I’m gazing at one of the world’s most iconic archaeological sites – Machu Picchu. This ancient Incan citadel, perched atop a steep ridge overlooking the Urubamba River valley, is not only visually stunning but also is a remarkable feat of engineering with the mountain remodelled for growing superfoods.

In particular, the intricate cultivation terraces stand as a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the ancient Incan civilization. The Inca employed a technique known as “andenería,” which involved building stepped terraces with varying levels of exposure to sunlight and microclimates. This allowed them to cultivate a diverse range of crops, including maize, potatoes, amaranth and quinoa.

While these Andean superfoods have been a cornerstone of indigenous cuisine for centuries, they have also found their way into modern culinary practices, both in Peru and beyond. Chefs and food enthusiasts around the world are incorporating these nutrient-rich ingredients into innovative dishes that celebrate their unique flavours and nutritional benefits.

You can sample this culinary excellence in Lima, Peru’s capital, by dining at one of the many Michelin starred restaurants such as Cosme. Even better you can learn how to cook Peruvian at the Urban Kitchen and taste the results after your lesson. But go to the Andean heartlands, around Cusco, where the ancient food traditions of the Incas still live on, to discover the real thing.

Lima International Potato Centre.

I start my culinary journey at the International Potato Centre, founded in 1971 just outside Lima. Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, the Inca Empire had mastered the cultivation of potatoes, originating in the Andean Highlands. They cultivated numerous varieties, adapting them to thrive in different altitudes and climates across their vast empire.

Today Peru boasts an astonishing array of potato varieties, with over 4,000 distinct types cultivated across its diverse landscapes. The International Potato Centre’s gene bank houses one of the world’s largest collections of potato varieties. This is a crucial resource not only for plant breeders, researchers, and farmers but also for chefs, offering a rich tapestry of flavours for their innovative dishes.

Sacred Valley White Corn

From here I take the plane to Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. For centuries, corn has been an integral part of Andean culture, revered not only as a staple crop but also as a sacred symbol of life and fertility. Over 55 varieties are cultivated across the country including giant white corn, only found in the Sacred Valley. This stands out for its exceptional flavour, texture, and cultural significance.

At Hacienda Sarapampa they use traditional growing methods without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It’s only harvested by hand, a communal affair, bringing together families and communities. Corn husks are intricately woven into ceremonial decorations, while corn kernels are used in offerings to honour Pachamama, the Earth Mother, and other Andean deities.

Hacienda Sarapampa

After a wander around the cornfields, I get to sample some of their produce at their restaurant. White corn features prominently in hearty soups and stews and is also used in delicate desserts and beverages. A feature is “choclo con queso,” a simple snack consisting of boiled white corn kernels served with salty cheese.

Moray Circular Terraces

An hour’s drive down the Sacred Valley, followed by a steep climb up to over 3,500m, this ancient archaeological site, is renowned for its remarkable circular terraces, built by the Incas between the 15th and 16th centuries. It looks like a giant amphitheatre and the terraces vary in depth and size, with the largest reaching depths of up to 30 metres and the smallest barely a metre deep

Each terrace is carefully engineered to create microclimates, with temperature variations of up to 15°C (27°F) between the top and bottom levels. This was likely a sort of agricultural laboratory where the Incas conducted experiments to improve crop yields and adapt to changing environmental conditions. They tested various crops such as maize, potatoes, quinoa, and more, carefully observing their growth patterns and nutritional needs.

Salineras de Maras

A short distance from Moray, downhill from the village of Maras, are thousands of salt pans cascading down the hillside in a series of terraced slopes, white vividly contrasting against the green of the valley. When the Andes were formed, vast salt deposits from ancient seas were buried under the surface. Over time, erosion and weathering created a network of underground brine springs which rise to the surface.

The Incas constructed an intricate network of channels and reservoirs to capture this brine flow in a series of terraced salt pans. The water evaporates under the sun, allowing the salt to crystallize and be harvested. It was not only essential for preserving food but also played a central role in religious ceremonies and rituals. Despite the passage of centuries, the salt pans are still worked today, serving as a living testament to the enduring legacy of the Inca civilization.

Mil Restaurant

Situated just above Moray, Mil offers not just a meal, but an unforgettable gastronomic journey that celebrates the rich cultural heritage and biodiversity of the country. The brainchild of renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez, it draws inspiration from the surrounding landscape and cultural heritage. Its name means “thousand” in Spanish, referring to the numerous native plant varieties cultivated in the Andean region.

Mil’s menu is a reflection of the diverse ecosystems of the Andean region, showcasing ingredients sourced directly from local farmers, foragers, and artisans. From native tubers and heirloom grains to exotic fruits and aromatic herbs, each dish tells a story of centuries-old traditions and the intimate relationship between the Andean people and their land.

I settle down to tackle their eight course tasting menu. The dish “Corn Diversity” features an array of corn varieties from different altitudes, showcasing the diversity of flavours and textures. From crispy corn chips to creamy purées, each element is meticulously prepared to highlight the unique characteristics of the corn. Another signature dish is “Extreme Altitudes” a playful interpretation of traditional Peruvian flavours with alpaca, black quinoa, multigrains and Ayrampo fruit.

In the magical setting of the Sacred Valley, Mil Restaurant stands as a testament to the beauty of Peru’s culinary heritage and the endless possibilities that lie ahead. Yet other restaurants in the region are delivering excellent food with local ingredients. And if you’re feeling adventurous get down to the market in Cusco and find out what the locals are really eating.


GO: Latam flies to Peru and Cusco from London.

INFO: The International Potato Center is on the outskirts of Lima.

STAY: The Pullman Lima Miraflores is right in the centre, not far from the ocean.

Inkaterra La Casona makes a luxurious base in Cusco and is a member of the Relais & Chateau group.

Casa Andina Premium Cusco makes for a comfortable stay in the city.

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba has good food in a tranquil setting.

EAT: Cosme in Lima is one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Hacienda Sarapampa serves their giant white corn for lunch in the Sacred Valley.

Casa Colonial in Urubamba has excellent local dishes.

Mil Restaurant offers the “Inmersión Mundo Mil” experience for $620 per person.

DO: Urban Kitchen in Miraflores offers cooking classes with superfoods.

Source : https://www.thetravelmagazine.net/in-search-of-superfoods-in-peru/

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