Sunday, January 31, 2010

La cocina peruana

Over winter break I had the opportunity to travel to beautiful Peru with my boyfriend, Gabriel, to meet his family and see the sights. I spent time in Lima and in various places in the Sacred Valley of the Andes. Naturally we went to Machu Picchu, and it was breathtaking (figuratively and literally - at an altitude of 8,000 ft above sea level). This abandoned city of the Incas is hidden in the mountains, and although the locals have probably always known about it (since it was built in 1430 AD), it was only discovered in 1911 by a guy named Hiram Bingham, from Hawaii. I could keep spouting facts about the Incas and their building styles and methods, but you could always just find that on Wikipedia. What Wikipedia won't tell you is how absolutely delicious Peruvian food is. (There is a nice article on Peruvian cuisine, but, in order to be objective, it doesn't speak to the tastiness of the food.)

The first half of the trip was spent in the Sacred Valley, traveling from Cuzco, to a little lodge just outside of Calca, passing through Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, and then back to Cuzco. Our first afternoon at the lodge, I had kabobs with chicken and peaches (pollo con duraznos). That evening I ordered the chef's special trucha a la teja. My limited Spanish vocabulary does include trucha, which means trout. I learned that teja is a roof tile (along with being a tasty majar blanco-filled confection). To my surprise, I was presented with a whole trout cooked on a real roof tile. It was pretty rare, and I was being careful about what I was eating, so I had it cooked a little more. I'm glad I did, because it returned perfectly cooked and tender. Along with the mashed potatoes served along-side (fact: potatoes originated in Peru!), the fish was filled with a lot of garlic and an herb which I think was parsley. It was also filled with bones. After I got the hang of eating the meat from around the bones, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a fairly large trout, so my oh-so-helpful boyfriend assisted me in finishing it.

The next morning for breakfast there was an array of fruit, which included sliced papaya and tiny, incredibly sweet mountain strawberries, yogurt (which was much more liquid-y than yogurt here) , eggs, bacon, and the typical Andean bread. It was simple but delicious. That afternoon we attended a wedding reception at the lodge, after which there was large buffet of Peruvian food. I tried some of the classic Peruvian dishes, like lomo saltado (beef, onions, and peppers in a soy-sauce-based sauce), rocoto relleno (rocoto peppers stuffed with meat, olives, egg, and a bunch of other things), ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon or lime juice and peppers), and arroz con leche (Peruvian rice-pudding, or rice with milk) for dessert. I also tried the alpaca carpaccio with gorgonzola sauce... which I didn't realize was alpaca at the time. Finally, to toast the couple celebrating their wedding, we raised glasses of pisco sour. Pisco is a Peruvian liquor distilled from grapes, and probably considered the national spirit. In fact, although the customs form going into Peru didn't make a big deal about bringing in plant, animal, or food products (like the form for entering the US), it made very clear that liquors purporting to be pisco, but were not of peruvian origin, were strictly not allowed.

The next day, Gabriel and I set off with our backpacks to journey to Machu Picchu. While waiting for the train in Ollantaytambo, we had Peruvian corn with cheese (choclo con queso) from a street vendor. The corn kernels there are at least two times as large as American sweet corn, and not as sweet. The cheese tucked into the serving husk with the cob is a salty fresh cheese very common in the Andes. Walking past street vendors, I saw quite a few fruits that I didn't recognize among the bottles of Inca Kola and SD cards for digital cameras. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about world foods, but my ignorance about even the most common fruits in Peru humbled me. For instance, always in the fruit basket at the family's home were granadillas. People eat this yellow-orange fig-shaped fruit by pulling off a section of the rind, and eating the grey pulp-covered seeds with a spoon (or with their hands, if they are being casual). The lúcuma fruit is also important to Peruvian cuisine. Although I never saw a fresh lúcuma, I enjoyed plenty of lúcuma-flavored tortes, custards, and puddings.

After seeing Machu Picchu, eating more traditional Peruvian food, and traveling by train and by cab, we arrived in Cuzco again. The next day we spent shopping (ooo alpaca scarves and sweaters!) and touring churches and Inca ruins in and around the city. Both our tour-guide and Gabriel's brother recommended the same restaurant, so for dinner we went to Incanto, just off the main square in Cuzco. We arrived early for dinner (by Peruvian standards), so we were practically alone in the spacious, cleanly decorated restaurant. I was given an English menu (despite food-words being probably my only strong point in Spanish). The cuisine was mainly Italian, with a Peruvian twist. For an appetizer we had bruschetta with house-cured alpaca, sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed, not dry), and goat cheese. They were so good, and I was so hungry that by the time I thought to take a picture they were gone.

For dinner, I ordered spinach and ricotta Malfatti (meaning poorly-formed in Italian, they are little dumplings of cheese and spinach). As you can see in the picture above, they were dressed with a tomato sauce and lots of delicious gorgonzola cheese. Gabriel ordered the ravioli de "Aji de Gallina." Aji de gallina is another ubiquitous Peruvian dish. Shredded chicken is cooked in a really fantastic yellow sauce made of aji peppers. This is usually served with an olive and a hard-boiled egg over rice. This particular dish is a good example of the subtlety of Peruvian cooking. The aji pepper doesn't make the dish particularly spicy-hot, but it does impart a deep pepper taste. It has the flavor of something that is spicy, without being so hot that you can't eat it. Anyway, the ravioli were stuffed with chicken and served in the aji sauce. Gabriel approved.

For dessert we split the torta húmeda de chocolate (moist chocolate cake). This is definitely something I am going to try to replicate. The cake had alternating layers of cake and mousse, with a chocolate ganache and chocolate shavings on top. It was good, as far as chocolate cakes go, but what really made the dessert was the lime-mint shaved-ice (like a very tart granita?) served in a shot-glass alongside. The tart lime and cool mint balanced the rich chocolate perfectly. For me, a chocolate cake is the litmus test of a restaurant. Anybody can make something sweet and chocolaty - but it takes skill to make something that is both sweet and rich, but which is not so cloying that you can only eat one bite of it. And Incanto passed the test with flying colors.

My trip to Peru included many more exciting edibles. There was the homemade causa, the huge and delicious turkey for Christmas dinner, the visit to a Peruvian Chinese restaurant (called a chifa), and lots of panettone. The food only made an otherwise wonderful trip better. In short, I can't wait to go back, but until then, I'll try making some dishes from my new Peruvian cookbook. :)

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