Juanes are tasty Peruvian fare with a dual heritage. This traditional rice-and-protein combo anchors family feasts on June 24, an important religious holiday that celebrates the life of San Juan Batista, or St. John the Baptist. And because portions are precooked and individually wrapped in Maranta or banana leaves, they are easily transported on fishing trips and jungle forays.
“Juanes are the fast food of the Amazon River,” joked Segundo, one of the naturalists who accompanied us on our International Expeditions riverboat cruise.
Peruvians actually eat juanes all year long. Mothers often make large batches and sell them at local markets. Young girls practice to perfect their technique, so they will be considered suitable wives.
“Sometimes we have a competition for the best flavor,” Segundo said. “The husband (of the winner) says, ‘This is my lady.’”
One afternoon, our chef demonstrated how to make juanes. One the table were his ingredients: Chicken legs, which had been marinated and stewed in a mixture of water, palm oil, onion, cilantro, bay leaf, turmeric and salt. A bowl of the chicken broth. Cooked white rice. Raw and hard-boiled eggs. Black olives. A stack of banana leaves.
The chef poured the aromatic broth over the white rice, added raw eggs and mixed until it was a golden color. Then he held a flame beneath the spine of each leaf to make it more pliable. He crisscrossed two leaves in one hand and scooped rice into the center. He buried a hard-boiled egg and a chicken leg into the mound, and added a few olives. (You could use fish instead of chicken, Segundo said.)
Then came the tricky part of securing the leaves: Gather up the four ends to completely enclose the food. Twist as firmly as you dare, and neatly fold over the ends. Tie the top with a rope or strip of bark. You should more or less end up with a ball-like shape with a knob at one end.
Several of our fellow travelers, including my husband, Arnie, tried their hands as assembling juanes. Their efforts weren’t quite as smooth as chef’s, but they did a fine job.
The juanes are then boiled in water for 30 to 45 minutes, and turned upside down to drain.
When you’re ready to eat, the leaves serve as a plate. Peruvians don’t eat the leaves, but their pigs do.
“They like the flavor, and nothing is wasted,” Segundo said.
We enjoyed the flavors as well when the chef served juanes on the dinner buffet that night.
A few days later we departed for home from the airport in Iquitos. As I strolled through the terminal, I noted several commercial refreshment stands. Each one had juanes on their menu. A juane and a drink for 10 soles, or roughly $3. Just like Segundo said, it is the fast food of the Amazon.