Five years ago I spent three months volunteering with crees [website] in the Amazon Rainforest in Peru. I’ve written a bit about it before, here and here, but today I’m going to make myself hungry by writing about all the great stuff we ate (and drank) while I was there. I know this intro has fewer jokes than a politician’s funeral but without further ado, let’s get started:
1. Inca Kola
The Incas achieved a remarkable amount when they were around, but their cola, created 300 years before Coke came in and stole the show, trumps the lot. I mean, Machu Picchu was nice and all, but I hiked up there and looked out over the lost city of the Incas built on top of a mountain, a miracle of engineering and architecture and one of the pinnacles of human achievement, and I sat down against a wall, throat parched, and thought to myself, “damn, I didn’t bring an Inca Kola with me. Bummer.” That fact ruined the moment, which sums up my love of Inca Kola. It’s the best soda ever created.
That’s what Inca Kola looks like. It tastes like bubblegum or cream soda; intensely sweet and full of enough E-numbers to make a coma patient wake up and waltz out of hospital. Because of that, it’s not to everyone’s liking, perhaps a taste for children and for adults who still like going to the circus.
[for those who thought they actually learned something there, no, the Incas didn’t invent Inca Kola.]
2. Dulce de leche (especially on pancakes at breakfast.)
Breakfast has always been my favourite meal of the day. Whether it’s a greasy fry-up or a gloopy bowl of porridge to make your tummy feel warm and fuzzy, breakfast sets the tone of the day — if all you can get is a bowl of stale cornflakes with old milk, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that today you’re going to lose your keys down a drain or your car will break down or your puppy will be strangled by the psycho that lives next door. Something bad will happen.
Thankfully, in the jungle we often had pancakes for breakfast, served with dulce de leche, which translates literally as “sweet milk” or “milk candy”. It’s made by slowly heating milk and adding a ton of sugar and is popular throughout South America, although why it’s not ubiquitous in every country in the world I don’t know; it’s so damn tasty.
Purple. Boiled. Corn. Doesn’t sound great, does it? But throw in some cinnamon, pineapple, ice and lemon, and you’ve got yourself the tastiest drink this side of your local liquor store. It’s also ridiculously healthy (although, unlike alcohol, it won’t grant you the sudden ability to hold a conversation in a language you don’t speak). This random site I found says Peruvian purple corn “contains 4 to 11 times more antioxidents [sic] than blueberries”, but that’s an incredibly vague amount and the fact they can’t spell antioxidants properly suggests they’re less reliable than an electric car powered by energy-saving lightbulbs.
When I first arrived at the Manu Learning Centre in the Amazon, after a long ride from Cusco by bus and boat, it was stiflingly hot and humid, but there was an ice-cold pitcher of chicha morada waiting for us. And after long afternoons working in our biogarden, or chopping cañabrava across the river, or exploring jungle trails (sidestepping a few sleeping snakes here and there), arriving home to that ice-cold pitcher was like being told by a doctor that, no, that Scouse girl you hooked up with on a drunken night out didn’t in fact you give you any venereal disease; it made a hard, stressful day so much better.
4. Coca (leaf and tea)
If anyone ever says to you, “try this tea; it’s the best”, they’re lying unless they’re talking about mate de coca. Sure, some British purists might swear by Earl Grey, Moroccans have their mint tea, Asia in general its chai, but Andean coca tea is by far the superior product. As you probably know, the coca leaf is the base form of cocaine, but no, drinking coca tea doesn’t make you a coke-junkie, although coca tea is illegal anywhere outside of Latin America and Wikipedia assures me that even one cup of the tea will make you fail a drugs test.
Some of the locals also chewed the coca leaf itself, as a replacement for eating regular food. They chewed it all day, swapping out the leaves for fresh ones every now and then. A few of us tried it too, but I don’t know if you’ve ever tried chewing leaves for an extended period of time (if you have, please stay away from me, you freak), but it’s just as uncomfortable and gross as you can imagine, like chewing gum if the gum was coarse and bulky and tasted like tree. Wrigley’s, if you’re reading, don’t get any ideas.
5. Snacks (sugar cane, red bananas, termites)
In the jungle, we had the chance to try various edible things we stumbled across. On one of our monthly expeditions, we visited the Queros tribe. I’m not sure “tribe” is politically correct these days but I’m too lazy to type out “indigenous Amazonian community” every time. This indigenous Amazo– no, fuck it, not doing it. The tribe showed us around their land — scrappy huts, a half built oblong building made out of bamboo that was apparently a school, a fish farm, as well as lots of crops, including sugar cane and a tree providing tiny red bananas (this was 5 years ago but I’m certain they were red bananas, although Google seems to think red bananas are an Australian thing).
Besides sugar cane and red bananas, we also ate a few termites. Like, right off the tree. We pulled one off and just…ate it. Then repeat ad nauseam, which in this case was quite literal, and happened after about three ‘mites. That’s really all there is to it. If that sounds like part of a healthy diet, by all means ditch your braised pork loins, your seafood medleys, and your hazelnut and pistachio roast turnip cupcakes, and head to Peru and the Amazon Rainforest. You’d love it.
For more about food in South America, check out the all you can eat restaurants in Buenos Aires (featuring a loud American called Tom) or this restaurant in New Orleans in which I ate alligator (and may or may not have done something else).