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Inca Food and the Inca People

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The role that food played in the Inca Empire was far more important than as just a source of nourishment. In what way?

The Inca, or ruler, of the empire was responsible for sustaining his political and social links throughout his extensive territory. This included storing and providing food where and when it was needed.

The Inca Empire was tied together by a long road or trail, "El Camino de las Incas" or the Inca Road. It stretched from Northern Argentina, the whole length of Peru, and into Northern Ecuador.

From that central road, branches went out to various sectors of the Empire.

Along that trail and in the off-shoots that led to major Inca citadels, some of the most common stone buildings remaining from that culture are the Inca food storage buildings.

Collection, preservation, and distribution of food tied together the many different populations forming the Empire.

About Inca Food

The Inca Empire included large expanses of ocean coast, mountains, and jungles; cultivated lands could be anywhere from sea level to 15,000 feet.

Although much of the land was not suitable for cultivation, the vegetables, fruits, and meats available to the population were generally quite varied.

The potato was the main food of the Incas along with other tubers such as ulluco and oca.

Second of importance was probably maize (corn), which had been introduced from Mexico long before the time of the Incas.

Crops cultivated and eaten by the Incas included the following foods.





Sweet potatoes


Corn (Maize)



Kiwicha (Amaranth)










Palta (avocado)

Legumes and Nuts:


Beans (varied)



Here are some of the lesser-known foods of the Incas:

Meat and Fish - Meat, fresh or dried, included fish, llama, alpaca, guinea pig and other domesticated and wild animals.

Because of the fast system of distribution, fish from the coast could be eaten far away in Cusco, the capital city, along with tropical fruits as well as the locally grown potatoes and maize.

Importance of Food Preservation and Storage in the Inca Empire

Inca Food StorehouseInca Food Storehouse in the Sacred Valley of the Inca People

The main benefits of maintaining storehouses stockpiled with food were:

  • To provide food for government personnel stationed nearby (administrators, soldiers, priests, and temporary or permanent laborers)
  • As a food supply when economic or political changes affected local food production
  • Protection against naturally-caused famines

These storehouses were kept stocked year round and were ready to serve the movement of the Inca forces at any moment. The state storage system maintained stored food sufficient to last 3 to 7 years.

At least 2,000 warehouses, called quolqa or qullqa (in Quechua, quollqa), were scattered throughout the Inca Empire. The food was also used to feed nearby communities in times of need.

The Incas had an advanced system of food preservation and storage. This in itself was one of the major reasons the Inca Empire was able to extend its influence along the route of the Camino de Las Incas and reach to the Pacific Ocean on the West and the Amazon jungles on the East.

Freeze Drying

Freeze-dried foods are not a modern invention. The Incas began to freeze-dry vegetables and meat as many as 1500 years ago. The high mountains provided the perfect way to freeze dry:

  • The food was spread on rocky ground where it was exposed to the elements.
  • During the cold nights, the meat or vegetables would freeze.
  • In the daytime, the heat of the sun in the dry and rarefied atmosphere would quickly melt the ice crystals and evaporate the moisture.
  • After a few days, the tubers were trampled to expel more moisture and allowed to finish the freeze-dry process.

Freeze-dried potatoes, whole or ground, are called chuño. This food is widely available and eaten in Peru and other Andes countries to this day.

Along with their advanced method of food preservation and storage, the Incas had a well-developed distribution system.

Obtained from local communities under a system of taxation, the stored food not only enabled the Incas so to survive periods of drought and feed their standing army; it also served nearby communities in times of need.

Inca Food Variety

Although the Incas are not around as a culture anymore, some of the foods we commonly consume are a heritage of that mighty nation.

Starting with foods that originated with the Incas and going on to other Inca staples, here are some of their favorites:

Inca Food - Potatoes

Inca Food - Papas - Several of the 2,000 varieties in PeruInca Food - Papas - Several of the 2,000 varieties in Peru

Many of us learned in school that the potato originated in Peru.

Potatoes (papas) were one of the main crops of the Inca Empire.

Today, over 2,000 varieties of potatoes can be found on dinner plates in the towns of the Andes.

Inca Food - Jerky

Lesser known than the origin of the potato is the fact that beef jerky (charki or charqui) began with the Incas.

The meat used was generally llama or alpaca meat and was freeze-dried and stored.

Charqui is still widely eaten today in Peru and Bolivia in various recipes, usually being reconstituted by cooking.

The Incas called this dried meat "charqui (charki)" which in English pronunciation became "jerky."

The Incas used other kinds of meat for their "charqui" depending on what was available. The "charqui" was stored along with the dried potatoes and other vegetables.

Peruvian restaurants around the world serve various recipes using "charqui" and also use varied meats.

Beef was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadores around 1500 A.D. and was not known previously.

However, the descendants of the Incas, the Quechua people, were quick to begin using it for beef "charqui."

Inca Food - Popcorn

Popcorn? Yes, the Incas were the first to use popcorn. It was found to be an ideal way to preserve corn (maize), which was one of their staple foods.

Popcorn (palomitas, pipoca, canguil) as well as many other popped grains are consumed currently in Andean countries.

Other Inca Food Staples



Inca Food - Oca 
Inca Food and Inca People   Inca Food and Inca People
Oca, also known as New Zealand Yams (pink oca), comes in many varieties. It is a native Peruvian tuber, and staple of the Inca diet. It is now eaten worldwide

Mistaken in many places as a member of the yam family, this tuber was taken to Europe around 1830. Introduced in New Zealand around 1860 and from there to the Pacific Islands, it is known as the New Zealand Yam.

Oca was the #2 food of the Incas. Andean people still cultivate and consume many varieties of this tuber, usually in soups and stews.

Generally eaten cooked like a potato, it can also be eaten raw.


Freeze-dried potatoes that are rehydrated and cooked, chuño is still widely consumed in the Andes.
  1. In the high dry mountains of the Andes, small potatoes are spread on the ground.
  2. After alternately freezing at night and drying in the intense sun of the day for three days, the potatoes are trampled into a mush.
  3. They are then exposed to the drying cycle two more days until thoroughly dried.

A somewhat tasteless starch by itself, chuño easily takes on flavors to form the basis of tasty dishes.

Ullucu (ollucu) and Arracacha

Ullucu (ollucu) and arracacha are other common tubers of the Andes that were eaten by the Incas. Today, over 60 varieties are available in local Peruvian markets. 

Vegetables somewhat like carrots, these are used in soups and stews.


A sweet, starchy root usually prepared by baking.

Chili Peppers

Red, green, yellow and hot or mild, chili peppers were widely used in Inca food. Today, Peruvian sauces are often defined by which chili is used for flavoring.

Kiwicha (amaranth)

Becoming increasingly popular lately as a gluten-free substitute for grains, this seed is ground and used as flour or prepared in other ways. Widely cultivated by the Incas, it is highly nutritional and nourishing.


Again, maize (corn) was a mainstay. Quinoa, a grain that is growing in popularity among health-conscious people, was a staple of the Inca diet.


Llama, alpaca, cuy (guinea pig), fish, and various other local animals and fowls.

Inca Food - A Healthy Diet

The variety in diet and low consumption of fatty foods along with several foods recognized now for high nutrition and low adverse affects, surely provided a well-nourished physical state among the well-fed of the time.

Although no one would willingly bring back some of the aspects of the Inca culture such as human sacrifices, the Inca food and diet is something we could do well to imitate.

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