The Ancient Wonders and Aromas of Peruvian Cuisine

DSC_3217My study abroad program and I arrive on the outskirts of Lake Titicaca at the Paramis fishing village nestled on a terraced hill. The straw roofed cottages sprinkled along the coast serve as our respite for the night and a little exploring soon reveals a field of colorful grain-like plants reaching for the breeze. The colorful plants are no other than quinoa, the superfood that is now a health sensation across the globe. People have good reason to worship the food; quinoa is a good source of protein, fiber, iron, copper, vitamins, fat, antioxidants, and fatty acids. It tastes good too. However, the superfood has much deeper roots than the most recent health fad, it derives from an ancient Incan food culture.

Quinoa originated in the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca and was domesticated by the Pre-Inca civilizations around 5,000 BCE. Later on, the Inca’s claimed it as a sacred crop and the mother of all grains. The Incan emperor would plant the first quinoa seeds each year with prayers for a bountiful harvest. Today, the crop is still a staple for indigenous and local populations and can often be found in cakes, cookies, drinks, breads, and one of my personal favorites, quinoa soup.

DSC_3222As part of the Rural Tourism Association, my study abroad program was able to stay with the locals in Paramis and participate in a traditional quinoa cooking demonstration. Quinoa directly from the fields behind the kitchen were hand-grinded into a powder, transformed into dough with some water and salt, and molded by our hands to create uniquely shaped quinoa cookies. The freshly baked aroma similar to rising bread, paired with the earthy and nutty taste of the warm crisp cookies brought a sudden awareness to the true delicious superpower qualities of the crop.

The warm welcome by the Paramis village into their community and their gastronomical culture was an incredible opportunity to reach back into time and experience ancient Inca wonders. The food tour however was far from over as Lake Titicaca brought more traditional divine cuisine to our tastebuds. We traveled to the Amantani island, home to native Quechua speakers, stunning lakeside views, and many farmers. After a slight ascent and pass some bellowing sheep, we arrived to a small field with two dug out pits which we learned would serve as our stoves.

Pachamanca is a traditional Peruvian cuisine which in quechua means “earth oven”. The meal involves cooking food underground, covered with stones and large leaves. The hole is dug first, a fire started, and then the stones are heated. Once hot enough, the stones are placed inside to line the hole and soon meat, potatoes, and corn, are layered in between more layers of stone. Finally, the pile of food and stones is buried with dirt and leaves and left to cook for an hour or so. This technique again derives from the Inca civilization who believed that by cooking the food underground, they were offering respect to mother earth.

DSC_3270As the food was unearthed and served, the smoky flavor from the meat intertwined with that of the warm browned potatoes to create a meal worthy of Mother Earth. The Amantani community informs us that they usually only cook the sacred meal for weddings or important gatherings and I could not help but feel so fortunate for the opportunity to try another one of Peru’s ancient wonders.