Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Peruvian

 I have never heard of Peruvian cuisine before i went to Peru.  Knew absolutely nothing about it or it's origin.  I decided not to look it up before the trip, so i was truly blindsided.  I have to say i was pleasantly surprised.  Having been to Brazil a couple of months before, i figured it'll be something fairly similar.  Lots of fresh fruits, many different types of meat and even some tasty BBQ.   The experience exceeded my expectation more than i could've imagined.
 I can say that Peruvian food is one of my favorite ever since i visited the land of corn.  Which is how i refer to Peru in my mind.

 Peruvian cuisine is also among the most diverse in the world, with the largest number of dishes (apparently more then 400).  It puts even Hungary to the test.  Their food comes mainly from the combination of Spanish cuisine (not surprised!) with traditional native Peruvian ingredients, with later influences from the cuisines of China, Italy, West Africa and Japan, obviously due to the arrival of immigrants from those locations.

 The three traditional staples of Peruvian cuisine are corn, potatoes and beans.  These ingredients have been combined with many others brought by the Spanish, rice, meat (such as beef, pork and chicken). Some of the traditional food items, such as quinoa, chili peppers and several roots which had previously been tossed aside for European products, have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent decades with a revival of interest in native Peruvian food crops.  Just look at a menu in almost any health conscious restaurant in LA or NY and you find quinoa on the list, as called one of the "super foods".  It's gluten-free, considered a good source of dietary fiber and super high in protein.

 Anyways, corn is my favorite of all the things found in the wonderful land of the Inca.  Strongly recommend a trip to the local market in Cuzco, where you come across of all the different types of corn there is (35).  They come in a variety of vivid colors, and with kernels at least double the size as we have it in the US.  They pretty much include it with any known dishes.  Throwing a handful of steamed kernels around the plate or having a full corn on the side.  They also roast them to crunchy perfections, perfect for snacking.  It seems like one can never run out of options when it comes to corn.

 Talk about corn makes me think of my other well known favorite, ceviche.  Which is mostly covered with giant kernels as well as one or many types of raw fish marinated in the almost acidic aromatic lime juice, with sweet potato on the side topped with raw onion rings.  Needles to say the recognition from Japanese cuisine is immediate.

 Another dish that's even more rich in Japanese influence is called tiradito.  Thinly sliced raw fish marinated in a mix of lime juice and ginger.  The reason i like ceviche better is really the corn and the onions which gives the dish a more subtle taste.

 I have to mention a great restaurant in Cuzco named after a Hungarian porn star called Ciccolina.  I'm not saying the idea makes me feel proud thinking that's how my country is represented in such a far away land.  But I do find it funny, if not only for the fact that locals believe she's a famous Polish actress.  At least I know the truth behind the catchy name, and kudos for the great food, plus the half nude picture of my home grown talent hanging in the ladies bathroom!:)

 Potato is another tasty delight for your taste buds.  It seems to grow in unlimited colors and types. More then 2500 different kinds are registered.   They grill it, bake it, stuff it, cut it, shave it, fry it, steam it and who knows what else.  It's pretty impressive.  Being there for almost a full week i eat potatoes pretty much every day.

 Have to mention the amazing lentils, best lentil soup i've ever had.  Sorry mom.  Also eat carrot soup on the plane!  LAN airlines are fantastic.  At last but not least i have to mention my guinea pig experience, which i know makes a lot of people go ewwwwwwww, but i was there, i had to try it.  So i did, and it was great.  The local restaurant i had it required the order a couple of hours in advance, as they had to go and catch the poor little thing first.  It really is a tiny pig, tastes like one, looks like one, the difference is the amount of meat the guinea pig lacks of compared to it's bigger relative.  I know it looks scary all cooked and stuffed in one piece, but it's just pig meat.  The stuffing though wasn't that yummy, some sort of cheese with green leaves and herbs, was kind of strong to me.

 Peru is not a good place for wine lovers.  It's just not great, i've tried many different types just to see if there was one i liked.  Nope!   Alpaca on the other hand is great, super lean and very tasty with a slight sweet flavor.  Its meat is light and white, with minimal amount of fat.  They are cute animals, and seeing them up close at a reserve i felt bad eating them, but it was really just a try.  Peruvians have been farming alpaca for centuries, not having had pigs, chicken until the spanish came, that's really all they had.  I think they tried Lama meat, but didn't taste good, so just used them for their fur.  They sell alpaca meat in the states too, some people have whole farms making good money on the special treat.

 Thankfully now there's no need to travel to South America just to try Peruvian food (all though highly recommended), as finding a peruvian restaurant in any major US cities is not that hard.  The one place i like in LA called Los Balcones Del Peru is specialized in ceviche, and it's authenticity is flawless. Located in the heart of Hollywood with a very casual atmosphere.  Has great chicken dishes and a friendly owner, who recently changed the menu into a bit more gourmet.  Which to me makes no difference as my order contains ceviche and some more ceviche.  In NY is Panca on 7th Avenue in the West Village.  Again great ceviche mix, and surprisingly tasty veal tounge BBQ-d on a stick.

 Food like Peruvian should be really experienced by people who love to eat and experiment as for some other cultures it might be too exotic.   To try meat that is really unique and unfamiliar sometimes takes courage and an adventurous spirit.   Especially the ones who got used to used to chicken and turkey.  But i can tell you that it's definitely worth it.

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