Photo Essay: The Mercado de Belén in Iquitos, Peru : New Worlder

This is Part IV 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.

The Mercado de Belén in Iquitos changes every day. Every hour really. Being the only large settlement in the Peruvian Amazon, a vast array of flora and fauna, some of it rare and endangered, is being noisily driven in by peke-peke’s (motorized canoes) and on overloaded riverboats that start the journey downriver as far as a week away and pick up a little something at every village they pass. Some foraged fruits may only appear for weeks or even days at a time. Parts of the market can flood as the tide rolls in too, depending on the time of the year. Houses in the adjoining neighborhood of Belén are built on balsa wood so when the water from the Itaya River is high, and for much of the year it is, the village floats.

Iquitos is an island surrounded by the Amazon, Itaya, and Nanay rivers with no roads connecting it to the rest of the world. Low cost airlines reach the city daily from Lima, but it still feels closed off and otherworldly. A series of booms and busts – rubber, oil, drugs – have shaped the city in a strange way, leaving restaurants filled with azulejo tiles and a giant hotel tower near the main plaza abandoned for decades. There’s ironwork throughout the city designed by the firm of Gustav Eiffel. There’s strange psychedelic music like chicha, a form of Amazonian cumbia that developed in the 1960s. Ecolodges, river cruises, and ayahuasca are bringing more tourists to Iquitos every day, however, food has begun to bring in visitors as well. Nearly every Peruvian chef with any interest in Amazonian ingredients began their understanding of rainforest biodiversity by coming to the Mercado de Belén.

As you enter the market area you are hit with heady smells that come and go with the wind. There are brief moments of the sweet smells of passionfruit and oranges, then there will a waft of animal flesh decaying in the sun. Death and decomposition follow your every step. The sight of butchered armadillos and rare creatures like Dusky Titi monkeys and Keel Billed toucans in small, filthy cages cause you to question humanity. Women donning aprons are snapping the necks of chickens and intestines are being pulled out of pigs. Everyone is shouting, trying to sell something: jungle tobacco rolled up in pieces of newspaper; turtle eggs; pink Hannah Montana backpacks. It’s intense. An overload of the senses.

Aguaje is, like açaí, a superfruit, but one that’s virtually unknown outside of the Peruvian Amazon. It comes from the moriche palm, native to the region. Called buriti in Brazil, it’s similar in size to an egg and covered in purple scales that when removed reveal a bright yellow-orange flesh that surrounds a large seed. This pulp is extremely rich in essential fatty acids and has a high vitamin A and C content. Vendors usually scrape the scales off in the market, selling just the pulp, which is used most often in juices, jams, sorbets, and various desserts.

While farm raised paiche (Arapaima gigas), also called pirarucu in Brazil and sold through Whole Foods in the United States, has taken pressure off endangered native populations, the dried and salted meat of wild fish still makes its way to the Mercado de Belén on a regular basis. Sun-drying and salting the firm white flesh, then rolling it, is the traditional method of preservation and trade throughout the region. It’s used much like salt cod.

Various, herbs, flowers, roots, barks, and vines are sold from a row of stalls selling traditional medicines. Many ailments from everyday indigenous life in the jungle can be cured with these tinctures and increasingly chefs are finding ways to use them for their culinary properties, such as dyes, sweeteners, and thickeners.

Marañón seeds, better known as cashews in the U.S. or caju in Brazil, stick out from the so called cashew apple, which isn’t a true fruit but a hypocarpium that develops from the pedicel of the tree’s flowera. Growing on the seed rather than vice versa, the cashew apple doesn’t travel far, though cashew nuts do, which is why it’s rarely found outside of where it grows. The fruit is eaten fresh or drank in juices, used to make preserves, or fermented to make alcohol.

Suri, also called mojojoy in Colombia or maguire in Venezuela, is a white grub that lives in trunks of the same tree that produces aguaje. If you get the right tree you can scoop them out by the handful. Usually they are skewered and grilled, but this dries out the insides and they lose their flavor. In Iquitos, suri are also boiled in water and their own natural juices. You can buy three for one sol, or about thirty cents. When you bite into the boiled suri the innards, which have a consistency and flavor of warm melted butter, explodes into your mouth. The rest is sort of rubbery until the head, which is crunchy, bitter, and shatter into tiny fragments that tasted a little like sand and stick to the back of your throat.

More than 250 species of fish can be found in the rivers, lakes, and lagoons outside of Iquitos. While most fish is caught by small scale fishermen, overfishing is problematic.

In markets like Belén throughout the Upper Amazon, the carichama (Pseudorinelepis genibarbis) are often found being grilled whole in market stalls or it’s taken home and cooked in the timbuche or chilcano, traditional stews from the region with sachaculantro and banana. From the Loricaridae family (armored catfishes), the carachama plays in important role in the ecology of the Amazon basin, as it feeds off rotting wood and the insects found in it. While over-fishing in some areas is problematic, pollution in the shallow, swampy water it lives in is an even bigger concern.

The papa voladora (Dioscorea trifida), aka flying potato or sachapapa, is named as such as it grows on a vine, suspended in the air. It comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors like white, purple, or black. A type of yam, they are covered in small hairs and have a strange waxy texture.

While sustainably managed caiman hunting programs can be found in Bolivia and farm raised caiman is common in Brazil, the caiman tails sold in the Mercado de Belén are primarily illegal. While indigenous communities have permission to hunt and eat wild game, the sale of it is not allowed. Still, endangered wildlife can be found butchered throughout the market, including sloths, tapirs, peccaries, agoutis, and the yellow-footed tortoise. As this bush meat is used in traditional regional dishes, authorities often turn a blind eye to the sale of it. Other rare species like pygmy marmosets and tamarin monkeys are brought here and sold as pets. Some are purchased and sent to Lima, where nine out of every ten die en route, according the the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) is a cherry sized acidic fruit native to the Amazonian lowlands that has more Vitamin C than any other fruit. The fruit, which turns from green to red or purple when ripe, grows on evergreen shrubs that grow along riverbanks in Amazonian lowlands and is extremely tolerant to flooding. The pinkish juice of the camu camu is extremely acidic, which is why it’s usually watered down wherever you find it in Iquitos. Over-harvesting of wild camu camu is threatening the species, though commercial operations are expanding quickly as it gets shipped overseas to be added in energy drinks and sold as a powder in health food stores.

Giant Amazonian snails called churos are harvested by indigenous groups by canoe while the river is flooded, picking them off the trees after they have laid their eggs. Restaurants such as Maido and Amaz in Lima have found ways of incorporating these snails in fine dining.

Aside of the small yellow ají charapita, very few Amazonian chile peppers are found outside of the region. Most are quite spicy, but also very fragrant.

Most of the waste, both organic remains of fruits and vegetables and plastic bags and other packaging, gets swept to the corners of the market, eventually finding its way into the river.