Incan Foods: Living Artifacts in the Land of the Incas

Join Joseph and Patrick Simcox as they make their way through the Peruvian Highlands, Andes Mountains, and explore local foods; living artifacts from the time of the Incas.

Peruvian countryside

Peru is home to hundreds of interesting and unique heirloom cultivars.

Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox

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I arose, went to the restroom and felt worse. I was pacing the floor trying to stay calm, but nothing was helping. I turned the lights on and awoke my brother and his fiancé. “What’s the matter with you Joe?” Patty asked.

Trying to be calm, I just said, “I’m just a bit nervous.” Patty started having the same feeling. I reached my hand into our stash of Coca leaves and made myself a wad that I stuck into my mouth. I gulped some water to wet the leaves and chewed; the juice that leached from the leaves would have a calming effect even though they are a stimulant. Coca leaves make you feel better at this altitude. They’ve been used by folks in the Andes for centuries to allay the effects of extreme altitude. To us coming from sea level only 24 hours earlier, Lake Titicaca was unsettlingly extreme! Patty was getting more and more nervous himself. I paced the floor of our hotel room; the amazing moonlit view through the picture window of one of the highest big lakes in the world was not enough to soothe me. Altitude sickness is not really something you just think yourself out of. Remembering our guide’s advice, Patty and I indulged in chocolate bars. (Our guides had instructed us to chew Coca leaves and eat chocolate to prevent the effects of the altitude.) After a while we both were calm enough to fall back to sleep. The night still was not peaceful; we were awakened several times by some poor person in an adjacent room who was vomiting, obviously experiencing a worse version of our own malaise. In the morning we felt a wee bit better. During breakfast at our hotel we learned of the extent of altitude sickness among guests; it was the subject du jour. Every table’s conversation was exactly the same, “Did you get a headache?” “Were you dizzy too?” The extreme altitude was on everyone’s mind.

We did not want to stay any longer at Lake Titicaca; at 12,500 feet above sea level an overnight sejour was all we wanted. We drove down to the lakeshore, ever so slowly walked down to the edge of the reeds, took some pictures and got back in the car determined to get to a lower elevation. Getting down lower, once you get to the highlands of Peru is not an easy thing to do. The route between Juliaca and Cusco, the one we were contemplating, takes about 8 hours by car, and the average altitude is over 12,000 feet! We told our driver Grover that we wanted to take pictures along the way and that we wanted to get to Cusco by evening. The route was new for Patty and Grover (even though he was Peruvian, Grover had never been to Lake Titicaca). His own family was from a highland village, but he had moved with his family when young to the capital. Because of that, Grover was not so much a guide as he was a driver. He was a fun driver and he was as excited about the scenery as we were. He took little offense when Patrick or I shouted at him to stop for photos; he wanted to take them too!

Patrick and I had come to Peru to document the ancient food traditions of the Andean people. Modern Peruvians are the rightful heirs of many of the Incan legacies. Numerous well known food plants in the world today had their centers of origin in the Andean region. The potato is one of these, and today it is the 4th most important staple crop in the world. Most people don’t stop to consider the history of the potato. If one surveys the U.S. general public, many actually believe that the potato is of Irish origin. Genetic analysis of potato lineage almost conclusively demonstrates that potatoes were domesticated in the area of Southern Peru and Northern Bolivia. From there they spread outward both south and north. There are several different species of potatoes that produce edible tubers, and many of these species are still grown for food in the Andes today.

As we made our way through the Peruvian highlands, potatoes were indeed a prominent and colorful element of life. There are also other colorful traditions lurking beneath the soil, and we wanted to see them. For centuries the Peruvian Highlanders have also raised Mashua, Oca and Ullucus. These roots still are almost unknown to North Americans. Only in certain high end gourmet food stores will one occasionally see one of the so called “rainbow roots of the Andes.”

The first mentioned: Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) is a really impressive vigourous flowering plant that is an upland cousin of the Garden Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) that also happens to produce a huge array of colorful roots.

Patty and I have studied the variability of Mashua from Colombia to Argentina, and the diversity of root colors and patterns is breathtaking. I’ve collected tubers from butterscotch yellow in color to black, violet and orange and red. Mashua tubers are not generally eaten raw. The tubers are first cooked, as cooking eliminates the “mustard-like-piquantness” of raw ones . . . The cooked roots have a unique flavor that Patrick and I both find delicious. In North America, Mashua cultivation is happening mostly on the Pacific coasts.

Certain Aficionados have dedicated time to acclimatizing the roots to low elevation cultivation. Dr. Allen Kapuler of Corvalis, Oregon and his daughter Dylana have been growing Mashua for over a decade. In the last couple of years they have had amazing harvests of Mashua tubers, indicating that this plant of the Andes is finally adapting to low elevation and long days. (In the Northern and Central Andes day lengths are about 12 hours—hence short days—as opposed to the long days—14 hours plus days of the northern summers). Tuberization of these plants only occurs during short days; in the north they grow profusely, but they do not develop tubers because the day length is so long. Another individual really taking Mashua cultivation seriously is John Glavis from Bolinas, California. John is doing a wonderful job in his cool Maritime gardens. Last fall he told us that he harvested over 1000 tubers from his gardens. Certainly these success stories motivate us all. Presently Alan Kapuler and his daughter are offering propagation material of Mashua through their PEACE Seeds Website. Occidental Arts and Ecology in Occidental California has regular scheduled plant sales where Mashua tubers are often offered. Baker Creek Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri is also working diligently to promote the wider use of these wonderful tubers.

Another mesmerizingly beautiful tuber of the Andes is Oca (Oxalis tuberosa). Oca is another one of the great secrets of the Andes; fortunately, it has been introduced to many places in the world over the last couple hundred years and it has been acclimated to a wider range of climates. Outside of the Andes, the largest commercial production of Oca occurs in New Zealand. In New Zealand they call Oca “Yams”. Oca has been cultivated in New Zealand for perhaps 150 years; in the last 30 or 40 it has really become a commonplace commodity in local supermarkets.

Like Mashua, Oca is very diverse in color and even form. I personally have collected and tasted with Patrick dozens of “clones” ranging from jet black to violet to cream, white, yellow, red, red and yellow and orange in color. Variegated, multi-colored roots are actually quite common in villages throughout the Andes.  The organoleptic qualities of Oca range from bland like a potato to acidic (I am reminded of red forms that I have eaten in the Mexican highlands near Pico di Orizaba) to sweet. Oca, unlike Mashua is eaten both raw, sometimes like an apple and cooked. It is a phenomenal plant that is slowly being acclimated to the Northern Hemisphere’s long summer days. It like Mashua needs a short day to start tuberization. Once again leaders in North America include Alan Kapuler, Dylana Kapuler and John Glavis. Sources for tubers of Oca are the same as those for Mashua in the US. I am very excited about the prospects, especially as more gardeners take to cultivating this plant, inevitably selections will be made that adapt to different climes and within time Oca another gift of the Andes may be a commonplace vegetable!

There are many other wonderful tuberous roots in the Peruvian Andes. One that has proven itself to be supremely suited to wider cultivation is Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolia), 10 years ago in the USA, only a few seasoned collectors were growing Yacon. The plant has been known and appreciated outside of the Andes for a long time. Back in the 1930’s in Italy, trials were being made by inspired agronomists and the results were very promising. Had World War II not interrupted the projects, it would have been very likely that Yacon would have taken hold as a cash crop way back then. From Japan to North America, Yacon is now being appreciated as a super food. The leaves and the succulent tuberous roots are loaded with Inulin. In recent years, growers in China and the orient have increased production to the point that it is now a common vegetable in markets. A couple of years ago, I was surprised to see it being offered everywhere in the farm markets in Hong Kong. Here in America, cultivation is poised to increase dramatically. Tubers are now being offered at Whole Foods and various health food stores. Unfortunately, the tubers offered for sale are not propagative; they will not grow! Yacon forms a clump rhizome that has the edible tuber shooting off of it. Only the clump or crown will develop new growth. This has stymied many a would-be Yacon grower. Happily things are changing, Yacon is now readily being propagated through tissue culture.

And new varieties are expected for 2015. Trials in Missouri were very promising, with plants growing large and strong and forming medium sized tubers, about 5-6 inches long. Yacon thus, in my opinion is one of the most promising and exciting plants for gardeners in America with 6 months or greater growing seasons.

There are other tubers that we saw ubiquitously in Peru, among them Ullucus (Ullucus tuberosus). This is a wonderful tuber that we have seen in color shades from magenta pink to lemon yellow to green to yellow with magenta spots. Ullucus is eaten in meals in a myriad of ways. In the markets in Cusco, Peru, we saw it being offered pre-grated. Customers purchase it for the inclusion in typical “sopas”. In the capital City of Lima, we were treated to a modern rendition of this soup in a dish that was called “Sopas de los Tuburculos Andinos.” In it were pureed Ullucus, Oca and the tasty gratings of Ullucus which give it a rich full texture. Ullucus is an unusual tuber, it has starch in it, but it cooks up tender, with substance but with a “slippery” texture.  One cannot really call it Okra like, but it has a distant similarity.

Ullucus is presently being trialed in the states by John Glavis, aforementioned of Bolinas, California and a few other passionate tuber collectors in Europe. John Glavis has studied the habits of other Basellaceae (the family that Ullucus belongs to) and he reported to us that he has developed a technique that seems to force the Ullucus plants to tuberize. I certainly hope so because it would be wonderful if we could grow this crop in the USA. Presently I know of no commercial source for this plant outside of the annual plant sales at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.

One of the last tubers to mention is Maca (Lepidium meyenii), this Andean root vegetable is a wonder of the plant world. It grows in high and inhospitable places up to 14,000 feet! Its leaves seems to cling to the soil for protection from the elements, and slowly but surely it forms little round nubbed turnip shaped roots. Maca comes in a variety of colors ranging from reddish to yellow to purple. We found Maca roots being offered in the markets of Lima, Arequipa, Juliaca and Cusco, so it is now even being appreciated by “city folk”. In the recent past that would not have been the case.

Although Maca is now being produced in relatively large quantities in Peru. That was not the scenario thirty years ago. In the 80’s the ancient tradition of planting this Maca was waning. Each year fewer and fewer country folk were planting it, that is until the world took note; for a time it was listed as an endangered crop. Not anymore; now maca is a touted super-food. Maca is considered a tonic food; it was fed to the Incan soldiers in the distant past to make them strong and vital. Today the health attributes are much the same, and science backs it up. Chris Kilham, the Medicine Hunter has explained the health benefits of Maca even on the Dr. Oz show. Maca is listed as one of the food plants with “pro-sexual” vitality benefits. The Incans have known this for a long time and now academic research substantiates that belief. Maca is not likely to be a crop in the US anytime soon; it takes a long time to grow, and needs cold, yet not too cold conditions to grow well. That is not to say that it is not worth experimenting. Seeds are presently extremely difficult to procure, but should they ever become available, I would be the first in line to try to grow them in my garden, even if the promise of tubers is slight. Maca belongs in the same genus as Garden Cress (Lepidium sativum) so it probably has leaves that could be used similarly if they are not too hot and spicy! It definitely is a plant worth trying if it becomes available.

We were not making very good time leaving Juliaca; the search for a few essentials was not working out, and our visit to the local farmers market only provoked new questions. We found a few examples of a beautiful flat shaped

Cucurbita maxima type that Patty and I went crazy over. The vegetable ladies found it amusing to see two big comedians posing holding squash. Peru is a land very rich in squash diversity. It is suspected that the maxima type originated here in the highlands. To clarify for the reader, maxima types include the likes of Banana squash, Hubbards, most Turban types, and many other enormous squash including one of the former record setters “Dill’s Giant Atlantic”. Maxima squash generally like cooler weather, they can be cursorily identified by their fat fleshy stems on the fruit.

In Peru there are some typical varieties that are seen everywhere in the markets, and then special landraces that are obviously much harder to find. The one that Patty found in Juliaca was one of these types so he was pretty happy.

Squash are not the only cucurbits that one finds being grown in the Andes. Another strikingly interesting fruit which is still quite obscure in North America is the the so called “Lady’s Slipper Gourd.” In the Andes it has a number of names, all relevant to the place one finds it; in Peru it is known as the Caigua or Achocha. This plant Cyclanthera pedata is a staple vegetable in Peruvian cuisine.  The fruits are elongate up to ten inches long. They are harvested close to full maturity.  The black seeds are rough, symmetrical and curiously shaped.  Most fruits have fewer than 16 seeds in them. The fruit is hollow aside from the few seeds, and it is precisely for this reason that it is relished as a “stuffing” vegetable. The young fruits can be eaten just like a tiny crisp cucumber, and they would make a great salad vegetable. The large fruits are prepared with stuffings of meat and rice and beans. They are cooked in pots in a type of stew and are delicious!

The Lady’s Slipper plant is surprisingly fast growing, vigorous and productive even in northern climates. I personally have seen plants fruiting as far as the Oslo Botanical Garden in Norway! In trials all over the USA, the plants do best in cooler climates and they fruit prolifically even as far north as Michigan. This plant is certainly a wonderful “new” vegetable for US gardeners, and as soon as seeds become readily available it should be a big hit.

Eventually we were able to escape the traffic-choked cities of Juliaca and Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. As we followed the Andean cordillera along the Juliaca-Cusco Highway, we were thrilled and astonished to finally see a hill sparsely dotted with specimens one of the most majestic plants in the Andes: Puya raimondii. This giant relative of the pineapple (Bromeliaceae) is a world contender for the largest inflorescence of any plant. Puya raimondii shares a trait that many great rosette monocots exhibit; it is monocarpic, meaning that it only blooms and sets fruit once in its life and then it dies. It shares this grand finale trait with the likes of the giant Agaves and certain arborescent Furcraeas of Mexico. A single inflorescence of Puya raimondii has been estimated to have at least 3000 flowers, and estimates suggest that several million seeds follow! 

We were at over 14,000 feet when we caught sight of this most amazing of plants. Despite the fact that we were showing signs of minor altitude sickness, dry cough, headaches and such, the prospect of filming these wonders was too enticing.  We instructed our driver Grover to wait for us, and we started across the puna (this is a rather loose term referring to the highlands of the Andes—in our case here a grass pampas like terrain). Before long we came upon a colorfully dressed Indian woman tending her sheep. When I inquired whether or not she spoke Spanish, she feigned not to. We told her we wanted to walk up to the big plants on the hill, and she chirped in; “Hay bravos peros alli.” Meaning that there were strong dogs up there.

It did not take long for us to surmise that she was wilier than she looked. Her big bad dog stories weren’t enough to stop us and I hollered at Patrick’s girlfriend to continue.

We climbed the hill, panting all the way. Patrick was struggling with the elevation; I was too mesmerized by the plants to pay attention to my short-windedness! The first plants we encountered were juvenile; their trunks/stems were only a few feet high. They still were magnificent, but we wanted to get closer to a big one. Suddenly, peeking up over the hillcrest we caught sight of a majestic specimen with what appeared to be a fresh green stalk.

I almost started running towards it, but Daniella screamed at me to slow down. The weather was turning nasty; strong gusts were pushing us and the sky darkened. “Hurry up,” she said as lightning cracked in the distance. Patty was catching up. In the meantime the shepherd lady’s “Bravos Perros” were following us barking. We picked up stones and kept the pace. By the time I got up to the monstrous flowering beauty, it became evident that it stood at more than 30 feet tall! Swirling and twirling about the immense spike were thousands of insects. At first we took them for bees, but on closer inspection they all seemed to be beetles. Before Daniella had understood this, she screamed that we were being attacked by bees!

We all gathered under the plant; the lightening had caught up with as did the storm, and sleet started falling. The majesty of the plant numbed our common sense, because we were standing under the only “lightning rod on the hill” and enjoying it. The flower spike was incredible, the lightning cracked, we were covered with sleet and reality sunk in. “Let’s get out of here!” shouted Patrick. I pulled back from the plant, and ran back for a couple more photos. We were all thrilled to have shared this moment. It sure made my day!

From the Puya country we went up and down through the mountains, Small villages dotted the highway. The light was coming to the end, but before it did, we were able to catch our first glimpses of the famed Incan terraces. These amazing structures have been continuously used for hundreds of years. As the sun settled, we wound every closer to Cusco.

The evening in Cusco was luxurious; we experienced firsthand the legendary “haut cuisine” of the Andes. The restaurant where we ate had a very modern décor. The table was tastefully decorated with corn. Oh yes, glorious corn! Corn did not originate in Peru; the credit for that goes to Mexico, more specifically part of the present state of Puebla. Corn did, however, get to Peru a long time ago. Cusco and the environs are one of the hotspots for Peruvian corn diversity. Our table decorations enthralled me. There was over fifteen different landraces on display. After dinner and a good tip to the waiter, I asked him if I could have a couple ears; he said sure. That evening, those cobs formed the basis of our agenda for the next day. My brother Patty went and interrogated people where we could find “old” corn. One guy on the street was practical “vas a San Pedro!” (“Go to San Pedro market”) he said.

San Pedro market was a slow start; we were used to markets getting on early; here in Cusco, the sellers trickle in until ten. We found a lot of wonderful things, some clues for further research and some gorgeous corn. Patrick eagerly took down notes. We found an enormous candy striped kernel that was as large as the famous Yurackallhua Incan Giant that we found the year before.  We also found piles of jet black Kulli cobs being sold in the markets.  Kulli is the basis of the Chicha drink which is practically a national pastime. Corn! We were delighted by everything that we found. Leaving the market with bags of dry corn, vegetables and even some edible insects, we all agreed that it was a success!

My trip to Peru was closing fast. I was obliged to return to the states to present several scheduled talks. After only 9 days in Peru, our work was certainly far from done. Patrick offered to continue the expedition with his girlfriend. Our driver was accommodating. As I arranged to get to the airport to fly back to Lima, Patrick was frantically jotting down details and suggestions. He would take another 10 days and in the process track down some of the most amazing “vegetal artifacts on earth”.

The photos accompanying this article hopefully open a door for you, the reader, to discover a part of this bounty.


Joseph Simcox is known as The Botanical Explorer. He has travelled to more than 100 countries studying and eating the world’s food plants. His objective is to share his knowledge about food plant resources so that we all may live more connected to nature and have healthier lives.

Patrick Simcox specializes in exploring the remote corners of the planet, relentlessly tracking down the most rare and unique seeds known to man. Patrick is also the younger brother of Joseph.