Peru’s “Corn”-erstone Crop

by Gabriella Borter


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s sold on every street corner, it garnishes every plato principal, and it even forms the basis of the nation’s beer, chicha—Peruvian gastronomy is more innovative today than ever before, but corn remains at the forefront of the national cuisine.

It seems to be the starchy legacy of the Incas, whose diet consisted mainly of grains, vegetables, and meat. Easy to grow and able to feed both humans and livestock, maize was a staple crop of the Inca civilization. The bones of the Inca people reveal as much, which TYG reporters learned after visiting La Casa Concha Museum in Cusco. The museum exhibited the results of a study of the skeletal remains found buried at Machu Picchu. Based on the osteological evidence, the study concluded that the city’s inhabitants subsisted on a heavy-carb diet. Considering that an estimated 4,275,000 metric tons of corn were consumed in Peru in 2015, it seems that Peruvians in the 21st century have continued to enjoy corn carbo-loading since Pre-Columbian times. Quinoa may be the up and coming Peruvian grain, but corn has its place in Peru’s cultural heritage.  

My fellow Globalist reporters and I become aware of the ubiquity of corn in Peru the first time we ate at a restaurant, when the waiter brought over two cocktail peanut-style trays of salted Inca corn kernels, resembling American “corn nuts.” We’ve since found these kernels on every restaurant table, in the wicker baskets of Peruvian street vendors who sell them in bulk, and even as the complimentary in-flight snack of LAN Airlines. Someone always orders “chicha morada” at Globalist group dinners, a common beverage of sweet juice made from the purple corn that grows in Peru. Hunks of choclo corn on the cob are served with most traditional dishes, with kernels five times the size of typical corn on the cob in the U.S. Even the fajitas I ordered in Ollantaytambo the other day consisted of veggies wrapped in a sort of corn pancake. If it’s not a standalone food item, corn becomes an ingredient.

Chicha Morada

More than 50 varieties of corn grow in Peru, and the variety facilitates the preparation of countless different corn dishes. Perhaps the best form of corn consumed on this reporting trip was the pastel de choclo that Micaela’s (our trip leader’s) mother made when we had dinner at Micaela’s house. It had the consistency of freshly baked cornbread, but it was laced with Andean cheese. Crisp on the edges and soft and warm on the inside, this Peruvian improvement on corn casserole made us salivate.

One sure takeaway from the reporting trip’s culinary experience is that the Peruvians take their corn very seriously. We will hold the “Peruvian Corn Salad” in the Yale dining halls to a much higher standard of comparison from now on.