Peru seems to be trending as the 'Superfoods Capital on Earth.'.
Yes, I just coined this phrase, but it's nothing special or surprising to anyone. Neither is it surprising that Peru has long been a mainstay for special high quality foods such as coffee and chocolate.
Bless Peru and its magical climate. It resides just south of the equator but the vast majority of the rural peoples, the Quechua, reside in the picturesque highlands of the Andes. Cusco, for example, sits in a valley at 3,400 m, and the surrounding hills rise up to 4,000 m.
|View from the top of a 9-hour hike, near Cusco, overlooking the Sacred Valley - Coya, Peru ~4,200m|
Same as neighbouring Bolivia - I remember taking a tour of the salt flats, a desolate expanse of white, lying at 3,600 m. Occasionally, we passed hills with vacant patches of soil. I was surprised to learn that these fields will thrive with quinoa during the rainy season. These special conditions give birth to the hardy nutritious plants we love to buy, hard to find anywhere else on Earth.
|Quinoa actually grows in the hills surrounding the salt flats! - Uyuni, Bolivia|
But despite superfoods starting to fill up grocery store aisles in the western world, such as quinoa and maca, it's not exactly as ubiquitous in the local culture as one would expect.
When I arrived in Peru I was expecting to see this stuff everywhere - yummy coffee and chocolate served on street corners, quinoa as a staple in restaurants. I was surprised when I could barely find these things anywhere! I really wanted to find out where this stuff was hiding. I did manage to ask some locals, and "local foreigners" living in Peru, about this phenomenon.
|Enjoying hot chocolate at a tourist cafe ~$3.50 CAD - Pisac, Peru|
|Enjoying delicious local chocolate in solid and liquid form|
Thus, whenever I stayed with locals, or went to a local restaurant, the coffee served was always the cheap, instant variety. Coffee is actually not commonly drunk in Peruvian culture; tea is much more common. It makes sense when you consider that, due to the elevation, it actually gets quite cold at night and during the sleepy hours of dusk and dawn.
Cafes, as coffee goes, do not exist in Peru. Peruvians are family oriented and prefer to gather in their homes. Nearly everyone has a cell phone equipped with cheap data and Whatsapp, but noone owns laptops that require coffee shops offering fast Wifi. The only coffee shops I could find were in the tourist districts.
Same goes for chocolate. It appears that locals don't eat much chocolate. In local stores, I found cacao in the raw form, but ready-to-eat chocolate seemed only available in tourist joints. It makes sense because even the cheap chocolate was quite expensive - it wasn't much cheaper than in Canada.
|Thankfully chocolate is pretty easy to dumpster dive back in Canada - 23 five packs = 115 Lindts!|
Quinoa is most commonly served actually as a warm drink from street stalls, sometimes with milk (quinoa con leche). In local restaurants, quinoa is occasionally used in starter soups. However, rice, and to a lesser extent pasta, is the main staple that is served with almost every main course. I never found quinoa served in place of rice, except at tourist restaurants. There was also no such thing as quinoa salad, a western delight.
|At a local food court in Sucre, Bolivia|
|Food stalls are normally operated by old Quechua ladies|
|A fairly typical meal in Bolivia - meat is ubiquitous in local South American diets|
Despite westerners associating their superfoods with places like Peru, the local diet here consists of common international staples. I already mentioned rice and pasta, but livestock meats such as beef and chicken, and vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes (which originated in Latin America), lettuce, onions and garlic, dominate the plate.
It would be pretty challenging to eat here as a veggie or vegan traveler, as Peruvians eat meat with just about every meal. The only veggie joints I found were, again, in tourist districts. I, on the other hand, was searching for more elusive meats.
More unique local foods such as organ meats were also uncommon, though I did manage to find cow hearts, liver and tripe (sorry veggies and vegans). I didn't get to try the specialty food alpaca, but I managed to indulge in guinea pig. But perhaps the best uniquely local dish I tried was ceviche, which consists of raw fish garnished with raw onions and a lime-based sauce.
|One of the most common street foods is anticucho - skewered beef, sometimes cow hearts ~$1 CAD|
|My favourite South American dish - ceviche, raw fish - a specialty in Lima. Range $3-$10 CAD|
|Guinea pigs raised in a local Quechua family's kitchen|
|A specialty from the highlands of Peru - "cuy" or guinea pig. I paid $16 CAD at a specialty restaurant|
Peru is blessed not only with a rich variety of fruits and vegetables, but with a year round growing season. The markets are always flush with cheap and plentiful vegetables, but also local fruits such as mangoes and apples, as well as unique fruits from the nearby jungle such as granadilla and chirimoya.
I'm one of those rare people that are not a big fan of bananas. However, I thought I would enjoy them here, as I heard one can find more local varieties sweeter and more flavourful than the internationally dominant Cavendish species. Well, perhaps I didn't try hard enough to search them out, but I did visit many local markets and rarely saw any unique varieties.
Bananas, after all, are perhaps the world's most common and cheapest international fruit (ever wondered why it's half the price of apples?). Grocery stores in Canada intentionally lower its price below profit margins just to attract would-be shoppers into their store, so they can buy other things, like avocados, one of the most profitable foods.
Thankfully the locals in Peru can still enjoy avocados without it getting too expensive for them. For now, the US and Canada still get most of its avocados from Mexico.
Sadly, about halfway through the trip, I started getting sick of the food here, something that never happened in India. After awhile, it seemed like all the restaurants served the same thing - starter soup and a main course of meat with veggies and rice. The soup was quite nice, but the main course is normally devoid of spice and flavour.
|A bustling outdoor market where you can find anything your heart desires - Urubamba, Peru|
|I love street food! A Bolivian specialty - deep fried dough with a bit of cheese ~$2 CAD|
|This tiny street stall served amazing liver ~$2 CAD - La Paz, Bolivia|
After 2 and a half months on the road I was looking forward to going home and eating home cooked Chinese food. But not before stocking up on some of the aforementioned superfoods at the local market. I purchased specialty coffee ranging from $8-$13, chocolate bars for $3, 1 kg bags of cacao for $4, bags of maca for $3, a large bag of turmeric for $3, and a hefty bag of chia seeds for just $2 (all prices Canadian). I also brought back some mandioca, or yucca dough, something of a trendy gluten alternative.
|My souvenir stash (maybe half are Christmas gifts!) of textile goods and edible yums|