Peru: Chowhounding from Anticuchos to Zaino
A foodie's adventure in Peru
By Darrin DuFord
A Peruvian friend of mine living in the States once squarely told me, “Peru is not known for its cuisine.”
Perhaps he held such a conviction because the mountaintop ruins of Machu Picchu soundly dazzle most of Peru’s visitors and overshadow all else, relegating food and drink to the duty of humble hiking fuel, except for a pisco sour or two.
Or was my friend playfully trying to provoke my curiosity? My girlfriend and I decided to begin our quest for answers at his old stomping grounds of Pucallpa, an urban enclave ensconced in the middle of Peru’s lowland rainforest.
Pucallpa: Untasted by Tourists
With its zinc-roofed stalls and windowless, three-wheeled taxis launching red dust into the viscous tropical heat, the often forgotten Pucallpa seems not the quaintest corner of Peru, a fact that keeps Pucallpa off the trodden tourist trail.
My hotel even assumed that as a foreign visitor, I must have worked in either the lumber trade or the agriculture business, two of the main industries of the area.
Being neither, I discovered quickly that Pucallpa’s location on the Ucayali River, an Amazonian tributary, blesses the working class city with a tantalizing bounty of provisions from the surrounding jungle.
Its residents have long since learned to make a rewarding dinner out of zaino (collared peccary), its incomparable succulence drubbing its domesticated, floppy-eared porcine counterpart. Or the petite South American deer. Or a juicy, flame-grilled steak of majás, a large jungle rodent. Majás may not acquire fans among the gastronomically timid, and that’s unfortunate since the tropical dish makes a shell steak look like an understudy.
We tried all three for 19 soles ($6) at the restaurant across from the Ruiz Hotel while a swarm of hand-painted motokars (three-wheeled taxis) whined past the open windows, seasoning our plates with just a hint of red dirt and blue smoke. For those who don’t speak Spanish, one could always order lunch by pointing to the stuffed majás atop the shelf in the restaurant’s dining room.
Red Dirt and Blue Smoke
The surrounding oxbow lakes (the ones not polluted by careless development, that is) and the Amazonian tributaries provide Pucallpan households and restaurants alike with fish such as doncella, a striped, antediluvian-looking critter known in English as the tiger shovelnose catfish. Its fleshy meat, which tastes similar to tilapia and branzini, grills nicely.
To counter the year-round broth better known as the air of the lowland interior, kiosks sell cups of chicha morada, a sweet, non-alcoholic drink of purple corn, sugar, and cinnamon. Every time we asked for the drink para llevar (for takeaway), the vendor ladled it into the standard Peruvian to-go container: a plastic bag with a straw in it.
Holding one of the sloshing half-sol (15-cent) prizes reminded me of winning a bagged goldfish at a carnival, except that I had to figure out how to drink it. For one-handed operation, the trick is to grip the bag at the top loosely enough to allow the juice to run up the straw, but firmly enough to avoid dropping it.
Some Amazonian beverages offer benefits above thirst placation. When I ordered a shake of the pulpy aguaje fruit at an open-air restaurant next to the city square, the young waitress froze her face into a twist of perplexed suspicion.
Later that day, I found out why. After a 45-minute taxi ride up a dirt road, we met a community of indigenous Shipibo at their thatch-roofed village of San Francisco, where the affable villagers had just returned from harvesting a basket of - coincidentally - aguaje.
Despite decades of being marginalized by the encroachment of industry that polluted nearby Lake Yarinacocha, the village still retains much of its knowledge of the jungle. “Aguaje is very healthy,” one of the Shipibo women stated, pointing at the bumpy red fruit.
I was just about to add — smugly — that I had enjoyed a glass of it for lunch when she continued with, “It is loaded with hormones beneficial to women.” (I didn’t end up growing breasts, but I furtively began selecting other flavors for subsequent beverages.)
Grapes grow surprisingly well where the jungle meets the Andean mountain slopes far northwest of the city. But don’t expect Wine Spectator to dispatch its best team of slurp-and-spit reviewers, armed with DEET and thesauri, into the malarial wilderness.
Instead of focusing on winemaking, the growers of the Amazon region more commonly spike the juice with aguardiente, or cane liquor, forming the brisk drink uvachado. You can’t abuse it; it abuses you.
But it pairs well with long waits for late-arriving planes at the Pucallpa airport while one enjoys the tarmac’s view of grime-shrouded helicopter carcasses from past military days. Uvachado is so far from wine that the makers drop a few fresh grapes into each plastic bottle so the drinker won’t forget what uvachado is made from.
A Snack on the Street
One might think that a cow’s heart, thumping a half billion beats in a lifetime, would end up suitable for nothing more than leathering a saddle. But after Peruvian cooks marinate and season strips of the cow heart with cumin and achiote, the strips become tender anticuchos, the popular skewered street treat found in charcoal-blazing food carts on the sidewalks of Pucallpa as well as the more familiar destinations of Lima and Cuzco.
To the Highlands
And speaking of more familiar destinations, we traveled to the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco in search of one of Peru’s historically popular dishes: cuy, or guinea pig. Archaeological evidence indicates that guinea pigs have been domesticated in Peru since 2,500 B.C.
The country’s penchant for cuy continues unhindered: Peruvians devour 65 million of the rodents per year, and to satisfy the demand, a Peruvian university has recently bred a guinea pig that reaches twice the normal size.
Peruvians from all over the country enjoy cuy, but I singled out Cuzco because a local artist who painted a mural for the city’s cathedral rewrote The Last Supper by depicting a guinea pig on a plate in front of Jesus.
The Quest for Cuy
After an afternoon of scaling the city’s stone stairways while sucking in the impenitently thin air of 10,900 feet (3,322 m) above sea level, we were ready for some cuy as well.
While Jesus and his twelve disciples had to share a lone, scrawny, 1½-pound (¾-kg) animal, I ordered my very own. I first sampled cuy at the elegant Inca Grill, where the cuy arrived already cut up and glazed in a yellow pepper and rosemary sauce.
The more local cafés on the outskirts of the city, however, cook up a more traditional and less expensive cuy, its head and claws frozen in a roasted crispness. If you like rabbit, you’ll like cuy. Pet or protein? The answer seems to depend on one’s cultural perspective.
For afternoon libations in the highlands, buckets of pasty froth sit at street corners, ready for action. I’m talking about chicha. Fortunately, the home brews, made from fermented grains or fruits and sold for a half sol (15 cents) per glass, taste better than they look.
The fresa (strawberry) chicha from the outdoor produce market in Ollantaytambo tasted more like a fruity Belgian beer. It made a soothing choice of beverage while we gazed at the mountainside Incan ruins that towered over the town like golems paused in mid-romp. “Another?” asked the chicha vendor as she cleaned the glasses on her apron.
When exploring side streets of the southern city of Puno, I joined the patient bustle surrounding the warmth of refrigerator-sized stalls hawking salchipapa - a Spanish contraction of salchicha (sausage) and papa (potato) - for under a dollar. The cheap eats would have been a rather pedestrian pile of French fries and cut-up hot dogs if not for the mellow hit of the salsa de aceituna (olive sauce) squirted on top. Puno’s decadently thick salsa de aceituna will ruin you for ketchup.
A Dusty Cone of Dirt
As with most travelers to Puno, we took a boat from its port to the fragile islands inside Lake Titicaca, sloshing around at a crisp 12,725 feet (3,879 m) above sea level. Our ultimate destination was the island of Amantani, a cold, dusty cone of dirt hulking up from the center of the lake.
Just what could be for dinner on this apparently desolate isle? Upon arrival, the island’s geography gave us the hairy eyeball, but in defiance, the families hosting guests cleverly stewed together what little grows on the island, and served us savory soups of quinoa - an annual herb cultivated for its starchy seeds - and several varieties of potato. The meals, finished with fried cheese, were simple but energizingly filling - just what the climate calls for.
Many of the island’s adobe-brick houses are caressed by the vines of the tangy citrus fruit granadilla, a few of which Martinez, the father of our host family, plucked off for us. “After you plant them, they just grow on their own,” he told us of the robust vine, providing us with an appropriate metaphor for what may be the islanders’ own survival philosophy.
No Mint Jelly Required
Clothing fashioned from alpaca wool abounds in the Andean highlands, and so do opportunities to enjoy alpaca steak. Alpaca is a shorter cousin of the llama, both of which bred by Andean cultures for thousands of years, the former for its wool and meat, and the latter for its strength.
Alpaca can bring in more money for the herder if the animal is sheared every two years for its wool instead of being turned over to the sauté pan, so there is a higher cost for its entry on a menu (usually $9 or more). I interpreted its cleanly rich flavor as what would happen if a pig were crossed with a lamb. No mint jelly required.
From sit-down restaurants to sidewalk stalls, Peruvian cuisine seems to be a jealously protected secret, minus the jealousy and protection. Flame-grilled majás may be far from worldwide fame, but I’d still like to add to my friend’s original statement: Peru is not known for its cuisine — yet.
Darrin DuFord has written food and travel pieces for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Gastronomica, Vice, World Hum, Narratively, and other publications. His debut book, Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama Without a Car, won a silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. His narratives appear in the anthologies Stories of Music Volume 1 (Timbre Press, 2015), Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from around the World (World Traveler Press, 2015), and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11 (Travelers’ Tales). He lives in Queens, New York, America’s most diverse county.