Quinoa has taken the world by storm recently. A few years back I started seeing more and more of this product here in the US and today I see products like chips, pancakes, pasta, and maybe even Kellogg’s cereal containing quinoa, and of course quinoa in all shapes, sizes and flavors. It has even been featured in a very humoristic Budweiser commercial. This has been an amazing international growth for a product that three decades ago was mostly consumed by Andean people. When I was growing up in Peru, Quinoa was consumed mostly by low income population and not considered a staple of cosmopolitan diet. It was among other things, a local product of native decent, thus, inferior to foreign products. That was the misconception and a spell still very much alive in some circles from the colonial days that everything Indian is inferior and for the poor. Today, this mentality has changed and the country has integrated its boundaries, regions, products, and traditions. This evolutionary process has been in the making for the past thirty years and most recently has a lot to do as well to the vision and leadership of Chef Gaston Acurio. He has lead this local and for export gastronomic revolution which has positioned Peruvian cuisine and Peruvian products at a very high standard and are now recognized globally.
Why is quinoa so popular? The Incas called this staple of their diet chisaya mama, meaning “mother of all grains,” and yet quinoa is not actually a grain — it’s a seed. It is high in protein, calcium and iron and a good source of vitamin C and multiple B-vitamins. It is high on the lycine/thiamine system, so in combination with other grains it creates complete proteins. In addition, it has flavonoids with a high antioxidant capacity. Exports from Peru have risen from US$ 31million in 2012, to US$79 million in 2013 to US$ 196 million in 2014. A 148% percent increase in the last year. Quinoa ranked fourth among Peru’s agricultural exports last year, behind grapes, asparagus and avocados.
Kiwicha or Amaranth, is another product high on nutritional value. This plant may be instrumental in helping lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of hypertension, and heart disease. Kiwicha contains vitamins A, B-6, K, C, folate, and riboflavin. The grain has earned a reputation for its high nutritional value and was selected for astronaut’s diet. Kiwicha was even grown in space travel by NASA in 1985, this is the time Kiwigen was introduced as a breakfast supplement and the astronaut is featured on the label. It is exported to many countries now.
Potato, thousands of varieties, the actual number is hard to pinpoint. Originated in the highlands of Peru 8,000 years ago. The Incas adopted all the previous civilizations knowhow in agriculture and kept the R&D going, thus multiplying the number of varieties and growth techniques. Maize production expanded during the Inca days, but the potato was fundamental to their empire’s food security: in the Incas’ vast network of state storehouses, potato – especially a freeze-dried potato product called chuño – was one of the main food items, used to feed officials, soldiers and laborers and as an emergency stock after crop failures. The Europeans took the potato to Europe around 1570 at a time were famine was extensive due to epidemics and decease but it soon after became a staple of European diet. After a few mishaps with the cultivation of the crop-due to learning curve and lack of genetic varieties- it helped feed many starving populations once the crop had adjusted to local conditions and became to rely heavily on the crop.
Choclo or corn, large kernel corn from the Andes. The oversized kernels are described as chewier, starchier and less sweet than other types of sweet corn and as having a nutty taste and heftier texture. This variety primarily exist only in the Andes region and was a large part of Inca diet and today it is everywhere and the main variety.
The Incas were master builders and land users because of their strong connection with the “Pacha Mama” or “Mother Earth”. Famine and thirst were nonexistent. They had food surplus and a road system that connected Cuzco all the way to Quito, Ecuador to the North, to Santiago de Chile in the south. They could message Quito to the north in one week and the tale says that the Inca king in the Capital of Cuzco would eat seafood from the Pacific Ocean in less than twenty four hours-900 km- because of the Chaski runners that could relay messages and products on request. These runners would relay from Tambo to Tambo, were food and lodging was provided. Because of the altitude and dryness of the climate, food was stored for long periods of time and they had also perfected the art of llama meat drying, most commonly known as ch’arki. The common beef “jerky” that we consume everywhere today, the name as you can tell is derived from the ch’arki word from the Quechua language, still in use today. Today there are many treks along these routes, but the most famous one is the Inca Trail.If you are into trekking, the 4day/3night Inca trail into Machu Picchu is a must in your bucket list. It is amongst the most famous treks in the world. It is a beginers/intermediate trek because of the altitude. You trek at over 3,000 meters altitude and arrive at Machu Picchu at 2,800.
Inca Terraces, because of the rough terrain that characterizes the Andean region, they engineered these terraces to grow the different foods that supported the empire. They have been in use since around 500 AD and are still in use today. The terraces are very advanced in design and extra efficient in water use to maximize irrigation capacity at high altitudes.
Finally, these Andean products are just some of the large variety that the region produces and agro exports are on the full rise. Large irrigation projects are starting to yield its fruits in the north and the south of the country and it is just a matter of time before they will revamp huge exports and good things to come. It will all depend on electors and what kind of authorities they want to elect in 2016.