Peruvian and Amazonian Cuisine on an Amazon Cruise

Naturally, on board the Delfin II during our Amazon cruise, we get to try a menu that reflects the country’s cultural diversity, and highlights jungle cuisine which uses products local to the area. Among the fruits of Peru's jungle is the camu camu, which contains 40 times more vitamin C than the kiwifruit. Non-native fruits such as orange, grapefruit, mango, pineapple and star apple are also in abundance, as well as other jungle fruits like, mammee apple, cherimoya, guanabana, taperiva, copoazu, and dry palm fruits like the aguaje and açaí. These fruits are not only offered as breakfast juices in the morning, but are often used in sauces for fish, meat, and vegetable dishes as well, providing a new, unexpectedly delightful flavor.

Heart of palm, also called palm heart, palmito or chonta, is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and developing leaves of certain palm trees notably the coconut (Cocos nucifera), Palmito Juçara (Euterpe edulis), Açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), sabal (Sabal spp.) and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes) palms. Heart of palm is often eaten in a salad, sometimes called the "millionaire's salad" and can take on many shapes according to how it is sliced. Harvesting in the wild is no longer an economically viable form of harvesting heart of palm, so the alternatives are palm varieties which have undergone a process of adaptation to become a domesticated farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is the botanical species Bactris gasipaes, known in Ecuador as "chontaduro", in Costa Rica as "pejibaye", and in English as the "peach palm".

Manioc (Manihot spp) from Tupi mandioca; earlier form manihot from French, from Guarani mandio, is also known as cassava or “yuca” (not to be confused with the “yucca,” a native agave of the hot and dry regions of the Americas). Manioc is a woody shrub of the Euphorbiaceae (spurge family) and its edible starchy tuberous root is a major source of carbohydrates. It fills the niche of potatoes for the peoples of the Amazon where potatoes cannot grow. Perhaps surprisingly to most people, manioc is the third-largest source of carbohydrates for meals in the world. Classified as sweet or bitter depending on the level of toxic cyanogenic glucosides in the rough, bark-like skin around the tuber, this protects the tuber from pests but requires different levels of preparation before human consumption. Manioc, cassava, “yuca” is a major component of Amazonian cuisine. Many dishes include the manioc, and it is served in many forms from large “manioc fries” to steamed, to a component in stews, to chips as snacks.

Plantains are another staple food in the Amazon as in all tropical regions of the world and the unripe fruit can be cooked by steaming, boiling, or frying. When treated in much the same way as potatoes, it has a similar neutral flavor and texture. Plantains are sometimes referred to as cooking bananas, to distinguish it from the sweet, or dessert banana. Plantains tend to be firmer and lower in sugar content than dessert bananas. Sweet bananas are most often eaten raw, while plantains are cooked or otherwise processed, and are used either when green or unripe (and therefore starchy) or overripe (and therefore sweet). As with potatoes, there are one-hundred-and-one ways to prepare plantains into delicious dishes for the table.

Fish is the king of the Amazonian cuisine. There are dozens of exceptionally tasteful species of fish: paiche (one of the world's largest freshwater fish), prepared in variety of dishes; many other types of fish like gamitana, sabalo, tucunare, boquichico, palometa, bagre (catfish), and many others including the piranha, that are prepared in a variety of dishes such as "timbuche" (soup) or "patarashca" (grilled in vegetables). The freshness and special flavor of Amazon fish make the dishes based on them truly glorious. They are usually served grilled, but they can also be fried, steamed or presented in tomato sauce (escabeche), or in coconut milk, or stewed in tucupi (a true marvelous sauce, made of fermented manioc juices).

Wrapping fish, meats, or vegetables with rice or other delicacies in leaves is a traditional form of Amazonian cuisine we see on board the Delfin II during our Amazon cruise. Perhaps the most famous are “Juanes,” chicken and rice seasoned with turmeric in banana leaves.

As a grand finale, many of the exotic fruits of the Amazon are made into ice creams and sorbets, or stewed for a sweet dessert.

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