by Kate Dernocoeur, guest blogger
I recently had the good fortune to walk for six days 42 miles across the Peruvian landscape from the village of Mollepata, over 15,350-foot Salkantay Pass, and down to the train that carried our group into Aguas Calientes (from whence we visited the grand 15th century remains of Machu Picchu). But I want to write about the food.
It’s not often you get near truly unique and interesting foods like quinoa and coca and guinea pigs. Peru has them all—plus amazing coffee, for those who like it. Oh, and chocolate!
Quinoa and guinea pigs and chocolate
I was most fascinated by the quinoa. It’s delicious, with a sort of round, grainy, rice-like texture, and it can be used in a wide range of dishes—even ice cream. The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to it as chisaya mama(“mother of all grains”). The seeds are cooked much the same way as rice. Quinoa leaves can also be eaten, but commercial availability of the greens is limited. It’s great food, good for you, comes in a couple of thousand varieties, and has been domesticated for 3,000 to 4,000 years.
Quinoa has even had its moment in the sun with the United Nations General Assembly. In its declaration making 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” it said this was “in recognition of ancestral practices of the Andean people, who have preserved it as food for present and future generations, through knowledge and practices of living in harmony with nature.” Its natural distribution is almost entirely in the Peruvian Andes, but it is also grown elsewhere in the Andes, and in Spain and in the San Luis Valley of Colorado (short-maturity varieties only). It is tolerant of dry soil.
The Andean people speak Quechua, a difficult language, and they were the ones who named quinoa (“keen-wa”). According to Wikipedia, it is “a species of the goosefoot genus (Chenopodium quinoa), a grain crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, as it is not a member of the true grass family. [It] is closely related to species such as beetroots, spinach and tumbleweeds.” Nutritionally, quinoa is very high in protein (14% by mass) with a low gluten content (good news to people with ciliac disease). Relatively high in amino acids, some sources consider quinoa to be a complete protein. It’s chock-full of the “stress vitamin,” vitamin B, and even has a little potassium and calcium. Great food! Super food, some call it.
Sadly, for Peruvians, the world’s attention on and desire for their native grain has caused prices to skyrocket for them. It’s becoming a real problem.
About the guinea Pigs
About the guinea pigs: yes, they are a staple in the Peruvian diet. We tried them on the day we had a “Panchamanca-style lunch” where meat and veggies are cooked in a traditional underground hot stone cooking process. The flavor was unremarkable, and I found that I had to compartmentalize the fact that they are considered pets in America. They are often found living in the kitchen in Peru.
I will skip over the more pedestrian and common topics of coffee and chocolate, and talk briefly about Peru’s other big food: coca. Yes, it’s the stuff that results in cocaine when it’s in the wrong hands. But its stimulating effects have been used by the Andean people for ages. We met a couple of Andean villagers who showed us their stash of dried leaves, which are sacred to them, and from which important rituals of community and friendship emanate. They showed us the traditional way of making a wad and tucking it into your cheek to savor on the trail. We were also introduced to the delight of coca tea (but don’t drink it after abut 4pm!), coca chewing gum, and coca toffee.
Sadly, when both Colombia and Bolivia got the what-for for supplying cocaine to the USA, the trade moved south, into Peru. Now it is the biggest exporter of the illegal stuff. This is interfering with the age-old Andean use of coca as a staple of their diet, because the coca-growing areas are increasingly under the thumb of the drug cartels (and in the gunsights of the drug enforcement community). And don’t get me started on the environmental disaster of poisonous brews that flood into the sources of the Amazon from those illegal cocaine-making operations…
Hiking in Peru with Mountain Travel Sobek
Our Peruvian hosts and mountain guides, Manolo Lazo and Pepe Negro, were true ambassadors for their country. With them, our group (formed via Mountain Travel Sobek) had an excellent and safe adventure on the trails and in the comfort of the Mountain Lodges of Peru, where excellent food, libation, and hot showers (!) awaited us each day. This adventure girl is certainly getting spoiled…
[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinoa on July 10, 2015]
Kate Dernocoeur chaulks up the group from this trip as “100% fun”—not always what happens on open-enrollment trips. She was joined by her regular adventure-travel buddy, Margaret Idema. Kate lives in Lowell, Michigan, with her K9 SAR dog, Amazing Grace (Mayzie).
You can find Kate on her own blog, Generally Write.