Inca cuisine originated in pre-Columbian times within the Inca civilization from the 13th to the 16th century. The Inca civilization stretched across many regions, and so there was a great diversity of plants and animals used for food, many of which remain unknown outside Peru. The most important staples were various tubers, roots, and grains. Maize was of high prestige, but could not be grown as extensively as it was further north. The most common sources of meat were guinea pigs and llamas, and dried fish was common.
There were also several types of edible clay, like pasa, which was used as sauce for potatoes and other tubers, and chaco, something used by the poor or religiously devout. As in the rest of Central and South America, chili peppers were an important and highly praised part of the diet.
The Inca realm stretched north-south, encompassing a great variety of climate zones. In Peru in particular, the mountain ranges provide highly varied types of growing zones at different altitudes. The staples of the Incas included various plants with edible tubers and roots like potato and sweet potato, in hundreds of varieties. Slightly over 4,000 types are known to Peru. There was also oca, which came in two varieties, sweet and bitter. The sweet variety could be eaten raw or preserved and was used as a sweetener before the arrival of sugar. The insipid, starchy root ullucu, and arracacha, something like a cross between carrot and celery were, like potatoes, used in stews and soups. Achira, a species of Canna, was a sweet, starchy root that was baked in earth ovens. Since it had to be transported up to the power center of Cuzco, it is considered to have been food eaten as part of a tradition. Although the roots and tubers provided the staples of the Inca, they were still considered lower in rank than maize.
Several species of seaweed were part of the Inca diet and could be eaten fresh or dried. Some freshwater algae and blue algae of the genus Nostoc were eaten raw or processed for storage. In post-colonial times it has been used to make a dessert by boiling it in sugar. Pepino, a refreshing and thirst-quenching fruit, was eaten by common folk, but scorned by "pampered folk" and were considered difficult to digest.
Peoples of the Altiplano had two large domesticated animals: llamas and alpacas. They were kept for their wool and used as pack animals that were often used in large caravans. The llama in particular was highly valued, and a white llama adorned in red cloth with gold earrings would often go before the Inca ruler as a royal symbol. Animals were believed to represent various gods depending on what color they had and were sacrificed in great number and the blood was used as a ritual anointment. The control over the sacred animals was very rigorous. Shepherds had to preserve every last part of any animal that died and present a full animal to the Inca or risk severe punishment. Among the food products made from the Peruvian camelids was sharqui, strips of freeze-dried meat, the origin of modern-day jerky. The meat of the common folk was the cuy, guinea pig. They were domesticated by 2000 BC and were easy to keep and multiplied rapidly. Guinea pigs were often cooked by stuffing them with hot stones. The entrails would often be used as an ingredient in soups along with potatoes, or made into a sauce. They could also be used for divination, which later brought them into disfavor by the Catholic Church.
The Incas hunted game including the wild camelids vicuña and guanaco, whitetail deer, huemul deer and viscacha, a kind of chinchilla which was hunted with lassos. Hunting rights were controlled by the state and any meat would go into the state warehouses for storage. In massive royal hunts, hunting teams would force huge herds into enclosures, and there are reports of several thousand animals being caught in a single great hunt, including puma, bear, fox and deer.
One mainstay of the Inca army and the general population was dried fish. Limpets, skates, rays, small sharks of the genus Mustelus, mullets and bonito were among the fish caught off the Peruvian coast. Other sea creatures like seabirds, penguins, sea lions and dolphins were eaten, as were various crustaceans and chitons, mussels, chanque (an abalone-like animal). Like other American peoples, the Inca ate animals that were often considered vermin by many Europeans, such as frogs, caterpillars, beetles, and ants. Mayfly larvae were eaten raw or toasted and ground to make loaves that could then be stored.
The Inca often got through times of food shortage because they were able to preserve and store many of their crops. It is estimated that at any given time in Incan history, there were three to seven years worth of food in the state warehouses. In the high elevations of the Andes, setting out potatoes and similar tubers out in the dry days and cold nights would freeze-dry them in a matter of days. The farmers would help the process by covering the crops to protect them from dew, and by stomping on them to release the excess water quickly. In addition to fruits, vegetables and roots, the Inca also preserved meat by drying and salting it, making for complete nutritional stores. These food preservation techniques, combined with their far-reaching road system, allowed the Inca Empire to easily withstand droughts and to have the means to feed a standing army.
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- Coe, Sophie D. (1994) America's first cuisines ISBN 0-292-71159-X
- Popenoe, Hugh, Steven R. King, Jorge Leon, Luis Sumar Kalinowski, and Noel D. Vietmeyer (1989) Lost Crops of the Incas ISBN 0-309-04264-X