Food consumed by the inhabitants of the Inca Empire varied depending on where in the vast territory they lived. People living near the coast based their diet on fresh seafood and fruits and in the Andes on potatoes and corn. The vast majority of the Inca population lived along the Andes where in many places food could not be grown due to the rugged terrain and freezing temperatures. The Incas grew their food in the fertile plains between mountains peaks, seasonal rains made its soil suitable for agriculture. Andean cultures predating the Incas built agricultural terraces by cutting wide flat steps into the slopes of the mountains making agriculture more efficient.
The Incas produced more food than needed and was stored for times of need. Food security was one of the most important policies of the Inca Empire. Their organization, roads, labor and tax systems contributed to the success of its distribution.
The following is a list of Inca foods:
Root vegetables were the most important staple foods consumed by the Incas and all of them are native to the Andes. Archeological findings show that certain root vegetables such as the potato, oca, sweet potato and manioc were domesticated about 8,000 years ago. These crops have the ability to grow in poor soil conditions, withstand freezing temperatures and store for future consumption. Since most Andean communities based their diet on these tubers, which are a rich source of carbohydrates but a poor source of protein, many suffered from protein-energy malnutrition.
Different varieties of Peruvian potatoes
Potatoes were the most important ingredient in Inca diet and their main source of nourishment. The potato is one of Peru’s native crops and was domesticated more than 8000 years ago by pre-Inca cultures. Around 2,500 varieties are native to the Peruvian Andes. Potatoes were dried and prepared in the form of chuño.
Cassava (yuca), sweet potatoes (camote), oca, olluco, arracacha, maka, mashua and yacon were other tubers consumed and cooked in the same way as the potato.
Grains were an essential source of protein and nutrients in the Inca civilization.
Maize has been cultivated in the Andes since at least 1200 BC. Ancient Inca farmers achieved a degree of sophistication in the breeding of new varieties of maize. Sara, a special variety, was grown at lower altitudes and was used as offerings in religious ceremonies. Another variety of maize was used to brew a drink called chicha, which is still a popular drink today.
Amaranth or kiwicha in Quechua was a staple grain of the Incas. With more than 1,200 varieties and cultivated 4,000 years ago, kiwicha is a grain rich in protein and nutrients. It was offered in religious ceremonies and used as medicine.
Quinoa is also known as the “mother grain” or chisiya mama for its role as an important food source for Inca armies. Its ability to survive in high altitudes, from 2,800 up to 4,000 meters, intense heat, freezing temperatures and little rain, made it an important crop on which the population could rely.
Fresh fruits and vegetables were traded with other regions and were seasonal. Among them are tomatoes, squash (zapallo), papayas, cherimoyas, pineapples, lucuma, passion fruit, prickly pears (tuna fruit) ,pacay and berries.
Prickly pear or tuna fruit in a market in Cusco
Meat was consumed in smaller quantities and was a treat. Inca families raised guinea pigs for their meat, they also ate the meat of llamas. In the Altiplano near Lake Titicaca fish from the lake and nearby rivers were part of their diet.