food. However, I’m not game enough to attempt to eat one of these cute little creatures. In fact neither of us are brave enough to try it after seeing them piled up in the markets all cooked and supposedly ready to eat.
So here they are piled up still with their little heads on and their little paws still attached.
Maybe cuy, as they call guinea pig in Peru, is delicious but we just couldn’t get around to actually ordering it for dinner!
Alpaca: Apparently alpaca is one of the healthiest and most flavourful meats in the world. The alpaca is from the camelidea family is one of the only mammals to produce a special shaped red blood cell.
This design by nature ensures highly oxygenated blood for extreme high altitudes.
The meat of the Andes, is one of the oldest food sources of the Incans and pre-Incans, and was valued for being a main source of protein. However, most Incan peasants diets did not include much meat at all as the Incan nobility laid claim to Alpaca hunting rights and only the wealthy could afford to eat an animal so valuable for wool and as a pack animal. It remains a delicacy to this day in many Andean countries.
We had a couple of alpaca meals, one awesome and one not so good. It just depends of the level of restaurant I suppose. We did enjoy it at the Casa Andina restaurant in Puno.
Trout: In Ecuador, a meal often consists of at least two courses, comprising sopa (soup) and a second course of protein. So, after the quinoa soup, our next course was very often trout; especially at restaurants with set menus, and we seem to encounter these often. It seemed it was very much ‘backyard farming’ of the fish; almost every restaurant offers this fish. Initially we found this to be a great treat.
We had countless meals of trout on this trip, and we found that trout mains made for relatively inexpensive meals.
Chicha (corn beer) has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout in the Andes for millennia. The Inca used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals.
We are introduced to the “Local Bars” for Corn Beer in the Sacred Valley of Peru and here is the deal: if you see a bamboo pole with a red flag (usually and old red plastic bag) flying at the gate, this means the local people have chicha (corn beer) for sale.
This makes for an interesting encounter with the local people.
Obviously one would choose carefully where and what to drink as there would be varying degrees of hygiene when making the beer. I think we chose well; our hosts were two delightful Peruvian women who laughed and chatted away in Spanish whilst serving us our corn beer.
Served in ‘chicherias’ which are usually an unused room or a corner of the patio of a home, these generally unlicensed businesses can provide a significant boost to a family’s income. Poured directly from the large ‘caporal’ into a half litre glass, we enjoy our corn beer experience. As the locals do we first dripped a portion of the foamy head on the ground with the phrase “Pachamama Santa Tierra” which means ‘bless Mother Earth’, a tradition dating from the time of the Spanish conquest.
I fell in love with the Pisco Sour on the Andean Explorer where many other pisco drinks adorned the menu. This cocktail is refreshing and yes, one is not enough! It’s one of the most popular drinks in Peru and Chile. However, a word of caution: if drinking raw egg concerns you feel free to use an egg substitute, it is not quite the same drink in the end but is close enough to count.
Pisco is a grape distilled brandy, that both Chile and Peru lay claim to. However, the drink the “pisco sour cocktail” is said to have been invented by a North American bartender, Victor Morris, (“Gringo Morris”) in the 1920’s, at The Morris Bar in Lima, Peru.
It was on an overnight stop in Lima that we encountered this traditional cocktail and to our surprise one was not enough we enjoyed a second! Pisco sours are notoriously strong, as Pisco varieties range from 60 to 100 proof. We slept well.
The classic pisco sour is shaken over ice and strained – this excellent frozen version, made in a blender with ice, is a popular favourite, just in case you’d like to try this at home here is a recipe!
Chicha morada is a non-alcoholic drink. It is incredibly refreshing and delicious tasting. Don’t let the thought of drinking purple corn turn you off trying this, it’s actually delightful and you’re not going to eat the corn anyway!
Chicha has been a staple in Bolivian food for thousands of years. The Incas made and drank this beverage throughout the entire Andean region (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile) before the Spanish ever discovered the Americas. It’s still a tradition in the western Andean region of Bolivia.
Unlike other corn drinks, this beverage is not fermented. It is also known to help your digestion, and it’s believed to help control weight, blood pressure and cholesterol too!
Ok, so we never got sick, not even travellers’ diarrhoea. I was pedantic about hand sanitiser; we never ate anything raw (except raw egg in pisco sour) which meant we had cooked lunches and dinners! Overall the food was pretty good. We managed to have with omelettes for breakfast in most places which meant that we often didn’t need too much for lunch. We had also bought a pile of bars from USA which were helpful when on the run. Also, snickers bars seemed to be available everywhere, so we feasted on a fair few of these.
Despite South America seeming at first glance to be the ‘land of plenty’, this does not always mean ‘plenty of choice’. Despite the huge array of foods and diversity of food species, there is surprisingly little variation between restaurant menus.
We must recommend the Inka Fe café in Cusco as we had such fab meals there that we ate there three times!
Cost wise, meals in Peru including beers cost about USD$25-30. Although we thought this was quite cheap, you can definitely eat cheaper still if you want to and there is a huge variety of street vendor foods.