There aren’t that many places left in the world where humans haven’t attempted to “modernize” the food systems. But on a trip to the Peruvian Amazon, rest assured you will find no McDonalds, no Starbucks—but what you will find instead is an abundance of delicious traditional rain forest foods that can be hunted or gathered. While you may think you’re signing up for a river cruise to see pink freshwater dolphins or giant lily pads, the unique and unforgettable food of the Amazon is often the surprise highlight for our guests!
Eating local isn’t so much a choice here as it is a necessity. To put things into perspective, Iquitos, the large main town of the Peruvian Amazon, is fairly inaccessible by car. To try to reach Iquitos with a car requires five days by boat from the access road for a vehicle (meaning, basically, that the main way to get to Iquitos is to fly there). No wonder the locals eat what is readily available, especially when what is readily available is so healthy. Often the superfoods travelers would pay top dollar for in a health food store are found here in abundance. Of course, because of their reliance on gathering from the forest or fishing the river, diets vary depending on exact location.
Just imagine yourself coming back from a day of seeing squirrel monkeys, colorful macawsand sloths to a spread of these adventurous food options, many of which may await you on our beautiful river cruiser, the Delfin II.
What is pretty simple in concept is somehow incredibly complex in flavor. Juane is a traditional Peruvian dish of lightly seasoned rice coating a piece of juicy chicken, half an egg and a single olive. All of that is wrapped up in an aromatic bijao leaf (which looks like a banana leaf) and slowly steamed in clay pots. Juane is commonly sold in the local markets and on the street and enjoyed by locals for pretty much any meal of the day.
If you’re expecting salads made from big leafy greens of lettuce, fair warning that it’s probably not happening. Salads here are often made from a base of delicately shredded palm hearts (called chonta) and sometimes dressed with a light mayonnaise-based drizzle. Don’t underestimate it! Just because it’s not complicated with a bunch of ingredients doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely sumptuous comfort food. A few of these and you’ll be wondering how you lived without this food in your life before.
Requiring skill and timing, this dish is best enjoyed right off the grill. A piece of fresh river fish is marinated in a tomato and onion sauce, then wrapped in those super handy bijao leaves and grilled. The result is crispy and succulent and well worth waiting for.
Smoked Cecina With Tacacho and Patacones
Smoked cecina is like a bacon of dried, smoked pork made with traditional spices from the jungle, with a side of mashed banana balls called tacacho. The dish is completed with fried banana chips called patacones. If you’re lucky, it might come with a “please oh please keep that coming!” dip of lightly spiced diced onion, cocona fruit and lime.
Given the sheer size of the Amazon River and its tributaries, it’s not surprising that freshwater fish forms the main source of protein in Amazonian cuisine. The fish you eat here will always be fresh and will make it to your plate in various forms, either grilled, skewered with yucca plant, fried, steamed or blended into sauces or stews. A must-try is paiche, also known as arapaima, the largest freshwater fish of South America. They regularly reach up to 6.5 feet in length and easily weigh 45 pounds!
Piranha is also widely available and pretty easy (and exciting!) to catch in quantity. The taste isn’t very exotic (think bluegill or sunfish), and they do come with quite a few bones to deal with, but overall, if you’re a fish eater, it’s all part of a memorable Amazon experience.
Other Meats and Nuts
The indigenous people of the Amazon rain forest are skilled hunters working with traps, bows and arrows and blow darts. Birds, wild boars, even insects and bugs are considered delicacies, but when visiting, you’re unlikely to be served meals made with wild game, as it’s typically reserved for community members and/or isn’t usually palatable to most foreigners. If you really want to try some exotic treats, you can usually find skewers of grubs or dishes made with giant snails at the Iquitos market. If you’re vegetarian and looking for extra protein and healthy fats, cashew nuts and Brazil nuts can usually be sourced.
The most commercially-hyped fruit of the Amazon rain forest is the acai berry. It became famous abroad as a “super food” for its potential health benefits. It is the fruit of a wild palm tree and is one of the most nutritious berries in the world, containing a large number of antioxidants, Omega 6 and 9 fatty acids, anthocyanins and extraordinarily high levels of vitamins A and C.
This powerhouse of a fruit provides about 50 times more vitamin C than oranges! It grows wild in flooded alluvial soils during the rainy season and is usually consumed as a tangy but easy-to-drink juice.
Aguajina juice is often considered more “interesting” than tasty. It’s made from a bright yellow fruit called aguaje that is covered with dark maroon scales with a taste somewhat similar to a carrot. Usually the juice is only offered to women, due to its very high natural phytoestrogen content. Despite the benefits, it just doesn’t go down as easily as a passion fruit (known locally as maracuja) or camu camu juice. It’s a bit oily, but it’s unique and a definite cultural experience if you have the opportunity to try it!
And for those of you interested in celebrating your Great Amazon River Expedition cruise with a sunset alcoholic drink on the deck of the Delfin II, a pisco sour is where it’s at. Pisco is Peru’s famous national brandy (even though Chile also likes to take national credit for this drink). The sour refers to the fact that it is mixed with citrus, traditionally lemon or lime, then it’s all blended together with a sweetener. Depending on where you are and who is making the drink, a small amount of egg white might be added. You’ve been warned: while this cocktail tastes like nothing more than yummy lemonade, it packs a punch.
Has your interest been piqued and your tummy sufficiently tempted? Consider joining us for a Peruvian expedition to explore the wildlife, culture and cuisine of the most biodiverse region of the Amazon Basin.