Two glorious weeks in Peru bridging 2011 and 2012 brought Alex and me into close contact with (in alphabetical order): alpaca meat, Arequipa, Cusco, Jenga, juice, La Mar, Machu Picchu, markets, not ordering cuy, overnight buses, pan con huevo y mantequilla, pollo a la brasa, potatoes galore, soup, steak, and trekking. We had adventures in about five different places, met nice Peruvians and adventurous backpackers, saw cities and small towns, hiked at high altitude, endured strong sun, pounding rain, and snow, and woke up more than once at the very crack of dawn.
Starting in Cusco, we took a jaunt to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, arriving at the ruins at about 6am and hiking up more than a mile to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain (the peak on the left in the picture) on only our third full day at altitude for the most fantastic viewpoints. I was reading Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and it was fun to have some context as we explored.
That day we mainly ate Peanut Butter & Strawberry Kind Bars and Nature’s Path Toaster Pastries (there’s only one restaurant at Machu Picchu itself, and it’s overpriced). When we got down from the ruins, we had some time to kill in the tourist town of Aguas Calientes before our train left, so we picked out a restaurant with games on the table. I ordered pizza, and Alex asked for lentils. Fifty-five minutes later, the pressure cooker audibly sputtering, lentils made from scratch arrived at our table. My pizza was deeply mediocre. Alex’s lentils were amazing.
Cusco is a pretty tourist-focused city, and though we ate some good food at restaurants (namely, Granja Heidi; order the steak if you go), it rarely felt terribly authentic. Not so at the market.
Bustling and colorful, the Cusco market had aisles of textiles, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers and meats, plus stands in the back where you could sit and eat anything from simple sandwiches to big plates of fried chicken or chicharrones.
After our return from Machu Picchu, we stayed in Cusco at a small apartment that had a kitchen and a fridge. That meant we got to actually buy food and scramble together snacks of bread, butter, jam, and beer at home.
I also fell in love with the juice stands. I couldn’t get enough of mango con leche–fortunately, each order came with a glass and a refill of that glass.
And, one day for lunch we popped into a little restaurant, chosen because it was full of locals. Alex got a spicy pork stew called adobo. Naturally, I opted for the fried version: chicharonnes. A treat, one that sat pretty heavy all afternoon, but so be it.
We spent New Year’s Eve in Cusco, fireworks blasting every five seconds (yellow is the good luck color of new year’s in Peru).
Then we took the overnight bus to Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city that’s a bit more cosmopolitan. It’s surrounded by the beautiful snowcapped peaks of a couple active volcanoes. We immersed ourselves in la cocina arequipeña, eating rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers) and more adobo in between frantically preparing for our three-day hike into the beautiful Colca Valley and Canyon.
Between hours of walking up and downhill, we ate good, solid, stick-to-your-ribs Peruvian food. Lots of soup,
enough alpaca meat to last me a lifetime (it’s not bad–just a little gamey–and after four straight alpaca-based meals, I was done),
and exotic fruits, like this grenadilla, which is a bit like a passion fruit.
Our guide, José, also showed us one Peruvian way of making quinoa–it gets simmered in a lot of water, drained, and mixed with evaporated milk, fresh cheese and salt.
It sounds dorky, but the market back in Arequipa really took my breath away. It was massive and busy, its sections organized by red signs hung from the rafters. My favorite section was home to numerous varieties of potatoes and root veggies.
With just a few days left, there were three important culinary omissions: One, I hadn’t sampled nearly enough sweets. Tragic! I remedied the problem at a panaderia, picking out an alfajores-like pastry sandwich, layers of puff pastry enveloping a gooey caramel center that somehow wasn’t too sweet.
And second, we hadn’t eaten pollo a la brasa, Peruvian rotisserie chicken. So I did some searching on the internet and came up with a joint called Pollo Real. I had an inkling it was a chain. I was right. It felt a little like a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but the pollo and the papas fritas were totally solid, if the atmosphere was a little sterile. The crispy chickens come with an array of sauces, from yellow or green chili to a cooling mayo sauce to a Peruvian favorite: huancaìna, a creamy pepper and cheese dip.
And third, we hadn’t tasted cuy, or guinea pig. But we let that one slide.
Another culinary delight we discovered was toasted corn kernels, called maiz chulpe, that are like popcorn without the annoying tough kernels that get stuck in your teeth. Quickly, Alex and I devoured a 1-soles bag.
We had a day left in Lima before we departed for New York (or that’s what we thought at the time; our flight wound up being delayed 24 hours), and we took a cab straight from the airport to La Mar, which is beloved Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio’s ceviche joint. It was full by about 12:15pm, and it was quite a scene–the crowd might have been from L.A. We were clearly back to city living. Our meal started with a huge basket of mixed potato, sweet potato, and banana chips with three sauces, including huancaìna, plus a bowl of warm toasted corn. From the menu, we ordered two ceviches: classic and an Asian-fusion one. They were filled with big pieces of fish, sweet potato, and corn. Fresh, filling, and tangy.
The meal ended with a sampler plate of dessert. Most important part? The picarones (sweet potato donuts), another new obsession. We spent the afternoon walking around Miraflores, checking out the Pacific Ocean, and wandering into department stores, which felt like bastions of civilization.
Peru made for a spectacular trip, but you know what was about half as spectacular? That feeling of landing at Newark at 3 in the morning, being welcomed by the nocturnal customs officers, and making our way home sweet home.
Already, thanks to the Andes, I’m on a soup-cooking craze, and as soon as I find a nice ripe mango you can bet I’ll be blending up a mango con leche.
From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK