I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.
I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.
I took a break from the Machu Picchu training hikes and spent the weekend in Lima with my friends Sarah and Mistina to celebrate Sarah’s birthday. While I have been to Lima several times, it was never for straight enjoyment; rather, it was always an extra day tacked onto a trip related to getting our immigration paperwork completed. The school puts us up in a hotel in San Isidro, which is one of the nicest districts in Lima, but pretty sleepy. So this time we were doing Lima right: we stayed in the hopping district of Miraflores, solicited restaurant suggestions from our Peruvian friends in Cajamarca who are from or have lived in Lima and signed up for a food tour. In other words, food was the focus of this weekend, including the important stop at Wong supermarket so we could stock up on imported cheese. I limited myself to 8 1/2 pounds this time…
Friday night and we had one goal: Indian food (called Hindú food here). I did my research and discovered that there were two Indian restaurants in all of Lima and they were a block away from each other. We got to the hotel about 8:00, dumped our bags at the hotel and set off to Mantra. We were not disappointed: the service was good, the food was decent (although not the least bit spicy) and the chai was excellent. Was it as good as the feast Archana’s mom made for me when I was in Chicago in August? No, but it was fresh and flavorful and hit the spot.
On Saturday we were picked up at 9:45 by Lima Gourmet Company (http://www.limagourmetcompany.com/) and began our culinary adventure. I admit that I had some reservations about the tour: we all have lived in Peru for over a year so why would we go on a tour designed for tourists? Plus, I already knew how to make a mean pisco sour! Then, when the 15-person van pulled up with a bunch of tourists, all 3 of us had reservations. But we were wrong: the group was friendly, our guide, Sylvia, was great and the tour was fantastic fun.
The first two stops focused on non-alcoholic beverages in Barranco, a gentrified neighborhood adjacent to Miraflores. Peruvian coffee was the focus at the magnificent Tostaduría Bisetti, a coffee roaster and cafe with a great vibe and cute enclosed back garden. They buy organic, Peruvian beans and hand select each bean for roasting. I’m not a coffee drinker and was planning on passing my coffee off to Sarah or Mistina, but non-coffee drinkers were offered tea instead. What a delight! My tea came in the coolest tea infuser ever: you place it over the cup and the pressure releases the tea into the cup with no tea leaves or spices mucking up your beverage. Sheer genius.
The next beverage stop was at the darling La Bodedga Verde where we had a lucuma smoothie. The Bodega has a huge, 100 year old lucuma tree on its outdoor patio. I had heard of the Peruvian fruit before but had never tasted it. Typically, it is dried and used as flavoring in desserts and ice cream. The smoothie had hints of almond and vanilla and was delicious.
Although the lucuma smoothie was filling, our eating had just begun. Next stop was the San Isidro market, the most upscale in the city. It was glorious: clean, fresh, gorgeous displays…very different than our hard-working Cajamarca markets. We started at a fruit stand where Sylvia introduced many of the amazing Peruvian fruits and provided us with ample samples of some. With the exception of lucuma, I had tried all of them before, but it was still a treat. Incidentally, Sylvia is so vivacious and energetic that is is hard to get a picture of her when she is still!
We walked over to the fishmonger and got a demonstration on how to pick fresh seafood. Unfortunately, we did not stay to taste any. The only downside of the tour was that we were not given any time to purchase anything at the market. I assume that given the price of the tour, they likely didn’t want us to feel pressured to buy, but I think most people on our tour would have enjoyed purchasing a piece or two of fruit.
We left the market and headed to Embarcadero 41 for our pisco sour and ceviche lessons. There are multiple locations for this restaurant, but whichever one we were at was well appointed and had a very friendly staff. We bellied up to the bar and started with 3 mini shots of pisco – non-aromatic, aromatic and fruit infused. I was wimpy and didn’t finish any of my shots. Then the bartender showed us how to make a pisco sour. The recipe is easy: 3 parts pisco, 1 part simple syrup, 1 part lime, 1 egg white and a dash of Angostura bitters. While I had made these before, I learned that the secret was to add the ice at the end, after vigorously shaking all the ingredients but the bitters and then to pour out some of the drink into the glasses and shake yet again to get a good froth on the egg whites. I forwent my turn behind the bar, but enjoyed the drink someone else made for me. Need I mention that the group got much more chatty and friendlier after our drinks!
Then we moved on to making ceviche. The sous chef did a great job because we sat down to a beautiful display of ingredients. The head chef led us step-by-step through the process and we were encouraged to make our ceviche to our liking. At the end, we were given the chef’s version to taste. Both Sarah and I agreed that we liked our own dishes better! One guy in our group did not like fish so he was provided with mushrooms instead. He said the end result was good and his wife was excited to have a vegetarian option to make for her friends. My plate is boring because I don’t like sweet potato, raw onions or giant, starchy corn that were to be used as the accompaniments. Plus, our eating wasn’t completed and I couldn’t even finish my ceviche!
But our fun was not finished! We headed back to Miraflores where we went to the swanky restaurant at the Huaca Pucllana ruins. We had another cocktail and looked at the ruins, which date to 500 AD and were where women were sacrificed to appease the goddess of the sea during El Niño. Once seated, we had 4 appetizers: green humitas (similar to tamales) with criolla sauce, grilled octopus with yuca, beef heart anticuchos (heart sliced thinly, skewered and grilled) with fried corn and potatoes, and deep fried cuy (guinea pig) pieces over fried plantains. It was the 3rd time I have tried cuy and I can say that while I can eat it to be polite, I will not order it again. After our appetizers, we had 4 small desserts to share with a partner. I think this set up was a bit weird for a tour as not everyone was with a friend, but as Sarah and I shared, it didn’t matter to me. The desserts were: suspiro de limeño (Lima’s signature dessert, which didn’t do much for me or Sarah), a dessert with manjar blanco, cookies and some pudding-like filling that was so sweet even I couldn’t finish, another dessert that Sarah warned me had coffee in it so it was all hers and rice pudding (my favorite of the four).
The tour was over around 3:30, but our eating was not done for the day! After a walk to the crafts market for some shopping and around Kennedy Park, we relaxed at the hotel for about an hour and then headed to the water fountain park (blog post coming soon). At around 10:00 we hit Ámaz, a restaurant that focuses on food and drinks from the Amazon region of Peru. Two of our friends had recommended it, as had Sylvia. The decor and music were jungle inspired and our friend Rodrigo, an artist, told us to look for his “erotic jaguar” in the bar. We found it, but my picture does not show off the erotic feature; use your imagination and you are likely right! We each ordered a different cocktail and then shared several dishes. They food was really flavorful and very different. We started with an abreboca (mouth opener) of a little, chewy, cheesy roll and a crunchy, fried cracker-like treat, then moved on to an amazing salad with grilled prawns and fruits, a crazy gigantic mushroom that had a flan-like filling cooked within it and was served in a huge leaf, delicious causa (mashed potatoes) served with prawns and a great sauce, and a lovely fish dish. We also had cachapas (fresh corn pancakes) and smashed, fried plantains, but neither of those were my favorite. Our food was so plentiful that we had to skip dessert! While the service was sporadic, when we left we asked for directions to our hotel as we were only a few blocks away but disorientated because we had come from the park. The staff was very nice and one guy walked us to the street and then ran about a half block trying to figure out where we needed to go. That just doesn’t happen in the US!
We arrived to the hotel after midnight and called it a night. Sarah concluded that it was her best birthday ever!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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