We all have these lists of things we want to do. Some of them we do, others we lose interest in, and the rest are aspirations for the perpetual tomorrow that never comes. This year, I ticked off three of these things in one trip. Yep, just one. But let me tell you, it was a big one!
Last year I found a volunteer opportunity teaching health promotion to children in Peru, with a chance to trek to Machu Picchu in June of this year. As you may know, I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Food and Nutrition. This opportunity was a perfect way to not only tick off a few things I’ve always wanted to do, but to also see if this kind of work was something that I’d want to do in the future.
Things I ticked off:
- Travel to South America
- Learn Spanish (I am not at all fluent, or even conversational, but I did get by fairly well!)
Now I’ll talk more on the trip in another post, butnow I want to focus on the amazing, foreign and familiar foods I tried in Peru. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Peruvian food as I hadn’t really thought about travelling there before. Due to its close proximity to Mexico I kind of expected to be devouring tacos everyday, which was completely fine with me! I love Mexican food. Little did I know, my geography was a little off… Mexico is actually quite some distance from Peru. So no, I did not gorge myself on tacos and burritos everyday. In fact, I didn’t have a single taco. But, I did try some very interesting things instead.
Now let’s start with the obvious, and the one that Peru is most famous for. Ceviche. What is it? This Peruvian delicacy is fresh raw trout marinated in citrus juices, chilli, onion and other local seasonings. This was the first thing I wanted to try when I decided I was going to Peru, as I’d seen a few people make it on various cooking shows I watch. In all honesty, I didn’t actually try it until I was at the airport in Lima on my way home.
The locals said it’s best to try it where it’s freshest, which makes sense. As I was staying closer to Cusco, and therefore more inland, they recommended Lima. I was only in the airport for a few hours, so I found the best airport restaurant I could find and gave it a go.
Tanta is a tourist restaurant serving classic Peruvian food, as well as western foods if you get tired of the foreign food whilst away. I don’t like to eat at tourist restaurants if I can help it, but this was the best I could get at the airport. To be fair, it was quite a decent meal too. The fish tasted fresh, you could definitely taste the citrus and spices, and the portion size was massive! I was told it was a starter, but if you ever go and ask for a starter expect a main sized portion to come to your table. I actually couldn’t finish the dish because it was so large.
If you go to Peru you have to try ceviche. It’s a beautiful, fresh, local dish that just won’t be the same if you find a Peruvian restaurant when you get home.
Now if I were to ask you what is widely grown in Peru and used in so many dishes, what would you say? Corn? Yes it is, and we’ll come to that, but a staple we also use in our homes all around the world. Tomato? Rice? I bet, like me, you wouldn’t have put potato and Peru together at first. Potato to me is Ireland, but potatoes are actually native to Peru. They were only introduced to Europe when the Spanish invaded South America where they saw the Incas growing potato. So, they took some back to Europe and introduced this basic staple into our lives.
Whilst in Peru I heard from many different people about the many varieties of potato. I was told there were 3,000 different varieties, and also 5,000, so it could be somewhere between the two. I had no idea there were so many different types! We have maybe 10 different varieties that I can think of that are commonly found in the supermarket. We visited a potato farm and were very kindly invited to join in with the potato harvest and ceremony. The owner of the farm grew 300 varieties of potato, and had inherited the farm from his father, who inherited from his father. He showed us some of the potatoes he had harvested and explained what they were used for. Some were for eating, others were for dehydrating. They came in all shapes and sizes and didn’t look anything like any potato I had seen before.
I saw mostly patatas bravas (crispy potato), baked potato, chips and potato soup. The potato soup used dehydrated potato, making the texture of the soup quite gelatinous, which is possibly my least favourite texture in food. When ordering a meal in Peru, expect to get a side of potato (and often pasta which surprised me) of some kind.
Ok so naive Harmonie expected some Mexican vibes in Peru so yes I did expect to be eating a bit of corn. What I wasn’t expecting was the size or different flavours, and colours, of the corn! We had corn soup quite a bit, which is a thin and chunky soup with a bit slice of corn in it. I’m not normally a fan of the watery soup with chunky veg, but this was a winner for me. Corn isn’t really eaten on the cob like it is back home. We tried it in soup, served as a side (like with my ceviche) and also dried out as a savoury snack called Cancha.
You’ll also see purple corn a lot in Peru. This isn’t eaten like regular sweetcorn back home, but is used to make Chicha Morada; one of the local drinks that isn’t too bad, but very sweet! (They add a LOT of sugar to this in most places in Peru. You can get it without sugar but it’s generally served with). Give the corn a go on your next visit, as you won’t find this delicious juicy corn when you head home. The kernels were the size of my nails and not as sweet as sweet corn, but still delicious in it’s own right.
What do you get when you combine beef stir fry and french fries? Lomo saltado! This was probably my favourite dish on the trip, most likely because I am such a stir fry fan. It was always a winner if I didn’t feel like yet another soup – I think because it was winter (yet still 20 degrees or more) or perhaps it’s just tradition, but every lunch and dinner we were served soup before our main meal. I thought I’d gain loads of weight with all this soup and 2 course meals, but I definitely walked it off on the trek. The best thing about lomo saltado is that it’s quite light, so even if you’re having soup first you won’t feel too bloated after. Unless of course you add rice.
The Peruvians love their carbs. I felt like I was in heaven! And large portions! As with the ceviche, it’s always served in a much larger portion than you expect, but it was so tasty I finished almost every meal. Juicy beef, deliciously sweet peppers, onions and french fries. Yum! Add this one to your list when you head to Peru.
Aji de Gallina
After Lomo Saltado this was definitely my favourite dish in Peru! Again, going along with the Asian vibes, Aji de Gallina is a curry-like chicken dish served with rice and topped with an olive and a hard-boiled egg. Egg? Yep, egg – it works really well with the whole dish. The dish is actually a stew, cooked in the local aji pepper, hence the name. I really like my spice, and I think my spice threshold is rather high, so if you’re sensitive to spice then this may not be the best choice for you, as I was told it was too spicy for some people – to the point where one girl swapped dishes with me because it was too hot for her. Good for me though, I love it!
Guinea Pig – Cuy
Excuse me? Yes, I know. I was very unsure about this one when I realised it was actually on the menu, but I had to give it a go. When you’re traveling you have to have some sense of adventure in the foods you try. No point sticking to burgers every day when the local country has such an interesting array of foreign food to try.
So, yes, I ate a guinea pig. Well, I couldn’t eat the whole thing as it was very rich, but I did try it! Guinea pigs (Cuy – pronounced ‘kwee’) are eaten in Peru during celebrations; they don’t make a regular appearance at the dinner table… although Peruvians do love to celebrate whenever they can and seem to have a holiday every week! How do you cook Cuy you may ask.
There are three methods that I came across; 1) Cuy Chactado – just like a chicken you can butterfly a guinea pig and fry it; 2) Within a dish – one of the girls on my trip tried it shredded in a pasta bake type dish and she said it was lovely; 3) Cuy al horno – stuffed with herbs and baked whole, either on a spit or straight in the oven. This is the way I tried it. We were sitting across from a table of locals who were digging in to their Cuy whilst we were waiting. Let me tell you, it was quite graphic to watch them eating it! Ours came out (as you can see) looking like the rats that Shrek cooks, and I can tell you I was a little unsure about it, but feeling adventurous we gave it a go.
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of taste, but it was almost like turkey (not chicken). The meat was cooked beautifully, like a nicely barbecued chook with crispy skin and all, but a darker meat than chicken. The dish was served with spaghetti, whole baked potatoes and a salad. I couldn’t finish the dish, however it was definitely tasty and I can see why it’s served on special occasions. A rich flavour, but not the prettiest of dishes.
Ha, you think I can eat guinea pig but not alpaca? Don’t be silly! I only tried it once in a stew-type dish, but it was pretty good. Alpaca isn’t as commonly seen when you’re traveling around Peru as Cuy or Lomo Saltado, but if you do find it it’s worth a try. The meat is very lean and tasted to me like any other dark meat, but again when you’re in a new country you must try the weird and wonderful.
So now we’ve moved on to drinks. Ah pisco. Never had I even heard of pisco, but upon arrival to Peru I was quickly acquainted with this delicious drink. Pisco is actually a variation of brandy. There are many different drinks that can be made, but pisco sours are the famous drink, and to find a good barman in Peru is to find a barman who makes the best pisco sours you’ve ever tried. We were staying in the small town of Urubamba and were pointed to the bar, Heroes. If you’re ever in the area take a trip down to Heroes bar and ask for a pisco sour (or ask Nacho for a texas pancake if you’re feeling adventurous – it’s not as dirty as it sounds).
A pisco sour consists of pisco (obviously), lime juice (fun fact; they don’t grow lemons in Peru), a simple sugar syrup, egg white to make it frothy and nicely topped with a couple drops of Angostura bitters. It’s very easy to drink too many of these, as I discovered after a night at Heroes. If you like a sour drink, head on down to Heroes and grab yourself a Pisco sour. They also do good meatballs.
If you’re an avid coffee drinker you’ll know that your beans may well come from Peru. I had the pleasure of visiting a lady whilst doing the Salkantay trek who made her own coffee. She showed us how she collects the beans, removes the outer layer, roasts and grinds them to make the most delicious and freshest coffee I have ever tried. Disclaimer: I am not a big coffee drinker, but I do enjoy it and wish to try as much of the local cuisine as I can.
She gave some of us a chance to roast the beans in a clay pot she uses with onion skin and a lemon peel. Once the beans were roasted we transferred them to the coffee grind. The smell was incredible! After the boys struggled to grind the beans for a bit, she came over and finished the rest in a flash. Peruvian women are badass! She then popped the ground beans in a coffee pot to filter out the liquid and poured us all a cup. I normally drink coffee with sugar and milk, but you have to try the coffee straight from the pot with nothing added. It is like no coffee I’ve ever tried, fresher than ever. I had to bring a couple of bags home with me.
Who doesn’t love a good, creamy bar of chocolate? Not the stuff you buy from the supermarket or the corner store. You’ve got to try the good stuff, straight from the source! I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but the chocolate in Peru is too good to pass up. I went out for dinner and had this delicious double chocolate tart. It wasn’t too rich or sweet, and I devoured the whole thing!
You’ll be hard pressed to walk down the streets of Cusco and not see somewhere to buy good quality chocolate. In the markets, in the museums and yes, even in the supermarkets you’ll find the best chocolate you’ve ever had, and in all different flavours! A couple of the girls on my trip had a very big sweet tooth and were buying multiple chocolate blocks every time we went into Cusco. Salted, coca, lucuma, cacao, potato, anything you could want. Got a hankering for some chocolate? Peru is the place to go.
These are just a few of the foods I tried whilst in Peru that I would recommend. There are many more that I wasn’t able to try on my trip, but that just means I have to go back! Other noteworthy things I tried were; muna -it’s made into a tea and is a nice herbal drink to thaw you out in the early morning or relax in the evening; quinoa – I don’t normally like quinoa, but when it’s done well it’s easy to enjoy. I even had quinoa soup!
The Peruvians do good soup; coca – you can have in tea or just roll up and pop it in your gums to help ease altitude sickness; Papas a la Huancaína – translated, potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce. I didn’t like the herb they use in the sauce, but it’s a local delicacy and apparently very delicious. Others in my group really enjoyed it; tequenos – basically cheese wrapped in pastry and deep-fried… pure joy!
What’s the weirdest food you’ve eaten whilst abroad? Tried any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.