A backpacker’s diet is an oft bland affair. I have, since arriving in South America five months ago, eaten enough soggy ham and cheese sandwiches to trigger a terminal medical condition in later life.
True, every country in South America we have visited so far has its local grub. Some dishes I have eaten could even be described as ‘regional delicacies’ – acaraje in Brazil, lomito in Argentina, choclo pie in Chile and mondongo in Bolivia.
But to the trained European palette the overwhelming majority of food in South America could better be described as a mishmash of international influences constrained by the availability of ingredients.
Unlike in the UK, out of season mange tout and mini corns are not flown in to South America on express planes from the Far East. There are not seven different varieties of mushroom available in every supermarket. Vegetables sold here are those growable within a 100 mile radius, otherwise they come in jars or cans.
The endless succession of slabs of meat accompanied by rice and/or chips and/or beans in South America makes for a monotonous, colon-busting culinary experience. Plus, they use too much sugar and salt.
Peru, on the other hand, has a ‘cuisine’. It stands alone in South America as an oasis of deliciousness, so I had read before arriving here.
Food in Peru is an art – more than just flavours, textures and nutrition. Food is a way of thinking, a philosophy for good living, a celebration of tradition, adaptation and innovation.
My belly was rumbling for Peru as we crossed over the border from the godforsaken gastronomic wasteland of Bolivia. For the next two weeks, my girlfriend and I agreed to apportion some 75% of our daily backpacking budget to appeasing our stomachs.
Here are three of the most extraordinary meals we ate…
There’s no getting away from the fact that you’re basically eating a big furry rat when it comes to dining on guinea pig. This became clear as we travelled by train from the border city of Puno to the old Incan capital, Cusco, through Peru’s guinea pig rearing heartland.
Huge barns lining the tracks bred guinea pigs on an industrial scale. These rodents aren’t pets here – they’re epicurean delights reared for taste not cuddliness.
Dating back to prehispanic times, the cult of the guinea pig runs deep in Peru’s history. This painting we found in Cusco’s Santa Domingo Cathedral is one of several in Peru depicting Jesus and his disciples eating guinea pig at The Last Supper…
For legal reasons, I will stop short of mentioning the exact location where I dined on guinea pig in Peru, but suffice to say if you Google ‘best place to eat guinea pig in Cusco’ then you are likely to find it as the top result.
Prior to arriving at the restaurant my girlfriend and I had spent three hours in Cusco’s Pisco Museum ‘testing’ pisco cocktails – namely the Pisco Sour.
As Peru’s national cocktail, the pisco sour is without doubt one of the country’s finest cultural exports – a chilled concoction of lime, sugar, frothy egg white, bitters and pisco (a clear spirit made from distilled grape skins that tastes like Dettol).
We had drank pisco sours many times on our journey through South America already – mainly in Chile, where it is also the national cocktail. Both countries lay claim to the invention of the pisco sour, both claim their variation on the recipe is superior.
In reality, the distinction between Chilean and Peruvian pisco sours is a myth. Every barman has his own recipe, with differing amounts of sweet and sour being the key variable. Perhaps it is true to say that the Peruvians have a penchant for more egg white.
When all the eggy froth was gone, we stumbled through the cobbled back streets of Cusco, barely able to speak in full sentences. Flinging open the door of the guinea pig restaurant, we found the place to be empty, save for a lonely waiter tapping his feet to a Beatles reggae covers album on the stereo.
Eyeing up the menu with laser-like focus, we found it – ‘Roast Guinea Pig’ – it cost twice as much as the second most expensive dish on the menu, ‘Friend Guinea Pig’ (presumably meant to be ‘Fried Guinea Pig’), which cost twice as much as the third most expensive dish on the menu (not guinea pig).
“That dish will take one hour to prepare, sir,” said our waiter.
“Oh,” I sighed drunkly and hungrily. “What about the Friend Guinea Pig, will that be quicker?”
“Yes, of course,” he grinned.
“Would you recommend the Friend Guinea Pig?” I asked.
“No,” was all he had to say in response.
The next hour was spent drinking Peruvian stout. South American stouts are far superior to their English and Irish counterparts – less bitter, more treacley and without the Fairy Liquid aftertaste.
And then the guinea pig arrived. It was wearing a hat made of tomato.
The skin was golden and bubbling like a Chinese crispy duck. Had they shaved it or did the fur just burn off in the cooking process? I did not know how to ask the question in Spanish.
The waiter gestured towards my camera. He knew that, for first time guinea pig eating tourists like me, the real goal of the night was to let me leave the restaurant with evidence that I had once eaten a big furry rat. Enjoying its taste was a distant second.
I smiled over my prize like a drunken idiot. The waiter did his best to master the autofocus function. The moment was forever preserved in this photograph which is now stored on my iPhone. I intend to show it to people at future dinner parties in an attempt to make myself sound more interesting…
Theatrics over, the plate was whisked away from under my nose. Two minutes later it was returned with the guinea pig hacked in to five separate pieces – less impressive for the purposes of a photograph but more manageable for eating.
“It’s difficult to eat with a knife and fork,” said the waiter. “I advise you to use your fingers.”
I picked up a chunk of front leg and breast, and sank my teeth in.
The flesh flaked off the ribcage like stewed rabbit. The legs were tougher so had to be nibbled at like chicken wings. The taste was somewhere between chicken and rabbit, but smokier, gamier and funkier. It wasn’t altogether pleasant, like an over ripe pheasant braised in Cillit Bang.
But the skin was salty and delicious. They should sell it in greaseproof packets in pubs. It crackled between my molars.
My girlfriend tucked in to her dish too – another classic Peruvian known as Rocoto Relleno – peppers stuffed with beef mince, olives, raisins, garlic and egg, topped with cheese. Usually Rocoto Relleno is oven baked but this particular restaurant chose to deep fry it.
I asked my girlfriend to provide a review of Rocoto Relleno for this blog. She said: “It was, like, the most deep fried thing I’ve ever eaten. It didn’t taste of meat or pepper, it just tasted of fried.”
We ordered more stout. All the leg and breast flesh of the guinea pig was now gone. I was left with the head.
The eyes were shrivelled black. The teeth were stained brown and the tongue poked through the side of the mouth. I prodded the brain. It felt spongy.
Eating the head was, for me, a rodent appendage too far. With half a bottle of Pisco and several bottles of Peruvian stout now coursing through our blood streams, the head instead became our main source of entertainment for the rest of the evening.
Here is a short video of my girlfriend manipulating the guinea pig’s jaw to mouth the words to a reggae version of The Beatles song, Yesterday…
Sensing that the main event was now over, the waiter asked if we would like to order dessert. We declined his offer. He then asked us if we would like to buy some marijuana or cocaine. We declined his offer.
There’s nothing quite like a dirty burger after a hard day’s labour. Our experience with the Peruvian version of the ground beef patty between two bun halves occurred after an 18-hour adventure to and from Machu Picchu involving two trains, two buses, two taxis and around 500 hand-carved granite stairs.
Being a guy in a wheelchair, I decided long ago that stairs and I could never be best friends. Unfortunately the Incan Empire, when building Machu Picchu in the 16th Century, did not have the foresight to install elevators in preparation for my arrival.
Steps are not a barrier for me – by utilising my Herculean upper body strength I am able to propel my mass up or down a flight of stairs without the use of my feet. You may have heard of this technique before referred to as ‘crawling’.
But sometimes the prize at the top or bottom of a flight of stairs is a prize not worth exerting oneself for. In that case, I will avoid the stairs. In other cases, I might use stairs as an excuse to shirk unwanted social engagements or work commitments (“I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to your son’s bah mitzvah…”). Sometimes, at dinner parties, I like to brag about epic flights of steps that I have conquered in the past, in an attempt to make myself sound more interesting.
The stairs at Machu Picchu were to be the basis of dinner party anecdotes for decades to come. When we reached the top, I made my girlfriend take this photo of me as evidence…
Arriving back in Cusco that night, I knew I deserved a dirty burger. My girlfriend, having carried my wheelchair up and down 500 stairs that day, felt she deserved one too.
We landed at Bembos.
Founded in Lima in 1988, Bembos is Peru’s answer to McDonalds. It prides itself on a higher class of burger than its North American counterpart.
Today there are dozens of branches of Bembos all over Peru. The branch we had happened to land in opened in Cusco’s main square in 2007. It was the first fast food restaurant chain ever to open in the city.
The set up inside the restaurant itself was similar to that of Maccy D’s back home – queue up at the counter, order your food from an acne ridden teenager, sit down at a formica table, eat whilst surrounded by fake pot plants and garish pop art.
The array of burger toppings on offer was dizzying – scrambled egg, pineapple, plantain… after much searching I found a toppings combination that sounded appealing – the Parrillara Burger – consisting of chorizo, tomato, lettuce, mustard, mayonnaise and chimichurri (a South American barbecue basting sauce made of parsley, oregano, garlic, chilli, olive oil and white wine vinegar).
My girlfriend, who suffers from travel sickness (a far more debilitating disability for a backpacker than a stairs aversion, I have discovered since January), was still feeling ill from the day’s train, bus and taxi rides. She ordered a plain cheese burger.
I could feel my arteries clogging with every bite. The beef was dense – oppressively so. The chorizos were firm and smoky. The chimichurri was sharp and fresh but could have perhaps done with a little more kick. Mustard and ketchup dripped out the side of the bun and on to my t-shirt.
I asked my girlfriend to review her cheeseburger for this blog. She said: “It was fine. The meat tasted a bit herby. Weren’t all their toppings supposed to be from different regions of Peru, or something? I wish that I had felt well enough to try some of them. Oh yeah, the fries weren’t bad either.”
I never figured out what it is about Bembos that is supposed to be indicative of Peruvian cuisine or culture, save for a few leftfield toppings. Why had this particular franchise taken Peru by storm when in every other South American country (apart from Bolivia) Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders and the Burger King reign supreme?
Peruvians take immense pride in their cuisine. Perhaps the fact that Bembos is a Peruvian owned brand makes the people here believe it is a cut above the rest.
For me, at that moment, it did not matter. This dirty burger experience was everything I had been dreaming of since conquering Machu Picchu’s summit.
There was a rising tide of indigestion. My vision blurred slightly. With each belch, a small bit of sick came up. It was that good.
Beef Hearts and Kid…
We arrived in Lima just in time to find out it had overtaken Bogotá, Colombia, as the most polluted city in South America.
At first glance it seems a frighteningly synthetic sort of a place.
Luscious mansions sit uneasily next to breeze block hovels. Huge casino complexes sit next to international banking conglomerates. Concrete, plastic, stainless steel and glass mega malls sit next to concrete, plastic, stainless steel and glass mega churches. Security gates topped with razor wire keep everyone from ever having to meet anyone they wouldn’t want to meet.
By day it is covered by smog. At night it is lit by a trillion gaudy billboards. Epic ten lane highways sprawl to every corner of the unchangingly flat landscape. Rush hour lasts for three hours.
It was nothing we hadn’t seen elsewhere in South America, only in Lima the affluent were more noticeable.
For the first time in a long time, we saw cars without dents. People wore suits that fit. Shops stocked recognisable brands. Parklands were sculpted to look like cartoons. The streets were not infested with stray dogs.
We checked in to our hotel in the district of Miraflores, home to Lima’s moneyed classes. They live in condominium towers lining the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Miraflores is also Lima’s restaurant capital, and therefore the de facto gastro capital of Peru.
Dinner that night was to be a celebration of Peruvian decadence. A showcase of all that Lima’s food scene has to offer. The restaurant we chose came recommended by some genuine bonafide Limans we had met in the desert town of Ica a week earlier. The restaurant was called Señorío de Sulco.
Inside Señorío de Sulco was like an annoyingly fashionable art gallery. Hanging from the walls were tribal masks and cooking pots punctuated by splotches of technicolour bird shit. It was our kind of restaurant.
The meal started well with yet more pisco sours.
To accompany our meal we chose white wine. Not our usual tipple – we instead tend to err towards a punch-in-the-face cab sav or syrah when given free reign – but this time we chose to entrust our evening’s booze to the restaurant’s better judgment.
When it arrived, we realised how tragically wrong we had been to delegate responsibility for choosing this most critical element of the meal. The wine was a flowery Chardonnay. We choked back the taste of the 1980s.
My starter was anticuchos – flame charred beef heart skewers. It was accompanied by native potatoes, corn cobs with kernels the size of thumbnails and a green chilli dipping sauce.
The beef hearts were deliciously meaty, vinegary and tender. Sweat drops congregated along my brow with each dip in to the chilli sauce.
As for the native potatoes – it is often said that there are 4,000 varieties of potato in Peru (the actual number is closer to a mere 3,800) – these spuds were crisp and light and fluffy, and not altogether dissimilar to a Maris Piper or King Edwards you might find accompanying a British roast dinner.
Much like potatoes, there are dozens of varieties of corn in Peru too. This species had a nutty taste and wasn’t particularly sweet.
With the meal now in full swing, attention turned to my girlfriend’s starter. It was the Peruvian staple ‘ceviche’ – raw fish ‘cooked’ in the acids of lemon, onion and chilli. This particular incarnation of ceviche included an unidentified whitefish, octopus, mussels, shrimp and squid.
I asked my girlfriend to review the ceviche for this blog. The review went as follows: “It was so fresh. And so citrusy and sharp. I really loved it. It was better than I was expecting because… I’m not sure what I thought it was going to be like but I love sushi and it was as good as that, and it was ummmmmm… I was surprised that even the octopus and the calamari was really tender when cooked as ceviche. It was delicious. Full stop.”
Señorío de Sulco’s pretentious Peruvian pabulum sat well in our bellies. As we continued to yap away about the state of the wine, my beef heart chunks cooled. By the time of the last bite, the meat had turned to rubber.
The main courses arrived. I chose confit kid (as in baby goat) cooked for several hours in a ‘huatia’ – a dome shaped underground oven. The meat was flaky and juicy, saturated in an intensely rich coriander infused sauce.
It came with yet another native potato (a different species this time) which more closely resembled a good old fashoioned baked potato. Underneath the potato was a coriander mush. Confusingly, the stalks had been left on the coriander which left me picking twigs from between my teeth for the rest of the evening. The accompanying salad was satisfyingly balsamicy.
My girlfriend ate arroz con pato (quite literally ‘rice with duck’) marinated in black beer and chicha (a Peruvian drink made from a variety of purple corn).
Her review of it was – “Well… I’m not really a big duck fan. I don’t normally order it but it was very tender and full of taste. You know like sometimes duck is really fatty, but it wasn’t like that. The rice had been cooked with the duck and loads of coriander which gave it… what’s a different word for curry? Don’t write that down! You know what I mean. I want to say that it had a really interesting spicy curry taste that we haven’t really come across that much in South America, so it was another lovely surprise.”
When the plates were cleared our gullets were full to bursting. It didn’t matter – I was committed, ideologically, to consuming a Peruvian dessert before the night was through. My girlfriend slumped in to her chair and admitted defeat.
Last on the menu was Suspiro de Limeña, a pudding synonymous with Lima.
Literally translating to ‘woman’s sigh’ because it is ‘sweet and light’, my Suspiro de Limeña consisted of about half a pint of dulce de leche (a caramelised milk confection eaten all over South America that I have been eating by the bowlful since arriving) topped with a soft meringue.
There was enough Suspiro de Limeña to feed four people. I ate it all. It was served with a digestifs of apricot, tamarind and fig pisco topped off with Cointreau.
Our meal was over. Our culinary journey through Peru had reached its peak. What we had eaten came with an epic price tag, but in reality it was peasant food served up for hipsters on a fancy plate.
The huatia oven dates back to the Incan Empire, as do the anticuchos. The first recorded examples of ceviche can be found with the Moche civilisation that existed along Peru’s northern coast 2,000 years ago, as does the duck with rice. Dulce de leche is derived from blancmange, a dessert dating back to the Middle Ages brought over to South America by the Spanish.
You can get this food anywhere in Peru, there was nothing cutting edge going on in our dishes, but the presentation was swankier, the ingredients were fresher and the flavours perfectly balanced.
And The Rest…
In this blog I chose to focus on one Peruvian meal pitched at tourists, another at those on the go and another at Peru’s high society.
But we ate so many other stand out meals in Peru, it seems unjust not to give them a nod of appreciation too.
At a sandwich shop called La Lucha I ate a Club Sandwich with an egg actually baked in to one of the four layers of bread…
I also got a chance to drink chicha, the purple corn drink, in its pure form at a fast food joint called La Preferida. It tasted of sugar and water and not a lot else…
The chicha was accompanied by a chicaron (pork fat fried in pork fat) sandwich. There was quite a lot of meat on the chicarones, and not much fat…
La Preferida was housed in Larcomar shopping mall built in to the side of a cliff face in Lima. I suspected my chicha and chicarones had been sanitised for the shopping mall market, and were a far cry from the authentic real deal.
In a restaurant called Canta Rana in the Liman district of Berranco, we tried ‘tiradito’, cousin of ceviche. Inspired by Japanese immigrants in to Peru, the only real difference between tiradito and ceviche is in the way the fish is cut and the lack of onions…
Sticking with the Japanese theme, at a sushi bar called Asakusa in the Liman district of San Borja I further sampled ‘Nikkei’, the fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. My dish, the ‘Tuna Trilogy’ was a sesame seared tuna steak with three types of mushroom and a balsamic reduction…
‘Chifa’ is the other great Peruvian/Asian hybrid cuisine – inspired by Chinese immigrants. At Xin Xing in Miraflores our dish ‘taypac’ was an umami overload jumble of beef, pork, chicken, prawns, duck, ginger, peppers, mushrooms and bok choi…
We left Xin Xing none the wiser about the difference between Chifa and other forms of ‘Chinese food’. It is perhaps less gloopy than the Chinese on offer throughout most of the Western world. The only notable difference was the presence of half a dozen quails eggs chucked in to our taypac. Quails eggs do not seem to be any kind of delicacy in Peru, and are sold on street corners for pennies each.
When drinking in Peruvian bars you can always expect to be served these salty roasted corn kernels. They are on a par with peanuts in terms of moreishness…
Perhaps our greatest find in the whole of Peru were these triangular scones purchased in Pantástico Bakery in Cusco. The interior was soft and crumbly like a common-or-garden British scone, but the sugar coated exterior was crusty and like a turnover…
Also whilst in Cusco my girlfriend and I went on a chocolate making course…
The bars on the left showcase the sum total of my girlfriend’s chocolate skills. The bite size chunks on the right showcase mine…
This is a basket of cow mouths in Cusco’s Mercado Central de San Pedro. We did not eat these…
The food we found in Peru is definitely better than that in the rest of South America. But is that simply because Peruvians are better at cooking? I’m not sure if they are.
Peru’s cuisine is a mish-mash of international influences, made great by the availability of ingredients.
Peru is the fifth most biodiverse country on the planet. It is smaller than Alaska, yet home to almost the same number of species of flora and fauna as the entire USA. It has some of the most disparate topography in all of South America, from tropical rainforest to the altiplano to some of the world’s most prolific and diverse fishing waters.
It leaves Peruvian chefs with an unrivalled natural pantry, and adventurous diners like us with countless culinary experiences to brag about at future dinner parties in an attempt to make ourselves sound more interesting.