When you combine high altitude, low rainfall and bitter winters you get hungry people. This week’s blog looks at five cornerstones of the Andean diet.
Choclo, the most common variety of Andean corn or is much paler than its North American cousin and its kernels are larger, starchier and chewier. Choclo is eaten on the cob (usually with a slice of cheese as choclo con queso) but it also makes its way into soups, stews, humitas and ceviche. What’s more, it’s the base for the quintessential drink of the Andes: chicha, or corn beer.
While choclo is the most common variety of maize in the Andes, it is by no means the only one. Colors range from white and yellow to red, purple, and black, and Peru alone boasts over 50 varieties. One of the most eyecatching (and delicious) variants is maíz morado, or purple corn which is the base of api morado – one of the most delicious hot beverages I’ve ever tasted.
The potato was first cultivated 10 000 years ago in the region that now straddles South-Eastern Peru and North-Western Bolivia. Of the 5000 potato varieties in the world today, more than 3000 are found exclusively in Andean countries. What we think of as a generic foodstuff has a hundred different tastes, textures and uses in the Andes. Different varieties are used in different soups, stews and roasts.
Perhaps the strangest potato is the chuño: after harvesting, the potatoes are laid out on the ground and left to freeze during the cold Andean night. The following day the potatoes are exposed to full sun, and trampled under foot to remove moisture. This process continues for two more days. Chuño is used extensively in Andean cuisine, but – if you ask me – it does taste a lot like you’d imagine freeze-dried potato to taste. That’s not the point, obviously: in the past it allowed farmers to keep food in reserve for winter months.
Quinoa has recently taken the nutritional world by storm as a true superfood. Unlike most grains which are considered to be inadequate as total protein sources, quinoa has a significant protein content, making it a life-saver for families who cannot afford meat…And for rich vegans and vegetarians. But this is not all…high levels of essential minerals, good fats, amino acids, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory polysaccharides make it the grain everyone is talking about. Better still is the fact that quinoa loses very little of its goodness from boiling, stewing or steaming.
In Andean countries, quinoa – which is usually grown at altitudes above 8200ft – has long been a staple food. It was considered sacred by the Incas, who called it chisaya mama, “the mother of all grains.” Due to its association with traditional religious ceremonies, the conquistadores actually banned its cultivation, and for a few centuries the locals were forced to grow wheat instead. These days, quinoa is used in soups and as an accompaniment to stews throughout the region. Its circular grains have a slightly bitter taste and are naturally al dente.
These days Andean people eat chicken, pork and beef like the rest of us, but traditional (quirkier) protein sources are still integral to their diet. Cuy or guinea pigs, may be cuddly pets to us, but in Andean societies they were – and still are – a very important food source. Not only are they high in protein and low in fat, but they are also easily raised in captivity and have a very short reproductive cycle. Over 65 million cuy are eaten in Peru every year, with many families raising them in their own back yards. As a tourist you will have to actively seek out cuy if you want to eat it, as locals – perhaps rightly – think we are squeamish about such things. Whatever your standpoint may be, you may as well be aware that it tastes much like rabbit (or the dark meat of chicken) and is commonly served fried, boiled or roasted.
Llama and alpaca
Llamas and alpacas, on the other hand, cannot be missed on a visit to the Andes. True, they are most evident in their living, snorting, spitting form, but their meat is also a regular on menus in the region. Once again it is low in fat and high in protein and fiber, making it a much healthier option than beef. It is commonly served as chicharrón (fried) and fricassee (a spicy stew) but more recently it has even started to make its way onto the plates of the region’s haute cuisine establishments in the form of carpaccio and filet mignon.