Organ Grind: A South American Street Food Journal Part 5, Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru
Belen Market is like a big liver planted in the heart of Iquitos, a chaotic, thrumming organ through which an Amazonian torrent of fruits, vegetables, meats, barks, salves and black market sneakers is caught and dealt with in some fashion or another.
Iquitos, in case you haven’t heard of it, is the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon. As such, it absorbs anything into its bloodstream which that vast region can produce and be exchanged for hard currency.
Visceral metaphors like those utilized above come to mind when thinking of Belen Market. That’s because so much that’s conspicuous about the place is the range of animal products to be had there, both bizarre and quotidian. They are displayed proudly along the market’s many arterials with complete disregard for Western squeamishness. Hoof-on shanks of wildebeast are piled like firewood next to still-twitching black fish with bright yellow egg sacs hung protruding from small slits in their bellies, a mercilessly effective way of guaranteeing freshness.
Still-living fish with egg sacs exposed
The overwhelming butcher shop stench of blood that pervades Belen Market does nothing to deter Iquitos’ working class and poor from flocking to its many lunch counters offering dirt cheap and filling two course meals. These repasts invariably begin with a simple bowl of chicken soup and then move on to whichever protein you prefer, which defines the plate nominally and little else, dominated as it is by a mountainous pile of starch.
Belen lunch counter
Those with an eye for the odd and outre have countless opportunities to find escape from the mundane, here: in addition to those fresh egg sacs, you can find fat-bottom ants deep-fried, raw porcine testicles cut fresh from the carcass and big worms with crunchy, black little heads skewered six on a stick and grilled over coals. Of course, one person’s membranous exoticism is another’s mouthful of Cracker Jacks. Take away the novelty and what you´ve got is a mindly nutty, chewy bit of protein that only has trouble making it down the esophagus when preconceptions interfere with the body´s natural urge to absorb nutrients.
Therefore, I say come to the gut-strewn gate of Belen Market with an open mind, tolerant nasal passages and a compliant pharnyx. Watch for the nibbling of feral dogs at your ankle below and the gang of living gargoyles with broad, black wings perched along the rebar-studded roofs above, waiting for the chance to pluck out an eyeball if you should slip and fall helpless and writhing in the reeking muck. It’s a singular cultural experience and a bargain to boot (neither of which are to be had on Iquitos’ hippy-strewn Telegraph-esque Malecon).