If you happen to grab a bite in Peru’s Amazonian region and come across plates of yellowish balls served all around you, don’t panic! It’s nothing out of the ordinary, just one of the most wonderful dishes Peruvian cuisine ever invented. Served in every village, town and city in the jungle, tacacho is part of a strong gastronomic tradition that still remains a secret to the rest of the world. Although Peru has been enjoying a culinary boom for the past few years, its Amazonian region hasn’t gathered much international attention. However, it’s a solid gastronomic identity simply craving to be discovered.
Demerara. That word alone is infectious. It’s derived from the Arawak language, meaning “river of the letter wood.” It sounds exotic. It is exotic. Demerara is a place, among other things related to that place. It’s a region of Guyana founded by the Dutch. There’s a river, also called Demerara. There are fields of sugarcane lined with canals where herons and egrets wade. The air is sweet smelling. It smells of forests. And the Caribbean, which is not far away.
The uncontacted tribes of the Amazon basin are a reality that many regional governments would prefer not to be true. The existence of these highly susceptible indigenous groups – found in the most remote reaches of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela – prevents the miners, loggers, and oil from removing the valuable resources that are becoming increasingly easier to extract. While they are protected under international law, the enforcement of those laws is loose at best, shifting with every change in government. Some governments go as far to say that because they are unseen, that the tribes are fictional creations by environmentalists that want to hamper the development of rainforests. Proving that the tribes, who voluntarily choose to be in isolation, do exist without threatening them even more so than they already are is a complicated tasks, as the book The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace attests.
Growing to almost 500 pounds, paiche is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. The Amazonian fish is now appearing on restaurant menus worldwide, which could help save the species.
I was in the Brazilian Amazon not long ago and on my plate, stuck into a piece of decoration fruit, was this little, pea sized, yellow bean. I thought it was a piece of the fruit and poked the bean on my fork and put it into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. It was fragrant, a little fruity, and then the earth shattered and my head exploded. Within seconds I was choking and tears were flowing out of my eyes. It took about ten minutes to recover. Seriously that hot. I had to ask the waitress how you were supposed to eat it. She explained that you just sort of squeeze it with your fork and get a tiny bit of the juice on it and then mix it in whatever you were eating to add some spice (in my case it was fish and rice).
The largest city in the world not connected by roads is a hotbed of interesting restaurants and markets. Peru’s Amazonian capital is a good place to sample the oddities and range of the region’s fruits, vegetables, meats, and traditional plates along with several rather bizarre takes on North American restaurants.
A list of native Peruvian fruits and their uses: Camu Camu, Lucuma, Aguaje, Sauco, the Peruvian Lime, Aguaymanto, Chirimoya, Tumbo, Cocona
Peru’s culinary boom has spread to more remote parts of the country and more Amazonian chefs are returning from cooking schools and high-end restaurants in Lima tot heir birthplace. Iquitos is the natural choice for the center of the Amazon’s new culinary boom: it has gone through several major booms and busts in the past century (rubber, oil, drug trade) where great wealth has come and gone that it is one of the Amazon’s more cosmopolitan cities. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Lima’s Malabar, one of the city’s great chefs and one of two South American chefs known for their explorations of Amazonian cuisine (Alex Atala in Sao Paolo is the other) has been actively involved in pushing local producers to produce premium products and encourage local chefs to look deeper.
On a post not far from my table a Kingfisher sits for a moment and then flutters off. Off in the distance closer to the shore a white egret stands zen-like. When I came by boat to Al Frio y al Fuego, a thatched roof restaurant in the middle of the Itaya river near Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, the clouds were dark and raindrops bounced across the murky water. Now the sun was out and the restaurants turquoise pool was sparkling and inviting though I didn’t think to bring my trunks.
In Ecuador guanta de monte is just another name for Paca, or Agouti paca. It’s a large rodent, not as large as a capybara that lives off the forest floor, eating fallen fruit, leaves, and tubers. In parts of the Amazon, it’s food. In Coca, where Francisco de Orellana set off on his journey across the Amazon in 1541, sidewalk stalls – some of the best places to eat in town – serve guanta in Salsa de maní – a peanut sauce (sometimes called gordo de maní ) that originated in the province of Manabí. PRice with a with a heaping pile of rice and a grilled banana = $1.50.