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A taste for Peru

How come nobody has told me about Peruvian food? Among most culinary capitals in the world which are proud of their diversity in international cuisine as much as their diversity in inhabitants, Peruvian food is hardly in the headline. Or even mentioned. In London, I knew of TWO Peruvian restaurants on the south side of Thames. TWO. 
Given my ignorance on Peruvian cuisine, I prepared myself for my Peruvian trip mentally and physically that I would be deprived of proper food. Crackers, snack bars and chocolates were among the to-be-packed survival list, even though they did not occupy the top spots, which I left to sturdy trekking shoes and lightweight thermal underwear. And Imodium. It is okay, I said to myself. I am in Peru to see the Lost City, the mythical Machu Picchu. I am in Peru to float across the highest lake on planet earth, Lake Titicaca (pronounced Lake ‘Titikaka’ with the ‘k’ sounds, as later corrected by the locals). I am there to witness the undisturbed wildlife in their Amazon habitat. Food can be secondary. I can deal with a couple of weeks putting behind my culinary expectations. After all, taste is only one out of our six senses. ‘I will lose half a stone by the time I come back to London’, I solemnly announced to my friends. ‘With all the trekking and the lack of good food, weight loss will be out of the question. I will be cat walking in skinny jeans when I am back.’

So what went wrong? Days after I flew back into Heathrow and found myself back onto the bathroom scale in the gymnasium changing room, among streams of well-sculpted gym junkies, in my slight disappointment but not surprise I saw the red tipped pointer pointing at exactly where it was a few weeks ago. Where had all that trekking effort gone? And the water evaporated among heat and humidity in the jungle? Of course I knew the answer. It was THE FOOD.

I was a hungry diner in a corner café half a mile away from our hostel in the old historical centre of Lima. After all the regular drama of going through custom, wrestling with my luggage, tried-hard bargaining with the cab driver for a one-hour ride into the city with my barely-there Spanish, my energy squeezed out of the processed carbohydrate and sugar meal consumed on the flight was no longer sustained. My stomach was rehearsing rock and roll and I made a decision far quicker than Sir Alan Sugar deciding which apprentice to fire in the week’s episode, before my blood sugar dropped to zero. ‘Vegetables and bean soup, please.’ I must say that the Peruvians do not do a very good job in presenting their menu in English. With description as plain as this I was expecting some yellowish watery liquid that could possibly fill up my stomach once the bread absorbed the water and expanded in volume by three-fold. It was an unfair assumption. Even before towing the spoon out of the soup, I was already amazed by its chunkiness. Among the array of colours, immediately distinguishable were carrots, potatoes, broad beans, onions, celery, cabbage, pepper, quinoa. The liquid was in a consistent creaminess. The taste – it must be that I was really starving, I told myself. I did go back to my hostel happy and satisfied, as was a stone-age hunter returning home with his hunt for the week and had it roasted on wood-fire by his wife. 

My first proper meal in Peru happened on the next day in Puno. Arriving at a high attitude of more than 3800m direct from sea level, both my travel partner Rosa and I were prepared to be victimised by the all-so-well-publicised attitude sickness. Short of breath, dizziness, lack of appetite were all part of the symptoms, we were told over and over. But after sitting on our beds for about half an hour waiting for the unfortunate moments to kick in, we were almost excited to sense hunger, and decided among ourselves that 1) we must be one of those lucky ones who were less affected by attitudes 2) it was dinner time. Great! We rushed downstairs and scouted for a local map at the front counter. From our friendly chat with the earnest-looking receptionist and the German hotel guest who was fiddling on the internet across the other end of the lobby, ‘Calle Lima is the strip where all the decent bars and restaurants in town are’, we were confirmed.

magic corn

With no hesitation we headed out in that direction, only delighted to find that it was just one block away from where we stayed. Added even more to our joy was that most of these places appeared civilised with a touch of authenticity and cosiness, with alternate patches of neon yellow, bright pink and sky blue tablecloth tidily lined between parallel rows of wooden benches or chairs. Clay ovens with inviting orange flames were cleverly set close to the front windows, suggesting charcoaled barbecued meat or freshly baked pizza and radiating warmth which was more than tempting for a city that could has its temperature dropped to zero at night time. No pizzas, I said to Rosa, given that we were in Peru. Although the smell of baking flour dough escaping out of those heavy glass doors and amplified by the strong wind was highly comforting. Puzzled by choices, we decided on a restaurant that was described in our guide book as ‘plain setting but has one of the best local food in town.’ As we emerged from the stairs onto the first floor as directed, Rosa and I could see the question marks popping up on each other’s faces: the restaurant was not even half-filled. But after all, the prices were earthy and we had bargained at the door for each person a free Pisco Sour, the national cocktail. I set my eyes on the menu on the fishermen’s trout, which the waiter explained first in attempt in English and later reverted to Spanish, was a dish with ‘everything’. To fulfill my curiosity I decided on that as my gamble for the night. The ‘everything’ turned out to be rice, beans, potatoes, yam, banana fritters and salad. The flattened fried trout sat neatly on this miniature mountain of ‘everything’. My logic told me that we were right by the lake area – nothing could have gone wrong with ordering fish. I wasn’t mistaken in that way. The firmness of the flesh and the sharpness of its taste did suggest catch of the day. But I was even more mesmorised by the side dishes, although first fooled by the humbleness of their ingredients. ‘This is probably the best rice I have ever had’, I declared to Rosa. I did not quite mean probably, but was just embarrassed to admit that it was the best. How can I not have tasted better rice before? Given my Chinese origin and was half raised on rice as a child. And the potatoes – the simple but the joyful flavour was rolling over my sea of taste buds. I went silent but kept on munching the boiled potatoes on my plate as well as the fries on Rosa’s.

As the later days and weeks unfold, I ended up with a fairly logical although not totally scientific explanation of Peru’s good food. Most meals come in the formula:

Fresh ingredients + basic cooking = good food

In an average restaurant you would find a bestseller pattern – main courses come in a simple matrix of fish, chicken and beef, paired with ways of preparation no more complicated than steamed (for fish), grilled or fried. Especially if you ask for set meals where 10-15 soles (£2-3) will get you a starter, main course and a dessert or wine. Rice, corn and potatoes form the golden triangle of staples.

If you decide to be a little bit fussier and sit in the comfort of cotton-cushioned chairs in a slightly more sophisticated restaurant, the more elaborate dishes are predominantly in the forms of barbecued meat, stir-fry or stews. A perennial favourite among both locals and tourists is Lomo Saltado, a beef stir-fry with tomatoes, onion and a dash of red wine served with rice, whereas my pick is – again a soup – Chupe de Camarones, the Peruvian style seafood chowder.

Chupe de Camarones

As I enthusiastically explained the dish and recommended it to a sixty-plus English couple who just walked into the restaurant and stared in my humongous clay pot with the jumbo shrimp claw sticking out of the rich orange pond, ‘It is like the French Bouillabaisse with additional hearty ingredients of rice, corn, potatoes, beans and egg.’ Ceviche is just as good, if you are not intimated by raw food. The dish with strips of uncooked white fish marinated in coriander and lime juice is crowned the national dish in this Latin America country.

The Peruvian menu is not free of exotic ingredients though, for those in the adventurous spirit. Guinea pigs and alpaca are two of the local specialties the waiting staff will willingly explain to you. Both Rosa and I couldn’t face the poor little animal leaning sideway with its burnt skin on the plate and happily consented on banning the guinea pigs on our table under all circumstances. Personally I don’t eat red meat. Rosa’ verdict on alpaca is: it resembles of lamb and pork with a more chewy texture. For the budget travelers who want to share a taste of this highland inhabitant – there are indeed skewers of alpaca meat sold along tourist tracks – may be nothing as high up as Machu Picchu but I did see hawkers selling them at Sacred Valley. All for your disposal at 1 sole (20 pence). Even better news for the health or weight conscious – alpaca has only got 1% fat! How can they survive in the extreme coldness of high attitude? I keep wondering. I have to wear three layers of clothes when I am not walking.

Taquile Island

There are no Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay behind the closed kitchen doors. Still I have not had one single bad meal during my stay in Peru. So what is the secret? Is this one of the great mysteries left behind by the Incas yet to be solved? I would then like to relaunch my theory about the freshness of the ingredients. Among the highlands and lowlands I have ridden across, there are all varieties of potatoes and rice grown in the care of local hands’. Pesticides-free, non-genetic modified crops and farm produce as what we define as organic food in the developed world and pay an extra 30-50% margin are in abundance here. I picked up the interesting fact that potatoes were first cultivated in Peru, being a highly adaptive crop in the fluctuating climate and poor soil conditions in the mountain region. The potatoes were brought back into Spain after the Spanish defeat the Inca and conquered their land, which then found their way to Britain across Europe and eventually into our national food of Fish and Chips. Up at 2400m from sea level I saw the terraces descending on the steepest mountain slopes in Machu Picchu, built by the Inca for cultivation of potatoes and corn – what more do I need to say. 

But should you ask me what is my gastronomic highlight on my trip, with no hesitation I will tell you: the corn that are simply boiled and carried around in massive steel pots by the local peasants on and off the beaten tracks. For your imagination – the diameter of a natural corn kernel is close to that of a pop-up version you find in your local cinemas. The kernels burst into full flavour that is so fresh and wholesome once my teeth grind against their yellow skins. My Machu Picchu visit is nicely wrapped up in my memory of throwing two soles onto the basket of the Peruvian lady in her blue jumper and black fluffy skirt, who quickly passed me a cob of corn through the slit of the train window, when the steam was already puffing and the train was gathering its momentum. ‘I just couldn’t resist,’ I responded to Rosa’s understanding grin.

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