The Foodways of Peru’s High Jungle : New Worlder

This is Part I of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

Rain is beating down on the aluminum roofs of Tarapoto, Peru as we begin our conversation. It’s a thick, tropical downpour that you could cut with a machete, as the rain in the high Amazon often is.

I’m with Elia García de Reátegui, who owns the restaurant La Patarashca, and we’re talking about juanes, a traditional dish that is widely consumed throughout the Peruvian Amazon. They are most commonly made with rice, chicken, olives, and hard boiled eggs that are wrapped in a bijao leaf and then boiled. The name juane was given by the Spanish, in honor of San Juan Baptista (St. John the Baptist), in the town of Moyobamba. It might be the most common dish in Peru’s high Amazonian regions, yet juanes weren’t always made like this. “This juane is fusion,” she explains. The rice was brought by the Chinese and the olives were brought by the Spanish.”

For García, a juane de yuca is the most traditional dish from the region. In its most basic form it combines the staples of the indigenous diet: fish, yuca, and plantains. It’s food designed for traveling. Communities would take juanes with them traveling to another village or on hunting trips into the forest. Everywhere in the region the recipes vary a little bit, and she offers many of them at La Patarashca. There are avisba juanes, which have pork but lack eggs and olives. Nina juanes are made with eggs and hen meat and cooked directly on the grill. Juane de chonta, with heart of palm, was originally just foraged fruits, herbs, and whatever fish and animals were around. There are also chuchulli juanes, with rice and rooster innards, and Sara juanes made with peanuts, corn, and pieces of guinea pig or carne de monte, the meat of small forest rodents. There are juanes in other parts of the Amazon too. In Bolivia, they call them dunucuabi. In parts of Colombia, they’re called maitecusao. All types of leaves are used to wrap and cook the juanes, but bijao has special importance. “Without it,” she says, “you lose the flavor of the jungle.”

A chef and researcher, García has been relentless in her pursuit of traditional recipes of Tarapoto and the high Amazonian regions of northern Peru. Her restaurant is a reference on regional cuisine and she has been fighting for Amazonian recipes to be recognized in Peru for decades, long before there were cevicherias in London and San Francisco. Before La Patarashca, all of the restaurants in Tarapoto were Italian or steakhouses. Traditional cuisine was only eaten in homes and younger generations began to forget about it. Before opening La Pataraschca she worked as a secretary and when her bosses came to town from Lima they never got to know the food. It bothered her. One day she quit and said “I’m going to be a cook.”

She began by talking to older people. Grandmothers, many of whom once lived in the forest, that had to cook local cuisine out of necessity. She recognized that this type of food needed to be valued.

“It’s a food born of the natives,” she tells me as the rain begins to calm. “It has indigenous roots. It’s simple cooking, with fresh ingredients. We don’t use Aji No Moto here,” she tells me, referencing the brand of MSG that is commonly used throughout Peru. “We use aromatic herbs, achiote, sacha cilantro, and sacha oregano. Amazonian fish are cooked with a sauce of cocona fruit.”

Peru’s culinary revolution over the past two decades hasn’t exactly helped preserve traditional Amazonian cooking. García is bothered at how Peruvian culinary schools don’t teach Amazonian cuisine. One exception are the students from Pachacútec, a culinary school in a shantytown outside of Lima founded by Gastón Acurio, as the students come to La Patarashca’s stand at Parque Amistad in Lima asking about suri, the palm weevil grub, and how to cook it. However, most culinary schools in Peru overlook the Amazon completely. Students want to learn to make ceviche or sushi, but they ignore their identity. Some are ashamed by it when they study on the coast. When they come back to Tarapoto they cook anything but traditional food. In a region where local foodways are integral to the preservation of a highly vulnerable ecosystem, this is dangerous.

“The kitchen of every pueblo is their identity,” she says. “We have immense diversity in Peru. They don’t place enough value in it.”

Tarapoto isn’t like many other Amazonian cities that grew because of an industry, whether it was rubber, oil, or lumber. In those places the natives live far away from the city. Tarapoto lacks a central industry, so it has preserved its culture more than others. The region has been fortunate that much of the land surrounding the city has been untouched. While deforestation is growing, as it is in much of the Peruvian Amazon, small scale agricultural projects are too.

“How long has cacao been sleeping?” asks García. “Now look what we have.”

Throughout the region in places where coca once grew, cacao has taken its place. At higher altitudes, artisanal coffee farmers are improving their techniques to fulfill a surging demand for better beans. There are aquaculture projects, like Amazone in Yurimaguas, where an enormous prehistoric fish called paiche (Arapaima gigas) is being sustainably farm raised and exported throughout the United States and sold at Whole Foods. Even obscure regional superfoods are getting discovered.

Macambo (Theobroma bicolor) was trash,” García tells me about the fiber rich seed that is often used in indigenous cooking in the region. “You would have to kick them out of your way just to walk through the forest. Now it has value and you can’t find them at all.”

Still, many are gravitating towards a few ingredients. There are 40 ajies, or chile peppers, in the department of San Martín, though only ten are registered and only a few are used. There are lots of other, fruits, tubers, herbs, and seeds that are being lost. Farmers are growing what they can sell, and what they can sell becomes more narrow every day.

In Chazuta, a small Lamista Quechua village 60 km south of Tarapoto, we enter into a small thatched wall house a few blocks from the Río Huallaga. There’s a woman there, Marie Elena,  that expressed interest to García about working with cacao and she has been helping her develop different products with it. They are cutting cacao pulp into noodles to eat like pasta. Cacao fruit is being made into a cream. Raw cacao without any sugar or chemicals added, are wrapped in tinfoil like bonbons and some have toasted macambo seeds within. They’re 50 centavos each. There’s a cream for mosquito bites made of sangre de toro and beeswax. They’re making achiote paste and selling it to Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s Lima restaurant, Amaz.

“You’re the first Chazuta woman I’ve met like you and it makes me happy,” García tells her. Marie Elena blushes. García regularly communicates with cooks and small vendors in the region, so seeing anyone take initiative gives her enormous pleasure. “Chazuta needs to promote these recipes,” she says. “You don’t realize you have the food of the gods.”

García is intent on developing gastronomic tourism here. Through La Patarashca they offer day tours to the town, though making a profit isn’t her main concern. There are few jobs in Chazuta, so most young people end up in Tarapoto. It’s like this all over the region. Oil and lumber – destructive occupations – are flush with cash. Yet, culture in Chazuta is strong and there are more tourists coming here every day to experience it. Maybe it can be the better opportunity?

Up a small hill, passing a small, dusty museum of Pre-Inca funerary urns that are one of Chazuta’s claims to fame, we meet with the women of Mishki Cacao. This small chocolate cooperative began in 2009 with 11 women, though some eventually dropped out for financial reasons. Before farming organic cacao, they grew coca. As coca was becoming eradicated, cacao was introduced as an alternative. They started small, even grinding the beans on a batán, a stone mortar. They entered a contest and won a prize of 30,000 soles. Everything was invested right back into the business and eventually Astrid Gustche and USAID donated some equipment too. They built a small lab laboratory with a grain roaster, peeling machine, and cooling table. They have the right pieces to make great chocolate and it continues to improve. They add macambo in some bars and also make a syrup from cacao mucilage that can be used as a glaze for meats.

“The biggest obstacle now is just getting the word out,” Luz Maria, one of the women, told me.

Back down by the river we go to the house of Blanca Vela, who runs a small restaurant dedicated to preserving the recipes of her ancestors. She makes timbuche, a river water broth where finger-sized fish are slow cooked in a clay pot for hours with sacha culantro, an Amazonian herb related to cilantro. She serves it with singinguiri, roasted plantain, which goes with every meal. She knows a lot about macambo and what to do with it. More than anyone, García says. She boils it. Toasts it. Makes it into a paste like peanut butter. She tells me of the frejoles Amazonicos, the colorful jungle legumes of which there are many varieties.

“When the river drops and you can see the ancient writing on the rocks, they can be picked in the shallows,” she says.

The more time I spend with García the more I realize that traditional Amazonian cuisine is as diverse as the area’s ecology, which is the opposite of what many in the South American culinary community think. It’s just not easy to find. Indigenous recipes and cooking techniques, like how the communities of Cocamas and Chayahuitas cook the hualo (giant frog) inside bamboo, aren’t what you find in Tarapoto restaurants that serve regional cuisine. Instead, there’s tacacho, plantains that are mashed with a wooden mortar and formed into a ball with bits of pork. Tacacho is usually served with a slab of cecina, dried and salted pork.

At Suchiche, a café and cultural center run by Cindy Reategui, García’s daughter, there’s Amazonian sushi and a mix of Amazonian and national comfort foods, as well as cocktails using local fruits. There are a few restaurants with some recipes similar to La Patarashca too, like Doña Zully, with cecina, juanes, and grilled fish, though half of their menus are pork and beef. There are ice cream shops like Heladería Fruta y Café, which has ice creams made with 40 or so different local flavors, you’ll find ingredients like shica shica, umarí, ungurahui, taperiba, pijuayo, humarí, and pomarrosa. At a small park on the outskirts of town, a handful of open-air grills light up the nights. It’s crude and rustic, everything goes over the flame: regional chorizos, piraña, gamitana, cecina, juanes, chicken hearts, chicken feet, bananas. It’s all crowded together and set on tables lined with bijao leaves.

In Tarapoto’s market you get a better sense of what is actually being eaten in Amazonian kitchens.  There are piles of local ají, bars of pure cacao, and stalls full of regional liquors infused with herbs and roots. Old women peel the maroon scales off of aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), a palm fruit high in vitamin A and beta carotene, putting the orange pulp in plastic bags to be used at home for juice or sauces. Much of the fish at the market has come from long distances without refrigeration, so it has been salted and dried, either the entire fish or slabs of flesh that have been rolled and piled on top of each other. There are purple jars of pickled onions and ají charapita, a fragrant, spicy relish to be used with grilled fish or meats.

I spend the following days exploring Tarapoto and visiting nearby communities. On the Río Huallaga, there was a fishing village where half of the community was stranded in a makeshift tent camp on the other side of the river. They had to just wait it out. It would probably be days. Some tried tossing nets in the water but the current was too fast to catch anything. Usually the river didn’t get this high, but climate patterns have been difficult to predict in recent years. Overall the region is drying out, though periods of intense rains still occur.

With García’s husband, César Reategui del Aguila, I go to Lamas, a town founded by a group of Chanka warriors from the Andes who were defeated by Inca ruler Pachacútec and fled with their leader, Ankoallo. They still speak a dialect of Quechua and their dress is more Andean than Amazonian. After stops along Tarapoto’s newly created Ruta del Cacao, like a processing facility and Finca Ecoperlacha, an experimental farm where Hidérico Bocangel is testing 15 varieties of cacao, we go to the native community of El Huayco. There’s a small plaza with craft shops, but no one is around. Not far away we see a line of women carrying ceramic pots of water on their head along the road. César asks what is going on and we learn that one of the elders had died. They invite us in.

The women are mostly in the kitchen. Dozens of chickens are killed and old women are plucking the feathers and cutting them into pieces. Some parts are grilled alongside fish, while and others are tossed into large pots set directly into wood fires. Other women are grinding yuca in a wooden tray, while others wrap it with chicken in bijao leaves to make juanes. The man’s son approaches and tells us of his father and that he’s happy we came. More than a funeral, it is a celebration of life. We’re poured glasses of chicha de jora, fermented maize beer, and toast to a man we never knew.