The indigenous communities of Northern Argentina make the meals and the regional cooking unique to Argentina. In our previous post Llama meat and the surprising dishes from the Quebrada de Humahuaca (part 1) we talked about our discoveries around Ilama meat, Queso de Cabra (goat cheese) and tortillas. In this post, we present the unique indigenous grains, tubers and roots which are healthy and delicious alternatives to meat. They are definitively great options for vegetarians and vegans.
Table of contents
The Important Role of Maiz
Maiz (corn) is one of the main ingredient in the cuisine of Argentina and in particular, the cuisine of the North of Argentina which is highly influenced by the Andeans population and its proximity to Bolivia. In the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Maiz is the most significative plant for its cultural influence and its natural heritage. Indeed, in addition to being a base ingredient in meals, it also has multiples significations in the Andean culture. It plays a role in traditional and ceremonial values, in religious rituals, as well as in building the collective identity. Unfortunately, a lot varieties are disappearing due to the introduction of GMO varieties that have better yield. The villages of the Quebrada are holding on to their traditions and cultivating the different varieties of maiz in their quintas (vegetable gardens). There is an ongoing effort to maintain what makes the maiz of this region unique and to keep the tradition and the culture alive. You can read more about this in the interpretation center of Pucara in Tilcara or on their website here.
The maiz is used to make choclo that fills the humitas, tamales or empanadas… It is also used as a flour for bread, cake or other preparations.
Preserving Papas Andinas
Papas andinas (Andean native potatoes) are an important part of the meals in the region of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. They are many varieties of papas andinas. Due to the cold in the high altitude where they grow, the papas andinas do not grow big in size but tend to concentrate the minerals from the soil which provides great flavor and nutritional properties.
Here are the ones we saw the most on the market:
- The papas oca that are either yellow or red. Their taste is slightly sweet and they melt in the mouth after they are cooked. Those were our favorite.
- Then there are small and green ones called papa verde, which we didn’t find as tasty.
- And finally, the papa churquena that are small round yellow potatoes which is the most popular varieties and used in most dishes. They are very tasty and easy to cook.
We bought some a mix of varieties of papas andinas at the Mercado Municipal in Tilcara and took them back to cook at at our Hostel, Albahaca (which means basil). In this short video here, you can see how we prepared the potatoes and enjoyed them with a tomato salad, queso de cabra, and salame de llama…Riquissimo!
Quinoa In Various Dishes
Quinoa was first cultivated first in Bolivia and now is cultivated across the Quebrada de Humahuaca. It is a grain that resist to high altitude conditions and grows with high nutritional value. It does not contain gluten therefore making it an ideal option for people diagnosed with celiac disease. They are several varieties of Quinoa. The one that is found in the Quebrada is the one with small grains called Quinoa Real while the variety with thicker grains as well as the variety with red grains are found in Bolivia. Quinoa is cooked in different meals, including soups, Guiso (a type of stew) or Milanesa.
We tried Sopa de Quinoa (quinoa soup) at Khuska restaurant, where we went back a second time because of the excellent food. The soup was very tasty, with sweet flavors incorporated into the preparation, just delightful! Khuska chef, Ines, told us why she prefers to use Quinoa de la Quebrada versus the one from Bolivia. She says the quinoa variety from the Quebrada is much firmer than the one from Bolivia which is used more like a risotto.
We also cooked Quinoa at our Hostel and enjoyed it with a tomato salad as well as with queso de cabra. The Quinoa was very tasty and flavorful. It took us about 1/2 hour to cook the Quinoa after rinsing it to remove the bitterness. You can see below a video of our cooking experience at the Albahaca Hostel.
Cayote As A Sweet
The Cayote (pronounced cachote) is a vegetable from the squash family that is used as a sweet in several dishes. First, you can find dulce de cayote which is a type of marmalade made from the cayote vegetable. The cayote is very fibrous and the dulce is quite fibrous as well. It is sweet, naturally sweet without an artificial taste.
Cayote is also used in a desert with quesillo a flat cheese made of a combination of cow and goat milk. On our second visit to Khuska, we saved our appetite to try out the Cayote con Quesillo y Nuez (cheese with and walnuts). Ines, the chef, explained to us how the cayote needs to be cooked in the oven (about 1 hour per kilo), to be able to open up the cayote and remove the filling to cook it. The mix of flavor sweet and salty with the cheese as well as the fresh nuts made this dessert quite exquisite and nutritious. Definitively a must. We recommend to save room after the main meal to try out this dessert.
This was our last stop on our North of Argentina trip. We leave the region with our eyes filled of beautiful images and with our stomachs filled of new tastes and delicious meals.
As we were discovering the numerous varieties of corn and quinoa, we learned that these native or indigenous grains are at risk of becoming extinct. The allure of GMO and resistant seeds is wiping out varieties that are nutritious and native to the region. This article here goes more into detail about the issue. We hope that by raising awareness on the varieties of grains that have been used for generations and the extinction risk that exists, we can keep the demand and production of these indigenous crops alive.
Our next stop will be Cafayate before returning to Buenos Aires. It will be our last chance to still experience the unique specialties of the region, while enjoying some of the best wines of Argentina. Stay tuned, more to come on our next post!
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Claire is a culinary explorer, digital nomad and engineer brain behind Authentic Food Quest. Together with her partner, Rosemary, they created Authentic Food Quest to help people find the best local food on their travels. For over 5 years they have eaten their way through South America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America while sharing the best local food experiences on their website. Authentic Food Quest has been featured on top publications such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Honest Cooking. Claire and Rosemary are also authors of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon.