Expat-terns at a Glance

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Don't Be Cuy: Peruvian Gastronomy

Every so often, the world goes under a new food trend. Korean food is out, but Filipino is in. However, one style that hasn’t been thrust aside is Peruvian cuisine. The question that remains is <<¿Por qué?>>.

Peruvian food is delicious Andean food, but why has it persisted as the example for gastronomy? Gastronomy is the mixture of a study between culture and cuisine, and Peruvian food surely has been a major influence to Peruvian life. Still, what makes it so popular?

Peruvian food is colorful. It demands to be bought like the arts and crafts sold in the markets.
Plantains, carrots, and an assortment of herbs are all common. The markets of Peru surround you in foliage
and the botany of the land. (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Let’s begin with the potato. This is its birthplace. Peru boasts a plethora of types of potatoes, each unique with color and flavor combinations. It is a great honor of Peru and a sense of pride. Even on the Lay’s chips bag, it says that all the potatoes used are from Peru’s very own land and it prominently features a Peruvian farmer showcasing his work. Other great agricultural treasures of Peru are quinoa and corn! Personally, I don’t like quinoa since I think it is rice that is lying, but it is quite popular in the western world as a healthier substitute. Whatever you prefer I guess?

Corn is annoyingly important. It is annoying because there are like six different ways to say corn in Quechua. I currently only remember two of them: sara – simply yellow corn and choclo – growing corn. Corn is sold on the streets boiled on the cob, fried, or just as crunchy kernels. Hearty corn cakes are sometimes eaten with meaty dishes as well. Corn cookies are also a treat I have had here. I must say - they weren’t that bad. Corn is versatile and somehow seems to find its way into every meal here.

Ceviche can be found cheap in small local malls in Cusco and in the markets of towns. This variety from Cusco
is made from fish, potato, and fried squid. It was delicious even though I had to pay for 2 additional people
unbeknownst to me prior to ordering. (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Besides basic agricultural staples, Peru contains classic, complex Andean dishes. Lomo saltado, ceviche, and anticucho all call Peru home. Ceviche is by far one of the most popular and is found even away from the coast. Who doesn’t like seafood cooked by citric acids? Lomo saltado and anticucho are also marvelous and better for a hearty barbeque than delicate, semi-cooked fish. Peruvians tend to use every part of the animal. I’m pretty sure that I’ve eaten just cartilage for a meal here. Peruvian food is the utilization of everything available, which contributes to its popularity. For example, some volunteers in Pisaq showed us the dead pig head in their fridge that their host mother cut up. No waste is in and has been in since poverty has existed. 

Most Peruvian home cooked meals contain some type of soup and a dish with rice or pasta. Peruvian food is known for its starch. Fried fish, cutlets of meat, and a mixture of vegetables are all common. Ají is also served! However, it is not the spicy Chilean sauce we all have come to know and love. Peruvian ají, personally, is spicier and more of a slaw than a liquid. I often drop some chunks of spicy pepper and onion that have absorbed the juices onto my meat to give it an extra kick.

A Peruvian food trend that hasn’t swept through the United States, or anywhere else really, is comida chifa. This is Peruvian Chinese food! As a result of Chinese immigration, this type of cuisine is very common in Peruvian cities. There is even one restaurant in Pisaq! It shows how cultures mix and how Chinese food can be used very loosely as a term. Some restaurants are very shady places, but others are quite expensive and classy. Imagine people wearing suits – That’s how classy. I cannot remember the last time I dressed up for Chinese food. Apparently, it is very good. A Peruvian friend I met who studies in France told me that she always misses it on Sundays. Hopefully there is still time for me to try it! 

Of course, beverages are very important to Peruvian cuisine as well. Inca Cola, Pisco, Mate de coca and Cusqueña (at least in Qosqo) are the most popular. Inca Cola is a fluorescent yellow soda that tastes like cough syrup and bubble gum. I used it in a sample sentence in one of my Quechua classes, and my teacher freaked out. He was very happy with my use of Inca Cola as a direct object and got on a tangent on how important to Peru and delicious it is. It is a good soda, but I couldn't drink it every day. I honestly think all my teeth would fall out. 

Want to try to be Peruvian? Drink Inca Kola!
(Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Pisco, I have stated before, is a brandy like alcohol that Chile and Peru have had some cultural tension over. Nevertheless, it is a tasty liquid and the basis for Pisco Sour and Piscola (a Chilean specialty). I actually learned how to make Pisco Sour in Pisaq. A Peruvian bartender sat my housemate and me down to teach us how to make the drink. All you need is: 3 ounces of Pisco, 2 ounces of jarabe de goma, 1 ounce of lemon juice, and egg whites (an egg’s worth). You blend it all together with a few cubes of ice if you want, then slowly pour it into a glass. This way it can separate. It should be foamy on the top, and liquid on the bottom. I have heard it described as smoothie-like. You can add a drop more of jarabe de goma if you like at the end too.

Piscola is a little easier. You take Coca Cola and add it to Pisco. Tada!

Mate de coca is also very important. Coca leaves have … many uses, but one of the most popular and legal ones is as tea leaves! This tea is an Andean classic and is used for treating altitude sickness. This comes in handy when you are up this high! It is very Peruvian.

Cusqueña is one of the most famous beers (at least in Qosqo). It is beer. There is not much left to say. I think it is mostly popular just for its name.

This is the warehouse/storage room for Carmen. It is literally
just Cusqueña. This makes me body hurt just looking at it.
(Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Perhaps besides ceviche, the prize jewel of Peruvian gastronomy has to be cuy. Cuy, guinea pig, has been one of my goals since arriving here. I had to try it before leaving. It is more or less the cultural treat and spectacle for Peru and other parts of the Andes. It tastes like chicken, like most meat, and has chewy skin. It can be difficult to pick out the meat from the tiny critters, but if you are enthusiastic, it isn't a struggle. You can get it prepared many different ways including whole, cut up into pieces, and with an assortment of fixings. It is usually eaten on special occasions, but can be found in restaurants as well for about 40 Soles. It can get expensive depending where you go. I was fortunate to have it twice for free during the last night of the festival in Pisaq. I was offered it again by my host mother the next day, but the day old cuy wasn't as appetizing as it was the night before.

This type of cuy is called chiri uwu. It is chopped up cuy, cold chicken, corn cake, spicy pepper slices, fried
corn kernels, seaweed, cheese, and fish eggs. You are supposed to eat a little of each with every bite. It
specifically festival food, and I got it free during Carmen. I was invited by a friend to a party to try it.
Anyone can go to the parties, but only the invited are guaranteed food! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Food is power. Food is pride. Food defines Peru. Health is very important to Peruvians, and what one eats directly corresponds with how someone feels. Peruvians take pride in themselves and their creations. Whether it is simple corn, salted meats, or medium sized rodents, Peruvians make Peruvian food to not just consume but to conserve and celebrate their heritage. It is a cliché to say that food is an important aspect to a culture. I dare you to find a culture where food isn’t important. However, Peru truly exemplifies this idea. This nation's advancements in agriculture at one time were second to none, and its edible exports have captivated the world for centuries. It seems Peruvian gastronomy persists because it has always persisted. It is a law of nature that Peruvian cuisine is held in high esteem, for it is from Peru: master of agriculture, butchery, and the bottle.

I leave Peru very soon. I will miss the hearty meals, but am also looking forward to eating Korean food again (Also, Chipotle). Most importantly, I will miss the people and landscape. However, I will give my farewells later. For now, I think I’ll just enjoy myself and listen to Spanish and Quechua while I can. Peru is coming to a close. At least this adventure is …

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