For the past week, I’ve been travelling through South America with my friend Sydney. We’ll be here two weeks. Last week we were in Perú, now we’re visiting some friends of mine in Ecuador. Hopefully next week I can update you on the Ecuadorian gastronomic adventures.
On our taxi ride from the airport, the driver asked us what our plans were in Lima. Syd aptly translated what was on both of our minds: “Eating and walking it off.” Perú in general is known for its amazing cuisine, particularly in Lima; so while seeing the sights and museums were definitely on our list, we always looked forward to our meals.
Our first stop was Cusco, up in the Andes– primary stop for most tourists in Peru, particularly those headed to Macchu Picchu. Cusco in July has, I think, more tourists than natives. In that way it was somewhat weird and not quite what I’d hoped, having had Cusco built up in stories by a few friends. Cusco, being up in the mountains, focuses a little more on freshwater fish, potatoes, and corn in their food.
One of my favorite stops in any foreign country is the public market. Less scripted than a Farmer’s Market in the US and generally and unpolished gem, markets are the best place to get an idea of what people actually eat. And let me tell you– the Peruvians like their potatoes. Apparently there are over 200 species of potato in the Andes, and they come in every color and size and shape you could imagine. There are also many different species of chili pepper in every different color as well, contributing to the aesthetic masterpieces in Peruvian cuisine.
Cusco’s food was nothing to really write home about. I had some Ají de gallina on the first day there, and it was tasty, then some mediocre fried fish. Peruvians love their Italian food, apparently, even though I don’t think I saw even one Italian looking person in Peru. We unintentionally ended up eating Italian food twice while we were in the Cusco region (canneloni and some pizza – man, pizza is nearly ubiquitous there). It’s intriguing that Italian food is so popular, as most of the country was conquered by the Spanish. You’d think you’d see a more obvious Spanish influence, but I guess it’s sort of integrated into the local cuisine by now.
Then it was off to Lima, the capital city, for more cuisine. The quality was notably better in Lima, but that might’ve been because we were spending a little more money on food. In fact, we were spending about as much money on food as lodging (which showed in our lodging choices…hoo boy.).
In Lima, we tried out a lot of local dishes from roast chicken (pollo al horno), ceviche (cebiche), roast beef heart on a stick (anticuchos), chicken with green rice (arroz con pollo), and the national beef and french fry stirfry dish lomo saltado invented by the Chinese. Of all of these, my favorites were probably the fabulous tangy/spicy cebiche and the savory and tender anticuchos (they have Lay’s flavored like that here).
Other side trip expeditions in Lima included a steakhouse that served delicious Argentinian beef, a Brazillian bar, and Chinatown. Having studied Chinese in college and lived in Beijing for a summer, I always like checking out the state of the Chinese diaspora wherever I visit. Chinese food in Peru is not quite like Chinese food in China, nor like Americanized Chinese food. It’s more savory than U.S. Chinese food, but definitely with a lot more stirfry and fried rice than Chinese Chinese food.
My favorite of our culinary adventures in Peru was to the town of Paracas, 3 1/2 hours south of Lima, a summer vacation town for people from Lima and a mecca for seafood enthusiasts. More ceviche, spicy garlicky tomatoey seafood stew, fresh grilled fish, scallops on the halfshell, fried calimari, and addictive fried corn kernels. Definitely recommended if you want to make a seafood-centric expedition out of Lima.
As for the beverages, most Peruvian beer is kind of bland. The only dark beer I saw was extremely sweet. Cristal and Cusqueña are probably two of the better beers, the former being a bit malty and the latter being more like a light unhopped ale. There were, of course, many Pisco Sours to be had (one of the best national drinks ever!) and also plenty of pisco based cocktails with passion fruit juice. We didn’t try chicha, though, the local corn beverage.
The food was not all amazing, though. For a country with such awesome native cuisine, I have never had so many terrible sandwiches in my life. They’re served on just about every long-haul form of public transit: busses, planes, and trains. The sandwiches are on bland white or sweet bread with tons of mayo or maybe some straight up butter (on a cold sandwich), low quality cold cuts, and maybe some cheese. A hearty sandwich is going to be one of the first things I eat when I get back to the U.S., for sure…
Now that I’m in Ecuador, I’m excited to explore the cuisine here because I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything labelled as Ecuadorian… Until next time, hasta luego!