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.


| Winter 2014-15



Peruvian countryside

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

Photo courtesy Joseph Simcox

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.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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