Tourists go to Peru to visit the “must-see” ancient city of Machu Picchu, one of the best-known World Heritage sites, that sits in a valley between two peaks in the Andes. The Spanish conquerors failed to find this intricately engineered “lost city” of the Incans, abandoned during the early 16th century. It wasn’t discovered until 1911 when a Peruvian guide brought a Yale professor up the mountainside to see this amazing achievement, with over 700 agricultural terraces fed by an extensive irrigation system, — all created without iron, steel or wheels!
The Incan empire, predating the arrival of Europeans into the Americas, flourished from 1200 AD to the early 1500s until the time of the Spanish colonialization. The Incans, also known as the American Indians of Peru, managed and farmed a huge territory throughout South America with their capital city in Cusco (located in southeastern Peru). Textbooks say that more than half of the foods we grow in the world had their beginnings on the Incan terraces of the Andes.
Recent discoveries support that the start of civilization in South America was powered by farming and agriculture. Like other ancient world powers, grain was the common element because it was easy to grow and store. The Incans were a rich agricultural society and their diet was mostly vegetarian. Corn was the staple. Grinding beans with sweet potatoes and other tubers and vegetables was common practice to provide balanced nutrition. Meat was primarily llama and alpaca. Poor Incans ate guinea pigs. Today, when you visit the food markets in Peru, you still see people selling roasted guinea pigs. Many of the indigenous families have caged guinea pigs and feed them until plump and ready for cooking!
Cooked guinea pigs at a food market near Cusco
When visiting Peru, don’t miss a visit to the city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It is in this region where you can experience truly authentic Peruvian cuisine and sample more than seven ancient super-foods that were known to provide energy and sustenance for the labor-intensive life of the Incan warriors and farmers of long ago.
1. Chicha or “corn beer” is a beverage made from corn and typically fermented, although there are also non-fermented varieties. Chicha morada is made from Peruvian purple corn. Depending on the region, fruits, grains and tubers are used to make chicha. One local Peruvian chicha bar simmers purple corncobs with pineapple rinds, limejuice, cinnamon and cloves. Chicha is still consumed during and after work to maintain a festive mood.
An indigenous farmer drinking chicha while he works on his farm in the Sacred Valley
2. Maca powder is made from a root vegetable grown in the Andes. It is said to be an aphrodisiac and is known as “natural Viagra”. Peruvian folklore claims that maca aids menopausal symptoms and infertility. There is some evidence that maca increases sperm count in men but the mechanism is unknown.
Assorted offerings at a market in Lima
3. Kiwicha, like quinoa, is a small seed high in fiber, protein and is also gluten-free. Both quinoa and kiwicha date back to Incan times. Because the kiwicha seed is smaller than quinoa’s, it’s referred to as “mini quinoa”. It is often popped and used as a cereal, topping or protein filler. Kiwicha is also called amaranth.
4. Purple potatoes are pest resistant, rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin and contain high amounts of vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates. The Incans grew thousands of varieties of colorful potatoes because they provided an excellent source of energy and nutrition during long journeys and wars. Over 99 percent of all cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of South American heirloom potatoes.
Cooked heirloom potatoes in Cusco
5. Golden berries are a smooth, yellow, round berry that look similar to small cherry tomatoes, except that they are sweet on the outside with small, slightly citrus-tasting seeds on the inside. Dried golden berries are also found in specialty food markets. They contain protein, bioflavonoids, vitamins C, B and A and soluble fiber. There are so many native South American fruits that it would require an entire book to describe them!
6. Peruvian or Cusco corn, also known as choclo, is very different than corn eaten in most parts of the world. It has large kernels and is chewier, starchier and less sweet than the corn we eat in the US, UK and Europe. It is not genetically modified or hybridized and difficult to find outside of South America.
7. Mashua is an easy growing tuber that is so disease resistant that farmers plant it with other crops as a natural way to repel insects and bacteria. It is known to have medicinal properties, including acting as a diuretic. Studies have shown that mashua has male contraceptive properties and may even help to prevent cancer.
Inca Food Trivia:
1) Several varieties of beans are native to South America including the common lima bean.
Do you think that the capital city of Peru, Lima, is named after the lima bean?
Answer: Even though lima (sounds like lyma) bean is pronounced differently than the capital city Lima (sounds like Leema), the bean was named after the city.
For more reading about the diet and lifestyles of ancient cultures, pick up a copy of Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, Dec 2013, published by WorldRD®, available online and in book stores.