The selva alta of Peru, the high jungle region in the eastern foothills of the Andes, is home to a cornucopia of fruits. Some, like pineapples, coconuts, melons and bananas, are altogether familiar. Others, however, provide curious culinary travelers with plenty of opportunities for discovery, with intriguing fruits and fruit juices waiting to be found in every traditional market…
The scaly-skinned aguaje is a stone fruit like peaches and plums, but without the sweetness or juicy flesh. Peruvians peel away the tough brown skin to get at the thin layer of orange pulp beneath, which they often eat with a sprinkling of salt. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, but it is high in vitamin C and provitamin A (as beta-carotene). Aguaje’s popularity in Perum, and especially the growing popularity of aguaje powder globally, is partly due to its supposed benefits for women: increasing fertility and libido, enhancing the shapeliness of the female body (aguaje is also known as curvy fruit), and combating the symptoms of the menopause. Surprisingly, aguajina, the sweetened fruit juice made from aguaje, is far more delicious than the unadulterated pulp would suggest.
Cocona (Solanum sessiliflorum) is an important ingredient in the Peruvian jungle, where it is used to make delicious refrescos (juices), ice creams, paletas (ice pops), and desserts. It’s also used to make one of the tastiest spicy sauces in Peru, ají de cocona, a mix of cocona, the local ají charapita chili pepper, and cilantro. Eaten in its raw and unadulterated form, cocona has a mild tomato-like aroma and taste, coupled with the pulp’s lime-like acidity.
Beneath the green and slightly prickly skin of the guanábana lies a creamy white flesh that mixes citrusy notes with just the right amount of sweetness. A perfectly ripened guanábana (soursop) provides a moreish experience that keeps you spooning out the pulp and spitting out the large seeds for many contented minutes. In Peru, as in other parts of Latin America, guanábana often features in fruit juice drinks, yogurts, and ice creams.
Many travelers will be familiar with toronja blanca, otherwise known as white grapefruit. The toronja blanca of Peru’s high jungle can be extremely acidic, and while the white segmented flesh provides an initially pleasant experience, it can become overpowering. Nevertheless, Peruvians eat it more out of hand rather than in any other form. White grapefruit is a rich source of vitamin C and is supposed to help lower cholesterol.
Tapisho is a strange fibrous fruit with a green to orange-yellow skin and yellow flesh, all surrounding a pit whose slightly annoying tendrils spread out through the pulp. The meaty but stringy flesh has a sweet and sour taste that won’t appeal to everyone. Locals sometimes eat tapisho out of hand with a sprinkling of salt, or use it to make jams, juices, and ice cream. In other parts of Peru, tapisho is known as taperiba or mango ciruelo.
The precise origins of the chirimoya (Annona cherimola, also written as cherimoya) are subject to some debate, but it’s likely that cultivation first began in the Andes, possibly in Peru. The Moche civilization certainly cultivated chirimoya, as evidenced by representations of the fruit in their ceramics. Chirimoya is now grown commercially in various regions of Peru, including in the high jungle. Other names for the fruit include custard apple and ice cream fruit, both of which hint at its texture and flavor. White and creamy, the flesh is a tasty mix of banana, strawberry, and pineapple profiles. Writing for the The Sacramento Daily Union in 1866, Mark Twain called chirimoya “the most delicious fruit known to men.”
Carambola is native to Asia rather than Latin America, but is now cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world. In Peru, carambola production is particularly important in Jaén, a city in the northern high jungle region. Some travelers will recognize carambola instantly by its English name starfruit, a fitting title considering the distinctive ridges that give carambola a star-shaped cross-section. When ripe, the smooth-shelled, slightly waxy fruit is eaten out of hand in its entirety; the flesh has a crunchy bite accompanied by a refreshing juiciness that ranges from a citrusy tartness to an apple-like sweetness (or a combination of the two). Carambola is used in multiple ways, including as a fruit juice, in desserts and marmalades, and thinly sliced into salads.
The giant tumbo, or giant granadilla, is a truly hefty fruit with a watery, bland, but pleasant-tasting flesh not unlike that of a melon. Fully-grown, the fruit measures about 20 to 30 cm in length and 12 to 15 cm wide. The central cavity contains numerous yellowy-white seeds and some juice. Locals slice up the fruit and eat it as a refreshing snack, or add it to fruit salads with extra lime or sugar to enhance the taste.
Shica shica is a little-known fruit that looks and tastes like a miniature coconut. The tiny round shells are about 1 to 2.5 cm in diameter. Crack one open and you’ll find a solid pulp (no water) that resembles coconut pulp, with the same flavor and texture. According to a friendly market stall owner in Tarapoto, shica shica grows only in Tarapoto and the nearby town of Lamas, which, if true, would make it very uncommon indeed. Locals eat shica shica in the same way as a nut; the pulp is also used to flavor local artisanal ice creams.
Camu camu is native to the low jungles of the Amazon rather than the high jungles of the Andean foothills, but is widely available in the selva alta thanks to its ever-growing popularity. In a country full of superfoods and superfruits, camu camu has become a rising star both at home and as an export thanks to its incredible vitamin C content, roughly 40 times that of an orange. It is also considered a powerful antioxidant and a potential source of other nutritional benefits yet unknown (or at least unproven). The berry-like fruit is acidic and generally not eaten out of hand, but is extremely popular as a juice (with added sugar) and as an ingredient in ice cream.