Peruvian Foods I Will Miss While I Am in the US

Now don’t get me wrong. There are MANY American foods I miss while I am in Peru. Cheddar cheese, decent hamburgers, frozen custard, good wine, chocolate chips… the list is not short. Then there is sour cream. I don’t even like sour cream, yet it is in many recipes, including most dips. Haven’t seen it in Cajamarca since last September. But there are many foods I enjoy here that will not be available, or as good, in the US. No, cuy is not on the list!

1. Fresh Tropical Fruits.The markets have fresh, local fruits. The mangoes here are out of this world. Yes, we can get mangoes in the US, but in Wisconsin they are shipped countless miles and the taste is evident. Same with the pineapples and pomegranates; they are delicious here. Then there are the weird fruits that we can get here: tuna (or prickly pears), mamay (looks like a coconut on the outside and a cantaloupe on the inside, but tastes nothing like either), pacay (it has big dark seeds but you eat the super sweet white gauzy part around the seeds), pepino (relative of the eggplant but has the color and consistency of a pear on the inside and tastes kind of like one too), cherimoya (custard apple, sweet with a soft consistency). We have been here almost a year so we have seen the fruits cycle in and out of season. I will also miss Maria, our amazing housekeeper, who washes and cuts all of the fruits for me. It reminds me of Italy where my great aunts would peel and feed everyone fruit for dessert.

 

2. Avocados. Maria brings me avocados from the tree in her yard. Delicious and because they are as fresh as you can get, even if they feel a little mushy, the inside is still perfectly fine.

Huge Avocado

Huge Avocado

3. Caldo Verde. It is an herb-based soup made with potatoes and eggs that is typically eaten for breakfast. You add fresh cheese and cancha (freshly roasted corn nuts, see below) at the table. I have Caldo Verde almost every week. It isn’t hard to make, but it takes three herbs, parsley, paico and herba buena, and I am not sure whether the latter two can be found in Wisconsin.

Caldo Verde

Caldo Verde

 

4. French fries. Yes, I know I can get french fries all over Wisconsin, but honestly, they are so much better here. Likely because they are freshly made and not frozen and mass produced, but even the freshly made ones at home are not as good as the ones here. Everything is served with french fries.

 

5. Pisco Sour. My cocktail of choice in Peru. 3 parts Pisco, 1 part lime juice, 1 part simple syrup, egg white and a dash of angostura bitters.  Tasty and packs a powerful punch!

Pisco sour

Pisco sour

6. Cancha. I come from a family of popcorn aficionados. My parents made it most nights and each of us kids has a special popcorn pot, seasoned to perfection. That said, I always preferred the burnt kernels or unpopped ones. Cancha is perfect for me – the seeds roast and expand a little, but it does not pop into a fluffy kernel. I love it and unfortunately always finish the bowl!

7. Sauces and condiments. On one of our early dates, Matt was mortified because I sent back a sandwich 3 times because the kitchen kept putting mayonnaise on it. I despise American condiments – mustard, ketchup, mayo, ranch dressing, Nitty Gritty special sauce… but I love Peruvian ones. Many are made with peppers, but not all of them are hot, and the chimichurri (herbs, garlic, vinegar and oil) is also amazing. Maria uses a rock mortar and pestle in our backyard to make a rocoto (hot pepper) sauce for us. She believes using the rock makes for a better final product. Who am I to argue?

 

8. Fresh cheese.  While I pine for cheddar, triple cream brie, any Carr Valley cheese and more, the mantecoso cheese is amazing. It has a strong flavor, a firm yet creamy texture and can be bought packaged in the store or straight from the producers.

World-wide, Peruvian food is currently all the rage and for good reason.

 

Bread, Glorious Bread

Argentine beef has nothing on Argentine bread.*  I am a carb queen and bread tops my list.  That said, about 2 years ago Matt and I started following a low carb diet and bread was banned from our house except when we had company or on a rare special occasion.  Avoiding bread in Peru isn’t too difficult as restaurants do not serve bread (instead serving cancha, carbs, I  know, but irresistible).  And then we got to Argentina.  Bread Bliss.  Flaky rolls, yeasty slices, crispy crackers, warm loafs, crunchy grissini, crackling wheats – we had them all.  These were some of the outstanding ones.

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Every restaurant had different breads, and while the nicer restaurants generally had the best kinds, sometimes the small joints pleasantly surprised us.  The typical accompaniment was a diluted cream cheese concoction, with chives (most common), herbs or, once, beets.  Butter and olive oil were rare and sadly tasteless.  The olive oil in particular was a surprising disappointment as we expected good olive oil to come with good wine.  No such luck.  My favorite accompaniment was the eggplant spread, which we had at two different places.

Bread and Eggplant

Bread and Eggplant

Now we are back in Peru and off the bread.  Sigh.

*  I actually mean that.  Despite Argentina’s reputation for amazing beef, we were generally underwhelmed.  We had some decent beef, but none so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.  And sometimes you couldn’t cut it with a steak knife.  We did have a darn good burger at Burger Joint – the best we have found in South America, including the ones we cook at home!

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5 Reasons I Love Buenos Aires

From the moment Matt and I arrived in Buenos Aires, we were smitten.  Ten days later our passion hasn’t faded – despite the heat and dog poop, this place is great and has made the list of places we would like to live some day.  Here are my current top 5 reasons this city is fantastic.

1.  Green.  Buenos Aires does parks right.  There are green spaces everywhere, ranging from the large parks and gardens in Palermo to small squares in every neighborhood.  Old, lofty trees line many streets, adding shade and beauty to an urban environment.  There are also numerous plazas that incorporate green spaces as opposed to being just a fountain or statue on a slab of concrete.

2.  Vibe.  Buenos Aires is laid back with coffee shops and bars galore.  While many guide books talk about the congestion and fast pace, we haven’t felt it, possibly because we arrived during a heat wave that forced life to slow down. People here dress casually – it is the first time I have been to a major city outside of the US and could wear shorts without looking like a tourist.  People linger over lunch and hang out at the bars until the wee hours of the morning.  The fact that Matt and I can both pass as locals (due to Italian genes), until we talk, also makes us feel very comfortable here as we are not immediately spotted as tourists.

3.  Food.  With a strong Italian influence and wonderful beef, the food here is amazing.  Items not to be missed include carne asada (grilled meats) , milanese (thin cutlets of beef, chicken or soy [is there a such thing as a soy cutlet?], breaded and pan fried), alfajores (shortbread cookies with dulce de leche filling, sometimes covered in chocolate), empanadas (savory, filled turnovers), pizza and helado (ice cream).  And bread.  I will be writing an entire post devoted to the bread here; it is that good.  The cuisine is not only local – there are plenty of Japanese, Peruvian, Chinese, Indian and other restaurants to choose from.  We went to an Armenian place in the neighborhood that was delicious.

4.  Wine.  What is great food without great wine?  Malbecs rule the roost, but excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and red blends abound as do several delicious Argentine white wines.  The proximity of the Mendoza region and an apparent lack of sin tax makes wine as affordable as a soda (or at least that is my excuse for drinking at lunch).

Wine tasting

Wine tasting

5.  The weak peso.  I feel a bit guilty writing that as the Argentines’ misfortune is to our benefit, but for once Matt and I are on the right side of the exchange rate.  Despite this being the second largest city in South America, we have been able to enjoy ourselves without breaking the bank, with wonderful dinners with excellent wines costing around $70, far less than similar meals would cost in Milwaukee.  We have offset those dinners by going to more modest restaurants and eating at home – today we bought two servings of a torta (these were similar in look to a quiche, with a pastry crust but a filling that wasn’t eggs – one was ham and cheese and one a minced chicken filling) and some cookies for dinner for less than $8.  The tortas are huge and we have plenty of cookies, so we will get two meals out of our purchase.

While we enjoy living in Cajamarca, the two experiences couldn’t be more different so we plan to make the most of our last two weeks in Buenos Aires.  Or maybe that is just another excuse for drinking a lot of great, inexpensive wines and eating to my heart’s content!

Back to the Baños Bash

The party has continued all week here in Baños, and every day we are surprised by the latest happenings.  More vendors arrive daily although the newcomers have brought cheap clothes, jewelry,  kitchenware, shoes, hardware etc. as opposed to the nice craft goods the initial vendors have.  The town has been unbelievably crowded and tonight some of the main streets are closed.  The party is currently rocking, and the music will likely last until at least 2:00 am.  We went for about an hour earlier tonight after a function at Matt’s school, and the band was a lot of fun.  The crowd is drunk – very similar to a Wisconsin church festival – and several people offered us beers as we are a novelty.  This guy also was trying to get Matt to trade hats (he didn’t) while his drunk friend insisted on dancing with me.  They drove 6 hours for the festival.  I didn’t ask, but I suspect they will be sleeping in the square tonight.

photo (2)Matt and his new friend.  And hat.

At some point this weekend there will be fireworks, which are launched from these rickety structures.  Actually, many of them aren’t launched, rather they will wildly spin on the structure.  It is really cool to see although a bit mind boggling to have fireworks set off in the middle of town.  The first time we saw one of these structures, we thought a float was being built.   It is unclear when the fireworks are, but I am sure we will hear them. :-)

 Earlier in the week, I came upon a scene that appeared to be a product expo of some kind.  New tents suddenly appeared on the perimeter of the square and contained booths with what appeared to be regional products, including cuy, flowers, corn, potatoes, beans, textiles, and honey.  There were crowds of people taking photos and some booths were giving out literature (not to me as I clearly wasn’t the target audience).  Nothing was being sold at that time although later that evening I saw one or two of the textile booths selling their wares.  I couldn’t stay long as I had to get to my volunteer gig, so I didn’t exactly figure out what was going on.  Most impressive were the different varieties of potatoes and corn.

It is very difficult to find good pots here as they are either small or flimsy, so I went native with this one from the fair.  For $16 the price can’t be beat so I didn’t even have the heart to barter.  I made chili in it today for the Green Bay Packers party we are throwing on Sunday – tasty!

Traditional pot

Traditional pot

I finally had my churros.  A few nights ago, Renzo’s Pizza, one of the vanishing restaurants that Matt has wanted to try, was open for the first time since we moved here, so we went there for dinner.  It was horrible – the crust was okay and toppings were fine, but the sauce was some awful brown sauce.  We couldn’t identify the taste, but it was bad.  I really miss Lalli’s Pizza in Wauwatosa!  So as a consolation we stopped at the fair for churros.  They were delicious.

The fair lasts through Sunday, so I am sure we will check it out again this weekend.  Who knows what we will find!

Throwing Culinary Caution to the Wind

Sunday afternoon Matt and I returned to Baños after spending the afternoon in Cajamarca and discovered a festival in our town square.  We checked it out and deduced that it had something to do with sugarcane.

Like most things here, it was unclear whether the festival was winding down or starting up: some shops were closing while others were being built out of pails of cement, wood poles and tarps.  Today we learned that the festival had just begun and will last all week.  Apparently it draws the farm folks and is looked down upon as a lowbrow event, but we thought it was a hoot.

Our Wisconsin roots run deep and as soon as we saw all the fried fair foods, we decided to heck with intestinal distress, let’s eat!  Our first selection was a fried elephant ear type item with some sugarcane syrup (when asked if I wanted it sweet I answered with a big yes – I was going all in).  Matt then decided to have some sugarcane juice.  Well, I saw how those glasses were being cleaned and decided I was not partaking of that treat!

Instead I bought a package of cut sugarcane, which you chew to and then spit out the stalk.  Delicious, if not very ladylike!  We passed on buying the huge stalks of sugarcane as we do not own a machete.  We also passed on the sugarcane syrup.  While it was very tasty on our elephant ear, we now realize why the farm ladies root through our garbage for our plastic bottles.  Perhaps we can bring our own bottle to be filled…

Sugarcane Syrup

These ladies were very friendly and I bought my cut sugarcane from them.

Back to the fried yumminess.  Matt ordered a papa rellena but wisely passed on the salad that accompanied it.  I had one bite and had to order

Papa Rellena

Papa Rellena

my own and even asked for the ají sauce to go with it.  I am becoming quite a fan of the pepper sauce.  A papa rellena is mashed potatoes that are filled with savory items (in this instance chicken, peas, corn and egg), seasoned with cumin and other spices, shaped into an oblong and fried.

We then bought some bread and cookies from this woman.

Baked Goodies

Baked Goodies

We ended it all with another package of cookies.  Those weren’t very good so we threw them out.  We came home about 7:00 but the fair lasted until at least 2:00 am, or at least that is the last time I woke up from the music.  Neither of us suffered ill effects from our unhygienic gluttony and we didn’t get around to having the cotton candy Matt wanted or the churros I wanted, so we may just have to tempt fate and go back to the fair this week.

Tasty Treats

Tasty Treats

Food Part 2 – Dining Out (Safe for Reading)

Apart from the cuy (see Food Part 1) Peruvian food is delicious: many fruits and vegetables (more on those in another post coming soon), meats of all kinds, seafood, excellent chicken, the best French fries ever, good bread, delicious seasonings.  The list goes on.  Peru is well known for its potatoes, there are over 1,000 varieties (and dozens in daily use), and cholco, which is corn with huge kernels.  Peruvians love their starches; many meals come with both French fries and rice, in addition to a roll or slice of bread.  Juice is also quite popular and while I have yet to find a food processor in a store, I have seen countless juicers and numerous street vendors sell freshly squeezed juices.

It is quite cheap to get a good meal in a restaurant.  A couple of weeks ago we had lunch at a cevicheria, La Base, in Cajamarca.  This time there were no French fries, but there were the best cancha, or corn nuts, ever.  These were freshly roasted and came to our table a little warm, crunchy on the outside and creamy/starchy on the inside.  Nothing like the hard teeth breakers we buy at the bar at home!  We each had the ceviche misto, which was a plate of fresh ceviche made with shrimp, octopus, and squid.  There were two root veggies on the plate, which appeared to be boiled, and cholco.  One root veggie was similar to a sweet potato and the other was white.  Neither of them did much for me, so I focused on the ceviche instead.  Total cost for the meal, including waters and a tip was 29 soles or $10.88.

Many restaurants offer only a special menu at the lunch hour.  The menu usually includes a roll; choice of salad or soup; a choice of entrée, often fried fish, breaded fish, lomo saltado (beef/veggie stir fry served over, you guessed it, French fries), chicken, a pork dish or cuy (we are done with that!); fresh juice and sometimes a dessert.  The entrée comes with a veggie and a starch or sometimes two starches.  Matt and I went to Tuna Café in Cajamarca and for 9 soles ($3.38) each we had the following: a roll, glass of fresh fruit juice, chicken soup or salad (we had soup, see the water blog), chicken with sautéed veggies and rice (Kerry) and a beef stew with rice (Matt), and a caramel pudding.  Everything was fresh and delicious and our entire meal and tip was under $10.

We have also had some lunch misses.  We have tried a few cheaper joints both in Banos and in Cajamarca.  At one place the daily lunch special  (soup, main dish, juice) was 4 soles and the food was not very good.  Plus the place was just too dirty for me to feel comfortable with the food and I kept hoping the soup had been boiled for 3 minutes!  We ate at another place in Cajamarca that was packed with locals for the 5 or 6 sole lunch, and while it was a little better, it was not a place we will return due to the lack of cleanliness and sub par food.  For the low price at a “good” place, we do not need to eat at a bad one!

One day we treated ourselves to lunch at one of the nicer restaurants in town, Querubino.  They do not serve a daily lunch special so we ordered off the menu.  I had a lovely fish, although I cannot now recall what kind, served with sautéed veggies and rice.  Matt had a beef carpaccio appetizer and a steak served with French fries and sautéed veggies.  We each had a drink and bottled water.  Total price was 87 soles or $31.32.

Rotisserie chicken is a specialty in the area due to the farming, and we have had excellent chicken both at home and in restaurants.  For 10 soles at our local restaurant we can get ¼ chicken, salad and French fries that are to die for.  Condiments are usually served with meals and while I have never been an American condiment fan (no ketchup, mustard, mayo or ranch dressing for me!), I love the Peruvian condiments.  Aji, is a pepper sauce and ranges from mild to really spicy.  Then there is an herb, garlic, olive oil sauce that is incredible.  Often there is a mayo type item and ketchup, but I ignore those.

We are doing our best to return to low carb eating, but it is difficult, if not impossible, with the type of foods prevalent here.  So we try to keep carbs like bread, sweets, rice or potatoes out of our house and to eat them in moderation when we are out.  I am never very successful with the French fries, though, and fear the cancha will be another one of my downfalls!

Water, Water Everywhere Nor Any Drop to Drink

It is hard getting used to not drinking the water.  While the water here is theoretically potable, it isn’t for us.  And not drinking includes: not brushing your teeth with it, not opening your mouth when you are in the shower or washing your face, not rinsing food with it, not having iced drinks when we are out.  We have a 20-liter container of bottled water that we use for these things, which costs 16 nuevos soles or $6.  So far it lasts about 6 days.  The good news is that to get a refill, we can just stop in or call our corner store and they deliver it.  A guy rides it over on his scooter, comes in and swaps out the old bottle for the new.  Udate: We found an even better deal – 10 soles for established delivery every week or we can call to get water more frequently.  This sale happened in what we are learning is the customary fashion – someone came to our house and when we said no the first time, came back a week later.  Door to door salespeople are common here and they appear to sell just about everything: cell/internet service, rugs, kitchen wares, stuffed animals and water.  The cell/internet people are canvassing the neighborhood in earnest these days and we get several knocks on our door a day from them.

Using bottled water isn’t the biggest hardship, but is a pain when you want to brush your teeth and need to run downstairs for some water.  We have also been advised not to eat fruits or uncooked vegetables in restaurants right now because they will have been washed in “bad” (for us) water.  Once we adjust a bit to the environment (i.e., dirt) around here, it should be less of a risk to eat those foods outside our house.

In the meantime, washing fruits and vegetables is a process.  First, I rinse them and then soak them in “bad” water and bleach, yes, bleach, for 5 minutes. Swish them around a bit, hope I don’t get bleach on my clothes and then rinse them with “good” water.  I need to rinse them thoroughly so they don’t taste like bleach, which uses quite a bit of good water.  So I am now experimenting with turning “bad” water into “good” water by boiling it for 3 minutes.  While the travel nurse told us 20 seconds was adequate boiling time, the CDC says 1 minute is needed and 3 minutes if at high altitude.  So let’s hope 3 minutes works otherwise Matt and I might be sick tomorrow from our dinner salad!

Food Part 1 – Cuy (Don’t read while eating. Really.)

On Day 12 I ate rat.  Okay, it really was guinea pig, which is a Peruvian specialty called cuy, but it sure looked like a rat.

Cuy

The taste was fine, not like chicken as I expected and with some nice creole-type spices, but the presentation was such that I don’t intend to ever eat it again and in fact may have a nightmare about it.  Matt, who had had been gunning to try it and actually bought it, couldn’t eat it and I thought he was going to throw up as it sat on our table at the Mixtura Cajamarca (the Cajamarca Food Festival).

Cuy is on the menu of just about every restaurant in the area and is offered two ways: fried and stewed.  There was no way I would have tried the fried cuy as those look like flayed bats but I ignorantly thought stewed would mean the meat was off the bone and chopped in little pieces.  I knew something was up when Matt was walking back to our table with his plate in hand and a peculiar look on his face.    And there it was: a half (we think, we did our best not to look too closely) stewed guinea pig, complete with little nasty claws and a prominent rat-like tooth.  It was worse when we went to turn it over in the hopes that the other side would look less rat-like and then saw its little head and ear.

Cuy 2

Matt was done, but I picked away at the edge of it, trying to not look at it, to get a little taste.  I succeeded and called it quits after about 1/8 of a normal sized bite.

Then it sat on our table until the guy clearing plates came by.  He was very friendly and concerned that we didn’t like it and asked if the taste was too strong or meat too tough. How do you explain to someone that his national dish is revolting to you without being rude?  The best I could come up with was that I couldn’t look at the tooth, which gave him a good laugh.  I think he was relieved later when he cleared our dessert plates and saw we had eaten every bite.

Apart from the cuy, we enjoyed the Mixtura, which is a fundraiser for the neighborhoods of the city with the proceeds going toward the Carnival parties.  Each neighborhood makes a typical Cajamarquena dish and your entrance fee  ($9.35) allows you an appetizer, entrée and dessert, which you eat in a covered pavilion while enjoying music from a band.   I had Caldo Verde, or green soup, for my appetizer.  It is a broth-based soup with the “green” coming from fresh parsley and possibly other herbs.  It has potatoes, fresh cheese and boiled egg.  Really delicious.

Caldo verde

Matt had fried, stuffed potatoes, which were sliced potatoes pan fried with various spices and some unidentifiable meat that he believes were chicken innards.  The potatoes were tasty; I passed on the innards, but Matt likes them so he ate them.  Our other appetizer choice was a huge ear of boiled corn with a generous slice of fresh cheese.  After the cuy fiasco, I got us the Parrillada, or grilled meat plate, to share.  The plate contained a very thin filet, a red sausage of some kind, boiled potato and cooked carrots.  The potato was presented cut in half and each half had a different green sauce.  Both were good although one was quite spicy.  The Parrillada was a much better choice for us than the cuy!  Other entrée options were fried cuy, roasted hen leg, grilled chicken, Chicharones, which is a common pork dish that is cut up stewed chunks of meat served over huge kernels of corn, or fried trout.  Our dessert options were various cakes, gelatin, figs with honey or some gooey, fruity tart.  We each opted for a slice of cake; both were very good: moist with a wonderful chocolate flavor.  Matt’s slice had a caramel frosting and filling and mine was maraschino.  A delicious end to the Mixtura.

mixtura