A Jaunt Through a Jungle Market
Iquito's Belén Market
The fresh market is always a good window into the soul of a cuisine. In Iquitos however was that everyone was telling me that I shouldn’t go to Belén Market alone. You always need to be careful of your belongings and personal safety at markets in South America, but sadly Belén has the added danger of people selling illicit goods like parts of endangered animals. They obviously don’t like visitors poking around.
I even looked into hiring someone to escort me through the market, but luckily Gahry Paz, the chef and owner of Cafe Paz, generously offered to take me.
I quickly found that Belén Market was a prime example of organized chaos. There were a lot of people but more room to maneuver than in a typical market in a large city like Lima.
The fish was efficiently sorted by size and type. Smaller fish were grouped together and sold as bundles. Large catches such as Paiche which can be as long as 15 feet are prominently displayed and used to attract attention from potential customers.
The fruit and vegetables were organized into some of the neatest displays I’ve seen at any market.
Overall, I found the market to be quite relaxed and the vendors friendly. It always helps to have a local help guide you.
When I visited Iquitos, many jungle ingredients were just starting to be exported to other regions of Peru. A lot of the motivation for my trip was to check out the fruits and fish from the Amazon. Many of the ingredients were familiar as they are found in markets throughout Peru. However, several types of fruits, fish, and pepper stood out:
Aguaje is a jungle fruit with a scaly exterior that encases a yellow sweet and sour pulp along with a large brown seed. It is considered a superfood and has high vitamin content. Locals call the tree that bears this fruit the “tree of life” because it symbolizes vitality and immortality.
Camu Camu is my favorite jungle fruit. It is pleasantly tart and has about 60 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. It is usually made into a pink juice. Camu Camu juice provides a natural energy boost and can be used as an alternative to coffee.
Chonta consists of delicate ribbons shredded from heart of palms. At the market, you can see vendors shred the heart of palm into ribbons which is quite laborious. You generally find chonta in salads or as a garnish.
Bijao leaves are large and sturdy and thus are often used to wrap food. You’ll notice that it is used a lot to at the market to hold other ingredients. When cooked with the food, bijao leaves impart an aromatic flavor. The best example of this is patarashca, the classic Amazonian dish where fish and vegetables are cooked in bijao.
Cecina is meat, usually pork, that is dried and smoked. It is common in the Amazon which allowed meat to be preserved before refrigeration existed. Cecina is served as a filet and also incorporated is into other dishes such as stews or rice.
Charapita is the most common ají or pepper in the jungle. They are small but fierce. In addition to the heat, they have a bright, citrusy flavor lending themselves to salsas.
There are many more jungle that ingredients I’d like to feature. However, this is all of the room I have for now!
Iquitos was my first foray into the Peruvian Amazon. In a future post, I’ll tell you about how I ended up in the Amazon in the first place.
My guidebook has more details about Amazonian ingredients as well as descriptions of dishes that you’ll find in the Peruvian Amazon.