Peruvian cuisine is the rage these days, and for good reason. But most of the ranting and raving revolves around the seafood dishes from the Pacific coast and the ultra-trendy Japanese-Peruvian fusion known as Nikkei.
But 60 percent of the country is actually located in the Amazon rainforest, and it is here that a whole other dimension of Peruvian eats reigns supreme: jungle food.
The epicenter of jungle cuisine in Peru is Iquitos, the capital and only real city in the vast Loreto province—a huge swath of land larger than the entire country of Ecuador. And all of it is Amazon rainforest.
Rivers teem with aquatic creatures, trees burst with an abundance of exotic fruits, and forest wildlife is so thick that visitors liken nights in the jungle to listening to a live orchestra. This is where Iquitos sources its meals.
The Amazon River and its tributaries host more species of fish than the entire Atlantic Ocean, and this freshwater bounty is on full display in Iquitos. The most famous and sought-after is the paiche, a huge fish (often up to 15 feet long) that is packed with smooth, dense, and flavorful white meat.
Ceviche made from paiche rivals anything found on the Peruvian coast and is served in just about every one of the waterfront restaurants in Iquitos. It also comes in chicharron—cubed, deep-fried, and stacked up in a mini-mountain of greasy goodness.
Another Iquitos favorite is the gamitana, an oval-shaped fish with a funny-looking underbite that produces a nice oily flesh just made for slapping on the open grill. It's typically wrapped in a banana leaf so that it cooks in its own fat, a process called patarashca.
Patarashca is also the official dish of Iquitos, served everywhere from the street markets to nicest restaurants in town, and made from a wide variety of fish.
Meat, too, is big in Iquitos. It's plentiful, it's fresh, and—more than anything else—it is wild. Restaurants serve everything from sajino (wild boar) to motelo (turtle) as staple parts of the set lunch.
A trip to the super chaotic marketplace of Belen, which includes a floating lower market that must be navigated by canoe in the rainy season, will bring you face to face with huge cuts of lagarto (alligator) waiting for you to say the word before it is tossed on an open grill and presented sizzling with plantains on the side.
Few leave Iquitos without trying suri, a fat grub that looks like it should be working its way in an out of a rotting corpse but like toasted butter. And if you're looking for some giant jungle snails a la plancha, Iquitos has got you covered as well. Just chew thoroughly before you swallow.
When it comes to fruit, bright orange aguaje—which is so rich in vitamin A that it can turn your skin yellow if you eat too much—is sold on every corner. It's creamy like an avocado, has fish-like scales that need to be scraped off, and is addictive as hell once you get used to eating it with a pinch of salt.
Camu camu—a bright pink, super-sour giant grape that packs the highest vitamin C content in the world—is used to make refrescos, along with fairly copious amounts of sugar. Dark, oily, and strange-looking, ungurahui is a cousin of açai that is used in thick, nutritious juices as it, too, is packed with healthy compounds that locals believe give you jaguar strength and monkey smarts.
Most jungle fruits are also available as freshly squeezed juices around town but nobody does them quite as good as the Dawn on the Amazon Café. Sipping a giant ice blended maracuya (passionfruit) juice here will take the humid edge completely off the sometimes oppressive afternoon heat.
Tourists often head for La Casa Fitzcaraldo, where a four-story tree house towers over a tropical garden dining area. Originally built by Werner Herzog for the cast and crew of his 1982 flick Fitzcaraldo, this place offers dishes like the huerequeque-style wild jungle deer, served with coconut pancakes.
When night rolls around, Iquitos really begins to pick up the pace. Aphrodisiac roots and barks from the jungle are macerated in pure sugarcane alcohol and given names like "Seven Times Without Stopping" and "Arise Lazurus." Fuelling the nightlife here, they can be picked up in the "witches aisle" of the Belen market for a couple bucks a pop.
No matter where you are in Iquitos, you will realize that—like a cosmic anaconda with its tail in its mouth—the jungle is eating you as you are eating it.