OLLANTAYTAMBO, Peru — As the sun sets, we arrive at a convenience store 2 kilometers west of Ollantaytambo town. Our taxi driver explains that his sedan cannot go the rest of the way to our hotel up the steep, rough road; the hotel’s owner, Holmes Pantoja, will pick us up in his Jeep.
The Inca trail to Machu Picchu begins from Ollantaytambo, a picturesque Andean town at an altitude of 9,000 feet, 60 kilometers from Cusco. The long drive and mountain air have made me ravenous, but I don’t have high dinner expectations. Having traveled in Central America as a vegetarian before, I expect to eat rice, beans, and boiled vegetables during my two-week Peruvian holiday.
I am proven wrong that very evening when we dine at the small restaurant of our hotel, El Molino. As the cook, Jorge Cuadros, presents a variety of vegetable and grain dishes, it dawns on me that Peru might be vegetarian paradise.
The mind-boggling array of Peruvian vegetarian food shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering that the Inca civilization, which peaked here between the 13th and 16th centuries, was based on agricultural innovation and production. When the Spanish conquered Peru in 1572, Inca culture and its cuisine were suppressed, but people like Pantoja are now helping revive traditional cuisine dominated by vegetables, grains, and beans.
“I want to bring back the food from the past,” Pantoja, 38, says. “I want to bring back the deer and the snakes.”
Pantoja, a serious mountaineer, has scaled peaks in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Slovenia. He says he always dreamed of starting a small hotel where the kitchen served traditional Inca food and he could employ local people. He opened the eight-bedroom El Molino last year.
El Molino is tucked in the Andes among wildflowers, goldenberry bushes, lupin, and mountain cacti laden with bright orange, sweet fruit called tuna. On his property, Pantoja has planted sweet lime, apple, fig, and lemon trees. Slivers of vegetable and herb gardens nestle among profusely flowering trees and shrubs that hummingbirds visit all day. In the valley below, the Urubamba river glimmers in the evening light. From above, the towering Andes cast deep shadows.
Cuadros, 30, comes out of the kitchen to greet us as soon as we arrive and asks what we would like to drink. My husband and I get Pisco sours and the children fresh papaya juice. We settle on the front lawn sipping our drinks while Pantoja takes the children exploring. They return with handfuls of freshly picked goldenberries. I love these yellow, fragrant, cherry tomato-like fruits, and these are the best I have had. Seeing me gobbling them, Pantoja disappears, picks some more, removes the papery covers, and offers me a large bowlful.
Goldenberry-stuffed, we think we have no room for dinner. But when Cuadros serves us breaded and sautéed local peppers with fresh guacamole, pasta in a wild mushroom sauce, and salad, we clean our plates very quickly. Dessert is fresh fruit — sweet lime, granadilla, cherimoya, and apple.
I tell Cuadros that I would like to try traditional Inca food. He is pleased and flattered and over the next three days serves us feast after feast of Inca food, mostly vegetarian. I spend time with him in the kitchen, watch him cook, take notes, and ask him too many questions, which he patiently answers in his limited but clear English.
Cuadros learned to cook from his mother and grandmother; they taught him techniques that culinary schools don’t. The basis of Inca food is onions, garlic, and a paste of yellow pepper, aji amarillo, which Cuadros prepares fresh.
“People use preserved, store-bought aji amarillo paste,” he says indignantly. “But it must be prepared fresh every time by boiling the pepper, peeling, and then grinding it.”
I sigh. I know it will be hard to find this pepper back home in the United States and I will have to resort to the canned paste Cuadros doesn’t approve of.
Baskets of potatoes of every hue are stacked in a corner, and Cuadros names a few. Peruanita is red and white, Papa Huairo is purple, Papa Blanca is white. Each has a distinct texture and flavor, and I discover that Peru has more than 4,000 potato varieties.
It was the Incas who discovered and developed potatoes, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and many of the grains and beans we know today. It was from Peru that tomatoes came to Europe, peppers to south Asia, and corn to North America.
A visit to Moray, the Inca “agricultural laboratory,” explains the agricultural excellence and abundance of the time. Moray, an archeological site, is located in the fertile Sacred Valley through which the Urubamba river flows and is a set of circular valleys with terraces along the steep slopes. The Incas discovered that each terrace had a different microclimate; they test-grew crops on the terraces, finding the best conditions for each. They then grew the crop on a large scale in conditions similar to the terrace on which it had been successfully grown.
Every meal Cuadros prepares has potato in some form, several vegetables in salads or stews, beans, quinoa, and chocho, a grain higher in protein than quinoa and still undiscovered by the rest of the world. Three days is not enough to even begin understanding this complex, advanced cuisine.
On our final day, Pantoja takes me on a herb garden tour. I identify mint, lemongrass, stevia, and sage, but the rest are exotic to me and the names elude me. But I won’t forget their different aromas. They will always remind me of towering mountains, a river glistening in the valley below, and air so pure and crisp that I crave food eaten by the people who lived here 1,000 years ago.