Photo Credit: Erin Williams © 2011
Go to Perú hungry. For a few soles a meal you can treat your gut to some great Peruvian cuisine. Cravings of the meat and seafood lover will easily be met. Vegetarians, tread lightly. For the most part the cuisine centers around staple offerings; a meat and potato diet so to speak. The beauty of this country’s gastronomical offerings are in the preparation and the ability to make something truly delicious and filling with so a few ingredients. From the simplest meat on a stick to arroz con mariscos, my hunger was not disappointed. There was little about Perú that I did not enjoy, and the cuisine was no where near that short list.
Throughout Perú, more often then not, you’ll find someone grilling up small tasty morsels of meat. Meat on a stick as I refer to it. Nutrition for a road weary traveler, despite for the most part being mystery meat. As my nose guided me to the best brisket in Texas, and perhaps all of America, last summer, so too did it to these beacons of light for the lost at sea sailor. Mystery meat is really quite easy to eat when it smells, looks and tastes as good as it did. The aroma of the presumably garlic and spice based marinade filled the streets when the meat was being grilled. The wood skewer, about a foot in length is filled with around five to six pieces of meat and is then topped with a grilled potato. Once soles are given to the proprietor you then get to consume your meat on a stick amongst the bustle of Peruvian street life. Not much gets better than being surrounded by history and all walks of life while eating mystery meat with marinade and grease covering your hands. Street food, seemingly something many are hesitant of, is not worth avoiding in Perú, especially when it comes to meat on a stick.
Sometimes, just like any profession, you hit the big time. The stars align and you gain notoriety and become the Charles Barkley of your craft. In the meat on a stick business in Perú this means moving from your street corner to a true brick and mortar location. On one of our final nights in Lima, we ventured to one that had gained such fame (above photo). Originally we thought we were getting more standard cuts of mystery meat (standard of course by our definition of standard, traveling reveals that your ways are anything but outside of your stomping grounds) when we arrived at the location. Or perhaps our misconceptions caught up with us to reveal that we’d been consuming cow heart for three weeks. Upon presentation of the menu, sirloin was out of the question with the main choices being cow heart (anticuchos de corazon) and cow giblets (spanish name unknown). The heart is served on the skewer and the giblets are diced and placed on a plate. Both tasted great, particularly the heart, the unfamiliar texture of the giblets made them a bit more difficult to finish, but only for that reason. Anthony Bourdain would be proud.
A trip to Perú without eating a bite of ceviche would be sacrilegious. Each of the numerous times we partook in eating this Latin American dish, we were blessed with an overflowing bowl or plate filled with enough raw fish to fill more than just my large stomach. As with Peruvian tea, “mixto” was the way to order the dish. For those unfamiliar with ceviche, it is a meal comprised of raw fish, marinaded with citrus juices. The mixto variation is a divine combination of sushi size cuts of fish, squid and octopus mixed with red onions, diced or large slices of very spicy pepper and the citrus and spice broth which the meat marinades in. In some places the dish would take on the appearance of a soup with the amount of citrus liquid the ceviche was served in. Other times, the ingredients would be placed on a plate with little to no broth. As a side to ceviche, we were often given sweet potatoes, corn, fresh limes, hot sauce and salted puffed corn. The taste was never dominated by the fish, more often a balanced cohesion of lime and spice and in a few cases was predominantly and surprisingly spicy. As ginger is to sushi, the sweet potato and corn were to ceviche, providing a nice sweet cleanse for the palate in-between bites. Aside from the wonderful combination of flavor from the mix of ingredients, a fresh plate of ceviche placed on the table in front of us was often a work of art. As complex as the taste so to were the colors and textures. Flashes of brilliant purple, yellow, red and orange reveal themselves through a base of neutral whites.
Arroz con mariscos was another seafood dish which we consumed abnormal quantities of while along the coast. With seafood as readily available, cheap and delicious as it was, we were hard pressed to pass on consuming on the filling and tasty meal. By the end of the trip, I was OK with a break from ceviche. I’ve yet to come to terms with the lack of arroz con mariscos in this landlocked town. Simply put, arroz con mariscos is a bountiful combination of rice, some vegetables and a variety of seafood similar to what we found in ceviche. These ingredients are combined into a singular mixture to which was tossed with some butter and seasonings to create a very light sauce. In other variations, the base sauce was much more thick and creamy, incorporated queso and was far more dominant to the overall taste and texture. Either way, when ordering arroz con mariscos we were served a generous proportion fit for two people. Reminiscent of my limited samplings of paella both in America and abroad, the flavor and overall experience of arroz con mariscos was very similar. The complexity found in the addictive quality of the flavor was a combination of factors that depended on cook, family recipe, region and available ingredients.
Picarones are tasty oversized rings of gooey goodness can be obtained from street vendors, bodegas, grocery stores and picaronerias: locations dedicated to the single purpose of serving the perfect picarone. To call it a doughnut would do injustice to both the picarone and the doughnut. My post-trip research has revealed that picarone dough is derived from sweet potato and squash. We had no idea when consuming them and seeing only the dough we would never have guessed this to be an ingredient. Fried in oil, they are served hot with a crispy outside covered in a thin sweet syrup and innards that are just barely departed from the dough they started as. For at most a sol per picarone, one can easily fill their belly with as little as a few soles and we did so on numerous occasions.
When seeking the obtainment of a picarone in Perú, per all other cuisines and beverage, do so via the street vendors or those street vendors who have obtained Charles Barkley status and are now doing so in a picaroneria. I’m sure the señora who runs the joint above has been making picarones long before Charles Barkley was lacing up his Nike kicks and pounding the hardwood. Just think of all the flavor infused into that oil vat after years of picarone preparation. That’s something you can’t fake.
In any warm Peruvian city or town the streets are filled with ice cream vendors. Two brands monopolize the street ice cream vending market in Perú: Lamborgini and D’Anafria. As Microsoft was to Apple in the 90s so to is D’Anafria to Lamborgini in Perú. Set out to the streets as a general would disperse his troops to the battlefield, trying to locate an ice cream soldier in the warmer regions of the country was like trying to find the sun at noon in the middle of Death Valley. By quantitative default, we were Microsoft people. My selection of choice: Frio Rico, a chocolate ice cream cone filled with espresso ice cream. The downside of Peruvian ice cream was that any of the ice cream we tried always left a weird aftertaste in our mouths once completely consumed. Obviously not bad enough to get me to stop eating the stuff. Nor was it something that a nice cold Cusqueña wouldn’t wash away. Maybe on my next trip to Perú I will realize that I should have been an Apple guy.
One of our most intimate dinning experiences was the two days we spent staying with a family on Amantani Island situated on the western side of Lake Titicaca. A family who’s wealth extended far beyond what their possessions would indicate. Living on a parcel of land that overlooks the lake and the distant mountains of Boliva (one of the most beautiful vistas we experienced on our trip) they live off their land. Their quinoa is farmed in their backyard and is situated right next to the pen for their five or so heads of sheep. What they don’t grown in their backyard, they obtain from other members of the community on the island. The father of the family confessed he rarely makes the three hour venture to the closest “modern” town, Puno, from where our journey of the lake had originated.
The meals are prepared by the mother of the family with the help of her two daughters and humor of her three year old grandson (main image). Aided by the help of a small propane range, the majority of the cooking is done on a wood fire. The mom seemingly spent the majority of her time situated in a corner of the kitchen next to a wall blackened by the soot and smoke from the fire. When one meal finished, she was preparing for the next. I couldn’t help but feel blessed to have been allowed a brief glimpse into a life that was so different, yet so similar to my own. Watching her prepare food and soup as she has done for years reminds me what my Babcia does in her small corner of the Earth in Colorado. Preparing her chicken or tomato soup and pierogies as she has for years. It’s a story many can relate to which transcends wealth, nationality, religion or ethnicity. Grandmother’s home cooking. And of course, each grandmother makes the best food in the world, rivaled by none.
The señora of this household made one mean quinoa soup. The color of chicken soup, accompanied with quinoa and other greens. It was the staple for lunch and dinner along with mate de coca with mint picked from their backyard. A very fitting meal for the region they live in. Soup and tea that can be made and consumed year round; not to heavy for the warm summer day while also probably being a welcomed relief from the cold of winter. For lunch we had this soup along with rice. At night we had quinoa soup again, this time with egg in it as well as rice and potatoes. The rice was served plain without any seasoning and the potatoes took on a form similar in taste and appearance to green chili. Half of our dinner meal was illuminated by florescent light and when the solar power ran out for the evening we finished dinning and listening to their stories by the light of a few small candles and the remaining embers of the fire where the meal was cooked. For breakfast the morning of our departure one of her daughters prepared pancakes which were much thinner than the American variety and a bit sweeter as well.
The rest of the trip was filled with other great eats which don’t merit as much detail as above. A trip to Perú also must be accompanied by some chicharrón(es). Typically, chicarrones refers to fried pork, but in Perú not only could one obtain pork chicharrón(es), but pretty much any other animal one could want, or imagine, fried in fat. I tried pork (chicharrón(es) de puerco?) and chicken (chicharrón(es) de pollo). Good eats, hard to mess up fried meat served with french fries, or full potato, that goes really well with a frothy glass of chica. While in Arequipa we had an incredible meal of alpaca and a creamy queso quinoa soup. The alpaca was a tender meat, served to us grilled, which we both really enjoyed. The one thing we missed out on was trying guinea pig (cuy). Primarily because we never found an affordable offering of the little animals which have been consumed in Perú for centuries. Each corner we rounded, I was hoping to see that glorious food stand serving them on sticks, but our paths never crossed.
Aside from a few frustrations in tourist towns of not being able to escape the food catered towards those pounding the gringo trail, the food was obviously something to write home about. Perhaps more specifically a frustration stemming from not being able to withstand our hunger long enough to escape the wall to wall Italian and Chinese restaurants in such cities as Aguas Calientes.