When planning a trek along Peru’s Inca trail, I certainly did not realize that I was in for such a fresh and wild culinary adventure. Lining the luscious green trail during rainy season were a bounty of avocados, mangos, bananas, and coffee beans. There’s nothing like the ripest, juicy mango to accompany a tough hike.
While some of the plants encountered are native to the region and grow in the wild, families who live in the mountains maintain most of the fruitful trees we crossed. Local Peruvians use a healthy way of farming in the forest, planting a wide variety of flora rather than clearing an expanse of forest for monoculture planting (planting and farming only a single crop). Planting a wide diversity of crops, polyculture, in wild forest is accepted by many ecologists as a sustainable way of farming, as opposed to monoculture, which often leaches nutrients from the soil.
After a few seasons of a monocultured crop, soil often becomes too unhealthy to sustain life again. When exploring Peruvian cloud forest, be sure to appreciate the local’s farming techniques, and keep the following checklist at hand so that you don’t miss a single sweet taste.
Avocados (las paltas in Peruvian Spanish):
A variety of avocados grow in the cloud forest along the Inca trail. Hass avocados are common, and it is thought that they were carried down the Pacific coast from Central America by the Incas. Hass avocados have the darkest of all avocado skin and are a small variety. They are described as having a rich, nutty flavor. In Peru you may also encounter Fuerte or Reed avocados, which are often large with bright green skin. These avocados are sweet, rather than rich in taste. All avocados are high in protein and contain good, unsaturated fats for your diet. They are also high in fiber, as well as vitamins A, C and E.
Everyone knows how deliciously juicy mangos are, making them a favorite choice by many people worldwide. On a hot day, the freshest of all mangos is utter heaven. Mango trees we encountered were covered in a bounty of green mangos, so ripe ones stuck out to the eye like a ruby amongst emeralds. In addition to being high in vitamins, mangos are also thought to increase immunity to colon, breast, and prostate cancers. An experimental eater can try eating the peel, which is high in antioxidants.
Many of the banana palm trees sprouting across South America yield small, sweet bananas rather than the long ones we are accustomed to buying from stores in the United States. In South America there are actually a variety of names in place to distinguish between bananas and plantains that grow there. Wild banana trees provide inedible fruits, so all of the bananas consumed by humans are a domesticated species. Each tree can only produce one bunch of bananas, after which the tree will die. Bananas burst from a beautiful maroon-purple flower, considered the heart of the fruit. Each heart contains a few hands, or tier groupings. Each hand contains up to 20 fingers, or the individual sweet bananas.
The coca plant is harvested for tea, amongst other mysterious things. Andean cultures have been growing and chewing coca leaves for decades, until recently when Peruvian government began to carefully monitor coca production. According to our guide, the Peruvian state buys and distributes all coca leaves in the country, and where all the coca goes is debatable. Our guide discussed rumors of continuous vending to the Coca-Cola Company, as well as the possibility that the government is making big bucks in selling coca leaves for cocaine production. Nonetheless, when in the Andes, one must enjoy local coca tea. The tea is mild in taste, delightful when mixed with instant coffee, is a natural reliever of altitude sickness, and in high quantities may even stimulate its consumer.
In addition to coca, cocoa also fruits on trees in Peru. Cocoa beans grow in a large, yellow pod that hangs from its tree. The cocoa beans are protected by a sweet white substance that can be enjoyed in its natural state. Cocoa beans, on the other hand, don’t taste so delightful raw. Some hill families harvest cocoa, ferment it, dry it, and coat the beans in a sugar cover to make tasty chocolate beans. I recommend both the fruity white substance in the cocoa pod, as well as freshly dried cocoa beans.
Of course coffee is grown throughout South America. When traipsing through Peruvian jungle, you are likely to cross the path of vibrant coffee trees as they photosynthesize and reach toward the sun. Coffee is commonly served in Peru as a dense coffee bean extract, placed on tables in exquisite glass pitchers. This extract is then combined with hot water when one desires a caffeinated drink (many foreigners seem to agree that this coffee is not so satisfying!). As with many other parts of South America, instant coffee is also commonplace. Why the region grows such enormous quantities of beans for export, but drinks low quality coffee, is quite a mystery. The beans can be seen clinging to branches in their raw green form, before being dried and roasted.