Treasure Hunting: Exploring the Markets of the Peruvian Amazon
Situated overlooking a tributary of the Amazon River, Iquitos, Peru, is a bedraggled yet beautiful city, considered to be the gateway to the jungle. It is here, in this mysterious and conflicted outpost, that the most rare and exotic Amazon fruits can be found.
A city of intense juxtaposition, ornate European mansions line the main esplanade amid a sultry haze of dirt bike exhaust and intense humidity; these crumbling vestiges of European invasion are in a constant battle with nature. Aggressive vines ensnare wrought iron gates, while lush foliage and mature trees fill entire abandoned mansions; only a shell of intricately painted tile mosaic remains.
To understand this strange environment of contradictions, one must delve into the history of the city. Iquitos is located in Northeastern Peru on the great plains of the Amazon River basin. It was first officially established in the 16th century as an Indian settlement by Jesuit Missionaries; most occupants were members of the Iquitos tribe. By the 1860s a port was built, establishing the city as an outlet for the transport of precious and rare products from the deepest reaches of the Amazon jungle. Iquitos remains the furthest inland deep water port in the world. Cargo ships haul exclusive jungle goods from this remote outpost to the convergence of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean, a 2,300 mile journey.
The city was thrust into a period of rapid expansion and brutal colonialism toward the turn of the 19th century. It was at this time that the sap of rubber trees, which are native to the Amazon, were discovered as a wildly lucrative natural product to make rubber. The explosion of the automobile industry created an insatiable demand for rubber to make tires, and European business moguls flocked to Iquitos to capitalize on the rubber boom. These moguls, or Rubber Barons, constructed opulent mansions along the city’s waterfront,overlooking the bountiful Amazon jungle. Meanwhile, local indigenous tribes people worked in slave conditions to tap the precious latex. Thanks to a sobering expose on the harsh treatment of natives and the establishment of rubber plantations in Southern and Southeast Asia, this period of savage extravagance was relatively short lived (about 30 years). Dilapidated mansions are all that remain of this dark chapter in Iquitos’ history.
There are no roads leading to this obscure outpost; the city can only be accessed by boat or air. Indigenous Amazon farmers collect tons of produce from deep in the jungle and deliver by boat to the burgeoning Iquitos markets. These markets are a treasure trove, where the most coveted Amazonian fruits can be found: everything from exceptionally delicious varieties of our favorite jungle fruits, like pineapples, coconuts, and bananas, to more arcane delicacies like charichuelo, a hard-to-find local favorite.
The Belen market is a complex maze of tarp-covered alleyways and side streets. A dazzling array of jungle fruits and vegetables can be found in this vibrant, but sometimes suffocating, venue. Locals arrive at the market by 5 a.m. to greet boatloads of freshly caught Amazon fish, still breathing, to purchase choice cuts of meat or to choose the best jungle fruits, often picked the very same morning. Many of the fruits found at these markets are endemic to the Amazon and cannot be found outside of the jungle.
One such gem is camu camu, which is a tart red berry, often crushed into juice and served on ice. This potent berry boasts 17 times the vitamin C of an orange and is a staple as a powerful immune booster in the jungle. Due to the berry’s short shelf life and difficult growing requirements, it is not available fresh outside of its natural zone.
Aguaje is perhaps the most popular fruit in Iquitos, especially among women. This scaly purplish fruit resembling a dragon’s egg is fit for a fairy tale. Hundreds of vendors dot the city peeling and selling aguaje by the dozens; many locals eat several per day. The flavor is mild, similar to a carrot, and the flesh is slightly oily like an avocado. Fruits owe their popularity to the local belief that aguaje helps to give women a more feminine figure, hence the nickname “curvy fruit.” Indeed, aguaje has been shown to promote phytoestrogen production. Aguaje is eaten fresh, as well as processed into popsicles, ice creams and smoothies. Most women and girls in Iquitos leave a trail of aguaje skin behind them as they munch throughout the day.
A puckery lemon taste is a nod to the purported medicinal properties of the popular cocona fruit. This tomato relative is believed by locals to cleanse the body of toxins and to help balance blood glucose levels. Cocona is also appreciated for its creamy texture and tangy flavor. It is often prepared as a condiment served with savory dishes, or to add a tart bite to sweet smoothies. Cocona is a fast growing annual that thrives in Peru. As a member of the solanaceous family, it is widely adaptable and can be grown in North America, ideally in a greenhouse for northern growers.
The fact that they are native to South America explains the astounding diversity of peppers in Peru. The diminutive yet powerful aji charapita is no bigger than the eraser on your pencil, but just one pepper can spice an entire pot of soup. The small bushy plant is often grown indoors in pots; locals harvest from this useful house plant as needed for the freshest flavor. The ubiquitous aji amarillo can be found growing all over Peru, from posh courtyard gardens in Lima to deep jungle gardens in Iquitos. These bright orange peppers are the secret ingredient to many popular Peruvian dishes. They add a tangy heat to such favorites as crema de huancaina, a spicy yet creamy cheese sauce that is commonly served over giant corn or potatoes, and causa, a spicy potato-layered casserole featuring seafood or chicken. While these peppers thrive in the humid jungle, they also have promise in North America.
Certainly one of the most novel vegetables found at markets in Peru is a green squash called zapallo macre. This mammoth winter squash easily grows to the size of a cozy coupe car and can usually be found sliced in half, exposing the bright yellow flesh inside. Slivers are cut right out of the squash on display. The flesh is watery and breaks down into soup easily. The small zapallo loche winter squash is renown in Peru as the most exceptional, and rightly so! Flesh is a deep orange, with a firm texture which becomes silky when cooked, and the flavor is a perfect sweet and nutty combination. This squash is native to the north coast in Peru and is often served mashed as a side dish. Zapallo loche has been dated back to pre-Incan times and has been represented in art dating back thousands of years. It is beloved in Peru for its intense fragrance, which is incredibly strong and sweet.
Caihua, or stuffing cucumber, is a more unusual member of the squash family that is also native to Peru. These crunchy green fruits have a hollow cavity perfect for filling with spicy stuffing; they are also sliced and eaten raw in salads or pickled. Caihua is believed to have cholesterol lowering abilities and are said to help absorb fat. Native to the Andes, caihua has been depicted in ancient art and is mentioned in the book Lost Crops of the Incas by the National Research Council. Caihua is an annual plant that takes about 90-100 days to produce. They have been known to grow well in the U.S. These delicious botanical jewels are grown in the jungle, on small farms, large plantations or picked from the wild.
Sadly, many of the farms are not run in a sustainable manner. The land, as well as future generations who will inherit it, pay the price. Mature fruit trees are often cut down in order to collect fruits that could be fairly easily accessed in another manner. Slash-and-burn techniques are still implemented to level forests for agriculture, often resulting in erosion and loss of diversity. A local Iquitos farmer, Eloisa Del Carmen Ruiz has dedicated her farm, La Chacra Iquitos, to a more sustainable approach. She maintains numerous fruit trees and garden vegetables and runs a social program for local children, as well as an eco-lodge to promote environmentally responsible tourism. She calls on a wealth of jungle wisdom that runs several generations deep, as her family has farmed this land for many years. She explains that the more gentle and renewable techniques of the past have been forgotten over the last generation as elders neglect to pass on this priceless knowledge to their children, who have lost interest in farming. Eloisa wants to ensure that this invaluable wisdom is not lost, so she has started a program to teach local children about sustainable farming and recycling. She also aims to empower children to be proud of their rural farming roots, as there is a stigma about this lifestyle among many Peruvians. Perhaps with the increasing demand for responsibly farmed jungle products and with the help of progressive, yet traditional farmers like Eloisa, the incredible wealth of the Amazon jungle will continue to dazzle and delight!
Shannon McCabe is a gardener and a writer for Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island with a bachelor’s in horticulture and sustainable agriculture. She grew up on Black Island where she was a market farmer, in addition to being an orchard keeper for the University of Rhode Island. In her spare time, she likes to make cheese, ride horses, and listen to psychedelic rock music.
Debra-Lynn Vlietstra is the warehouse manager at Baker Creek. At just 20 years old she is an ambitious and hardworking team leader who loves adventure and the outdoors. In her spare time she enjoys practicing martial arts and doing handicrafts.
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