"Can you eat those?"
I was in a skiff with chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, floating on the Peruvian Amazon. While the other tourists ogled a sloth, I was eying water lilies a few feet away. Before I could give it much thought, Pedro reached over and grabbed a few leaves for us to taste. I looked at them with some misgivings. I'd been given a guidebook listing every possible ailment that could arise in this tropical environment. The Neurotic White Person's Guide to Peru, I called it. I had read just enough to be sure that eating plants straight from the Amazon was a no-no. I did it anyway. The flavor was amazing. Pedro and I looked at each other and laughed. It tasted like oyster plant, like cucumbers and borage, fresh and green and sweet. Then Pedro frowned. "Do you feel that?" he asked. I did. A scratchy, asphyxiating feeling in the back of the throat, followed by a salivating sensation in the mouth, all of which we endured nervously. The defense mechanisms of Amazonian plants are no jokethe jungle is a dazzling place, but also a brutal one.
I was traveling through northern Peru with Pedro on the 12-cabin M/V Aqua, designed by famed Peruvian architect Jordi Puig. With its giant picture windows and end-of-day pisco punch, the "eco-luxury" cruise ship felt very Four Seasons meets Outward Bound. I had signed up for Aqua Expeditions' seven-day trip through the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve to learn more about the food of the Amazon. Pedro, the consulting chef, is an expert on obscure ingredients like fist-size river snails and 450-pound paiche fish, which he transforms into haute cuisine at his renowned Lima restaurant, Malabar. He also runs a casual fish restaurant and market and recently opened a hyper-locavore restaurant on a farm. He's a busy man.
He's also an inspiring one. Pedro grew up around farming and food, and later attended the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. He spent a few years working at Michelin-starred restaurants in northern Italy and then returned home to Peru to open his own restaurant. Seven years later, his cooking, both in his restaurants and aboard the M/V Aqua, is helping to change the way people think about Peruvian cuisineeven Peruvians themselves.
In person, Pedro is ebullient and charming, with a genuine warmth that shines through in his food. In the ship's tiny kitchen, I watched him dart from cook to cook, tasting, thinking, adjusting, pausing every once in a while to hand me an ingredient and tell me to try it. At one point he showed me a branch of palm. "See this part?" he asked, pointing to the star-shaped area around the heart. "It's usually thrown away. That's what I made the tofu with."
Ah, yes, that tofu: It's not really tofu. It's a puree of palm lightly gelled with agar, though the texture is a dead ringer for tofu. It was the first course at dinner, and perhaps the best thing I ate on the trip. The "tofu" was crowned with armored catfish roe and tiny slivers of lime, all floral notes and electric acid. It was beautiful, exciting, new.
I had traveled to Peru to see things I'd never seen before, and I was not disappointed. The first day, we went piranha fishing, which may sound more thrilling than it was. We sat on a small boat in a quiet glade and fed a school of piranhas the better part of a cow, one hookful at a time. I caught perhaps the smallest fish in the river. Pedro caught five large ones. We threw them all back, but before I removed the hook from my tiny piranha I checked out the teeth, which were, in fact, quite fearsome.
The part of the Amazon where we traveled is broad-shouldered and implacable, the banks yielding mile after mile of unbroken, almost monotonous green. Three times a day, small skiffs of travelers clutching cameras and binoculars left the stylish, air-conditioned confines of the M/V Aqua to venture into the great river and its tributaries. The boats kept a brisk pace, the growl of the engines and rush of water dulling only when we slowed for animal sightings. I saw a family of saddleback monkeys scatter as a black hawk circled overhead. Pink dolphins jumped and played nearby. I held a sloth. But as much as I loved the animals, I was more interested in the plants, particularly the edible ones.
It's possible that I was a bit overcurious. "How about that?" I kept asking, "Can you eat the roots? Are the flowers good?" At one point we drifted near a stand of graminacea, a wild rice plant that natives value for its seeds. It's pretty. It's also covered with needle-like hairs. I spent the next 20 minutes picking them out of my skin.
The Amazon is bewitching, beautiful in disorienting ways. The following morning, as we cruised downriver, I watched the water change from muddy brown to mottled black, like coffee tinged with just-poured milk, and then finally to a shimmering onyx that mirrored the majestic trees and cloudless sky. We were in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, a protected area next to the Amazon roughly the size of Belgium.
We disembarked in a village. While other passengers wandered about, taking photographs and buying trinkets, Pedro and I met a local resident who gave us a tour of his open-air kitchen, where a few iron pots of rice and fish simmered over smoldering embers. In a place with a 60 percent mortality rate before the age of two (according to our guides), the food was geared toward survival: mostly yucca, rice and plantains, supplemented with fish (salted, dried and boiled) and the occasional wild duck or pig (also boiled). We tasted vegetables and herbs from the village garden, then followed a path into the surrounding jungle.
The ingredients we found there were incredible: uvilla, a wild plum that's sweet, like lychee; uvos, a different wild plum that tasted sour and bright like passion fruit. There was palillo, a fruit with an intensely aromatic sweet-sour flavor, like a cherimoya; and charapita (charapa means people from the Amazon), a tiny, incredibly spicy chile (my tasting notes contained words unfit for publication in a magazine). We tried banana flowers, the pale yellow inside leaves of which Pedro uses like endive; numbingly intense fresh Szechuan peppercorns; and an herb that tasted like rye bread.
Pedro buys many of these ingredients from the market in nearby Iquitos, a port city of 500,000 located on the Amazon and accessible only by boat or plane. Before dawn on the last day, while the passengers of the M/V Aqua slept, Pedro and I left the boat to see the market in action. It's not part of the normal trip. At once vibrant and squalid, its narrow streets were lined with tables piled high with butchered turtles and monkeys, wild pigs and embryonic eggs. An elderly woman gave us an extremely memorable demonstration of how to eat very fat and very lively worms. We saw a giant catfish hanging in a refrigerator like a side of beef. There were rainbow-colored displays of chiles and dried beans, vendors cleaning piranhas and meats roasting over open fires. For breakfast, we drank fermented yucca and masato juice and ate grilled fish and plantains. I bought a bottle of native tree sap (sangre de grado, used on cuts to stop bleeding) as a present for my cooks. I had a lot of explaining to do in customs.
I left Peru dreaming of armored catfish, of water lilies and jungle fruits, and of a dish I had at Malabar. It was flounder tiradito, a sushi-ceviche hybrid that reflects the influence of Japanese immigrants on Peruvian cuisine. The carefully sliced fish was stained pink with airampo seeds, used to dye fiber, make teas for medicinal purposes and add color to corn beer. The way Pedro combined cultural traditions, native ingredients and his own imagination says a lot about Peruvian cooking at the moment. And maybe something about its future.
Amazon Cruise Trip Information
Aqua Expeditions offers three-, four- and seven-day Amazon cruises starting at $2,400 per person; aquaexpeditions.com.