A taste of Peru: the tension between old and new
The sun was beaming down on us as the educators led us to the seats of honor at the start of the assembly. The school desks in front of us were covered with bright red fabric, accented by yellows, greens, and blues. The student-led band, dressed in their school colors of red and black, played horns and drums, while the students giggled and gathered nervously before us. The principal turned up the sound system and heartily welcomed us, explaining how thankful they were that we had come. His remarks were followed by a traditional dance and an inspiring poem recitation by select members of the student body. Katie (my traveling companion and trip organizer) and I were overwhelmed and humbled by this reception. We were in a small mountain village, La Merced in Aija, in the Ancash region of Peru. This elementary school, Vicente Guerrero Palacios, was really rolling out the red carpet for us
The longer we stayed, the more moved we were by their community. We learned that many still spoke Quechua. They lived close to the land, enjoying the fruits of their farming and their traditional foods. As a parting gift, they served us huge bowls of their traditional quinoa and tocosh soup. It was a touching finale to our time together, since we had just completed our presentation about the beauty and importance of honoring the earth and maintaining their wise traditions. Tocosh is potato fermented over a period of months that acquires wonderful antibiotic and medicinal properties. It tasted tangy, reminiscent to me of tamarindo. I have to admit that I struggled to finish the soup (tocosh must be an acquired taste) but I was thrilled beyond measure that this community was holding on to its ancestral food ways!
Katie and I were half-way through our speaking tour when we made it to La Merced, but we hadn’t lost steam yet. Every encounter seemed to fuel us for the next. In truth, our trip in Peru was not unlike one of those Family Circle cartoons where the dotted line shows the children’s circuitous path around their neighborhood. Katie Williamson and I were careering hither and yon, zig-zagging across the country to address children at elementary schools, young adults at universities and language schools, mothers of small children in Lima, food devotees in the mountains of Ayas, and more. As you can imagine, the three weeks came and went in the blink of an eye (un abrir y cerrar de los ojos). And while I feel like I only got a quick taste of the Peruvian food scene, this much I can tell you. What I tried was unique and delicious.
That said, I could not overlook the fact that Peru is experiencing the same tension that countless countries do. That is, the old ways and the new ways appear to be in opposition with one another. In terms of food, it plays out like this: while some cherish traditional foods (and ancient preparation methods), others regard them as outdated. When the word “healthy” is mentioned in many circles, it’s equated with a meatless diet. Veganism is on the rise. Supermarkets selling sodas and processed foods are blocks away from the open-air markets with “mamitas” selling the produce from their gardens by the roadside. Monsanto and Bayer have reached the Sacred Valley and are persuading farmers to replace their natural varied corn crops with their one variety of corn (from genetically-modified seeds). Inca Kola, a soft drink invented in 1935 by a British immigrant, can be found in the deepest jungles of Peru. Mining is generating incomes for small towns, but simultaneously polluting their drinking and irrigation water. Villagers are fighting back, but their voices aren’t always heard. As you can see, there are multiple threats to the health of the people and the land of Peru.
While this birds-eye view of food ways in Peru appears bleak, I witnessed glimmers of hope, detailed below.
- Bioferia (Lima) –This was the first place Katie took me. Apparently bioferias are popping up in cities across the country! A bioferia is an organic farmers market which offers a dazzling combination of organic, gluten-free, and even vegan food products for sale. Fruit and vegetables were plentiful (many of which I had never even seen before), along with fresh artisanal bread, butter, cheese, and more!
- Mercado (Cusco) – I visited a marvelous, ginormous traditional market (one of several just in that one city). It is a set up in a concrete building, the size of a convention center, accessible from all sides. Inside are multiple stands, offering fresh chicken, beef, cheeses, juices, soups, fruits and veggies—you name it! I spotted aguaymanto, lúcuma, passionfruit, and potatoes everywhere. (Peru boasts some 3000 varieties!)
- Mamitas (everywhere we went) – Indigenous women, in lovely traditional skirts and hats, sell their produce by the side of the road—offering medicinal herbs, plants, corn, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
- Home-cooked meal (Lima) – The first home-cooked meal we had in Peru (besides those we prepared ourselves) was in the home of Doña Flor Irene. A 98-year-old woman, born and raised on the coast, Doña Irene told us stories as we enjoyed her hospitality. Her daily breakfast as a child was liver and onions in a tomato sauce. And her usual lunch was fish soup. No surprise, then, that she and her family served us a multi-course meal that included ceviche (raw fish “cooked” in lemon juice), fish soup and fried fish. Her life was a marvelous testament to the power of real food.
- Fertility traditions (Lima and Pisac) - While talking with a group of moms in the child-bearing years, we mentioned that every culture had some kind of sacred food to give to moms prior to conception. One young woman interjected that whenever she would return to the village, her grandmother would urge her to have some blood (sheep’s blood, I think) so that she “could have babies.” And in Pisac, Ubaldo, a Quechuan man, told us that it was their tradition to give young people guinea pig and sheep’s blood at the ages of 16-18 to prepare them for conception.
- Armonica (vegan café in Lima) – On one level, it was a relief to eat in this small café committed to serving food that is sourced locally and sustainably. Katie and I ordered acai bowls with fresh fruit and some granola. On another level, I’m concerned that shops like these (and they were peppered throughout the city) are part of the trend that unfairly labels animal products as unhealthy.
- Traditional meat dishes (Lima, Cusco, Aija) – Among other foods I got to savor (including Alpaca), I was able to eat anticucho, beef heart served on a skewer, and chicharrones de cuy, guinea pig fritters. (All were delicious, by the way!) Cuy is a traditional protein source, and was even eaten by the Incas, so it was exciting to find these foods still being served in restaurants and homes across Peru. I also enjoyed lomo saltado (a meat, onion, potato dish) prepared and served by a lovely indigenous woman in Aija!
- Canasta Solidaria Mihuna Kachun (Cusco and its environs) – Claudia and friends are working hard to resurrect traditional foods and herbs and spices in Cusco. They bag up samples and sell them at farmers markets. There is an education component as they help Peruvians get reacquainted with these foods, teach them what nutrients they provide, and how to prepare them.
What joy to find so many who are convinced of the importance of embracing (and holding onto) traditional wisdom related to the soil and our food. While others work hard to erase or replace these ancestral ways, I am grateful for those who are partners in our movement. As a matter of fact, we met with a passionate group of Limeños who have decided to launch a Weston A. Price chapter in that city! Those who support wise traditions everywhere truly have the proper fuel and strength to weather the storm of modern dietary influences and trends, both in Peru, and around the world. For this I am thankful and hopeful.
Hilda Labrada Gore is the host and producer of the Wise Traditions podcast. It is sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation for wise traditions in food, farming, and the healing arts! Hilda is also an integrative nutrition health coach and a fitness professional, the Director of Communications, and the DC Metro Regional Director for Body & Soul Fitness In additions, she leads the contemporary music service for National Presbyterian Church. She lives in D.C. with her husband, Mitch, and four children, their cat, Mia, and their dog, Summer.