Tag Archives: Peru

Peru bites

Keep your cathedrals, plazas, museums and statues – the first place I want to visit when I arrive somewhere new is the local food market.

Nowhere is better for getting under the skin of a place and gaining insight into how people shop, eat and live. I could (and often do) spend hours browsing; marvelling at the colours of unfamiliar fruits, asking questions and accepting samples, checking out how prices compare from place to place, practising my haggling skills and generally absorbing the energy of the hustle and bustle.

It is impossible to leave empty handed and I think the best travel souvenirs are from markets; I have a growing collection of wooden spoons from all over South America waiting to be taken back home to London.

True to form, we visited a main market on our first day in Lima. At first glance this market wasn’t anything fancy or high end (unlike São Paulo where perfect specimens of fruit were constructed in architectural wonders for display).

But with such vivid colours and variety, there is no need to add frills.

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Black or purple corn, used to make the classic fruity Peruvian drink chicha morada (it’s a bit like a grown up ribena!)

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Fresh cacao, which people take home to grind and make their own chocolate.

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Reptilian looking cherimoya aka custard apples – the biggest I’ve ever seen!

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When we looked closer we saw that although this market seemed a bit rough and ready, like a regular busy market in any country, a tremendous amount of care went into preparing the produce for sale.

It was beautiful to watch: men and women crouched near their stalls meticulously trimming lettuces, picking over soft fruits, even finely chopping onions, herbs and vegetables to bag up separately to relieve their customers of a tedious prep job.

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Even humble garlic was given this treatment, with the papery husks discarded to show off plump cloves.

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There seemed to be a real sense of pride among the stallholders, not only in their work but in the produce itself. It’s clearly a culture which values and loves food. I wish we could find more of this attention to detail and level of service in the UK.

There is plenty of good eating outside of the markets too.

This is a snack called “causa” sold at many cafes. It’s layers of potato, chicken or seafood, mayonnaise, avocado, topped with hard boiled eggs and black olives. The story goes that the name originates from the War of the Pacific, when women would make these to sell “por la causa” (for the cause) to raise money for the troops. It’s tasty and filling, a bit like Russian salad (salad olivieh to Persians).

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There was no way I was visiting Peru without trying their delicacy of cuy, guinea pig. Especially after I learnt that it was a main part of The Last Supper…

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It’s decent; the “tastes like chicken” cliche is apt. The meat is quite fatty for such a little beast but they carry a lot of chub around their haunches.

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After getting bitten by the ceviche bug, we ate as much as possible while we were in Lima.

The ceviche apaltado from La Canta Rana has set a new benchmark for me. I can’t get enough of the large, buttery avocados in South America and this combination of a perfectly ripe specimen with fresh fish and a skilfully balanced marinade is something I will crave, even years from now.

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Mark’s ceviche mixto (fish chunks mixed with octopus, clams, prawns and other seafood) was memorable too.

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Even Sir Paul McCartney is a fan – his autograph is among the many wall decorations!

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Another highlight was Panchita, a restaurant which is part of Gaston Acurio’s empire in Lima. We couldn’t get a reservation at his most famous place Astrid y Gaston (recently named #14 in the World’s 50 Best list for 2013) but a visit to Panchita, which showcases the best of typical Peruvian street food, helped to make up for this.

Four of us enjoyed sharing hearty portions. Clockwise from top left: aji de gallinas (chicken in a creamy sauce), arroz con pato (stir fried rice with duck), tallarines (stir fried beef, veggies and noodles) and lomo saltado tacu tacu (flash fried marinated steak with vegetables).

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Lima recently had another of its restaurants recognised by the World’s 50 Best list, a new addition at #50. Central is run by Virgilio Martinez who also owns the restaurant Lima in London and used to be head chef at Astrid y Gaston. We booked a table here and looked forward to a real treat before we left the city.

And what a treat it was. After nosing around the upstairs library which is crammed with reference books, maps, photographs and obscure ingredients Virgilio and his team are researching, we were shown to our seats.

We were given a platter of excellent artisan bread, dried seaweed, flavoured butters and dips to nibble on while we read the menu.

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(Sorry for the quality of the photos – we had only a phone camera in the dimly lit room.)

Central’s menu is like a map of Peru: there is arapaima fish from the Amazon jungle, shrimp and grouper from the rivers and seas, suckling piglet from high altitude grasslands and chuno (a frozen dehydrated potato) from the Andes mountains. Native ingredients are combined with Virgilio’s international favourites – he has trained and worked around the world.

It was such a good menu that we had to ask the waiter to help us choose. Following his advice, I ordered “charred purple-corn scented octopus” to start, which was served with sauces of black olive and tree tomato (aka tomate d’arbol which I am rapidly becoming obsessed with, particularly in freshly juiced form).

These were served in fun purple and yellow dots which stirred memories of Mr Blobby – first time I’ve thought of that 90s pop chart horror in a decade!

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Mark went for lamb cannelloni with Urubamba cheese (we had crossed the Urubamba river on our trek to Machu Picchu).

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For the main course, I had suckling pig which was beautifully tender, sticky and gelatinous – it didn’t need all of the slightly gloopy, sweet “pear custard” served alongside. Mark chose the arapaima, a meaty white fish which complemented another Amazonian ingredient, hearts of palm.

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Central has its own chocolate cellar downstairs, which holds some of the best chocolate in Peru. Obviously I had to choose the chocolate dessert! Mark ordered the goats cheesecake which came with a fragrant, steaming pine concoction for extra theatre.

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We just about found room for the playful petit fours of marshmallows and other goodies served on a “lava rock” made of sugar.

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I grabbed Virgilio himself for a cheesy photo and to thank him for a delicious meal, congratulate him on his restaurant’s recent success and wish him well for his forthcoming wedding.

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Great news – he and Gaston have teamed up to open another restaurant in London early next year, spitting distance from where I work in Shoreditch.

I dare say I will be a regular!

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Recipes from Lima: ceviche and Pisco sour

Peruvian food is a bit of a “thing” in London these days, with restaurants such as Lima, Coya and others opening recently.

Ceviche is by far Peru’s most famous and popular dish. The idea is to get the freshest seafood possible and toss it in lime juice and other flavourings to cure the flesh slightly.

Since food is often best in its birthplace, I couldn’t wait to go on a bit of a pilgrimage while we were in Lima, Peru to learn more about ceviche and check out some top cevicherias.

I asked Ericka from Delectable Peru to take me under her wing with a visit to one of her favourite cevicherias, El Veridico De Fidel, where we would be shown how to make a classic ceviche (and eat plenty of samples, of course!).

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The ingredients, freshly picked up from Lima’s ports, were waiting for us to get stuck in.

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We had to don attractive headgear to be allowed in the prep area.

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This is the recipe we followed:

Classic Peruvian ceviche

Ingredients:

  • 1kg Cojinoa fish (or any firm-fleshed white fish), cleaned and diced into 2cm chunks
  • About 15 limes, freshly squeezed for 200ml juice
  • 3 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp ajinomoto (later I learned this is MSG and can be omitted)
  • 2 red onions, thinly sliced (about 150g)
  • Small handful of fresh coriander leaves
  • 2tbsp hot salsa (recipe follows), or to taste

To make one cup of hot salsa, blend together the following in a blender or food processor:

  • 100g celery
  • 10g garlic
  • 10g ginger
  • 5 aji lemon peppers (a mild, fruity red chilli as modelled by Mark below)
  • 5ml oil
  • 5ml condensed milk

Method:

1) Put the fish pieces into a large mixing bowl.

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2) Add all the other ingredients and stir to combine.

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3) Allow to marinate for no more than a few minutes while you decorate your serving plate with choclo (sweetcorn), sweet potato and lettuce.

4) Feel free to get silly with some of the ingredients.

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5) Serve the ceviche (don’t waste any of that tasty juice) and enjoy!

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Ideally the seafood should only be allowed to sit in the marinade for up to five minutes to just take away the edge of the rawness. If left too long, the acid from the lime juice overcooks the flesh, leaving it with an unpleasant mealy, mushy texture and a watery taste – not what you want! The best ceviche should have fresh, citrussy, sour and salty flavours with firm, meaty flesh. Ceviche is often served with popcorn which is great for soaking up the juices left on the plate.

You can also make ceviche with different varieties of seafood, such as shrimp for prawns, octopus, or these black clams.

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Leche de Tigre (tiger’s milk) is a drink for only the brave – it is made with ceviche juice mixed with a little milk and garnished with seafood.

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Yummy, but an acquired taste as the milk has a tendency to curdle with all that lime juice.

The classic Peruvian cocktail, Pisco Sour, is a great boozy drink to have with ceviche.

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The universal ratio to remember is 3,1,1,1 (3 shots Pisco, 1 shot lime juice, 1 shot sugar syrup and 1egg white). Shake like crazy with plenty of ice, pour into an old-fashioned glass and sprinkle Angostura bitters on top of the foam. You can experiment with flavoured Pisco if you like – the bottles below contain strawberries, coca leaves, lemon zest and much more.

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Salud!

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Inca Jungle and Machu Picchu

The classic Inca Trail books up months in advance and is by far the most expensive option to see Machu Picchu. But there are many alternatives – Mark and I thought the 4day, 3night “Inca Jungle Trek” sounded more fun anyhow. Why walk when you can mountain bike and zip line?!

The first day started with downhill mountain biking. Although the road was completely paved, I actually felt more unsafe than on the WMDR because of shoddy, rusty, unmaintained bikes. We had fun for a few hours: whizzing down fast you feel the air change between warm and cool in different places, carrying aromas from the citrus trees and mountain herbs.

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Day two was the toughest: over eight hours of walking and quite a bit of steep climbing. I actually find long downhills the toughest of all; especially carrying a pack as this wrecks my knees. Give me an uphill any day!

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Our guide kept the trek interesting by pointing out small farms of coca leaves and other plants.

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Some plants held vivid paint-like juices, used for natural dyes by locals. This is one of the first times I have worn “make up” in weeks!

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These chillies are known as “monkey dicks” for obvious reasons…

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We stopped in at a few houses owned by friends of our guide along the way, to refresh supplies of snacks and water, use the bathrooms … and play with their crazy pets.

This cheeky monkey went straight for pockets, bags, even women’s bras in search for treats!

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This is our buddy Matt rocking a new look, the “war paint & parrot” combo. You saw it here first.

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Best of all was spotting these live guinea pigs (cuy) scurrying around a kitchen floor. We almost didn’t see them; nobody thought to point them out as this is such a common way of life in Peru. Cuy is the local specialty and it makes sense to keep a steady supply of free range beasts around, let them breed, fatten them up on peelings and other scraps and cook them up fresh when needed.

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Much to the relief of our trekking group’s token vegetarian, the mama of this house was away and her teenage daughter didn’t feel confident in preparing cuy for us to try. (We tried some another time in Cusco – quite tasty, surprisingly rich, fatty white meat, lots of fiddly bones).

We also crossed this dodgy bridge, keeping an eye out for holes…

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… Which was nothing compared to this cable car, dangling pathetically over a massive drop into rocks and rushing water…

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There was no other way to cross; you just had to clamber in and put your faith in the wiry old man at the other end, who pulls the car back and forth all day (link to video).

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For those whose legs had turned to jelly after that experience, the natural hot springs just 20 minutes from the cable car were a welcome respite.

The next morning we were all pumped for the ziplining part of the jungle trek. Click here to see a video of me screaming like a girl. I’m sure the Incas would have got around this way if they had worked out how to make steel cables…

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There was also a wobbly rope bridge high up above the trees, with just a couple of inches of splintered wooden slats placed every couple of feet to stand on. Some people, like our trekking buddy Bryony, calmly completed the challenge with style and grace…

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While others (me) were not quite so composed…

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The last part of the third day was a gentle stroll along the train tracks. Again, we occasionally had to watch out for treacherous gaps…

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… and fast moving trains. We put coins on the track when we heard trains coming, so they would be squashed to keep as souvenirs. Not sure what to do with several flattened, misshapen bits of metal now…creative suggestions welcome!

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We were having so much fun with all these different activities and sights that we kept having to remind ourselves that we were on the way to see one of the world’s Seven Wonders, Machu Picchu. When the day arrived it was a bit like being a child at Christmas, particularly with the shockingly early 4am start.

This was to give us enough time to complete the final scramble up to the site before crowds of the lazier tourists arrived by the bus load by mid morning. We were told the steep 400m climb would take around two hours so were pretty chuffed with our sub 50 minute time – until our guide told us that a group of crazy Aussies nearly hospitalised themselves after sprinting up in 18 minutes. Won’t be trying that any time soon.

I will always remember the first glimpse of Machu Picchu. The sun had not fully risen at that point so there was a chill in the air and the mists shifted and separated between the peaks of the mountains. As the sun grew stronger, they evaporated, slowly revealing the famous stone structures lit by the morning’s gentle orange glow.

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These stone walls and buildings are so familiar from millions of photographs, it was odd to actually stand in front of them and try to take it all in. I can’t imagine how Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who rediscovered the lost Inca city of legend, hidden under overgrown jungle in 1911 must have felt.

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Surprisingly little is known about the site. It was only occupied for a few short decades and may have been a palace for Inca nobles or a university for their future leaders and wise men. Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge is the difficulty in translating their language. Apparently this is not the dodgy drawing of a three year old, but Inca text!

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We also paid the extra $10 to climb up Machu Picchu mountain for some aerial views. No lazy bus tourists up here – the steep 600m ascent took care of that. When filling in the sign-in book at the bottom, we spotted some people had given up and turned back after just 10-15 mins of climbing.

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The view from the top – you can see Machu Picchu below, in the distance.

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We climbed back down on creaking knees in time to spot the resident llamas enjoying the sunny spots on the grass.

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One llama preferred “photo bombing”…

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The pretty ones seemed to like posing…

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Others weren’t so photogenic…

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Some llamas seemed to be there for the same reasons as us, to enjoy the spectacular view. Spot the difference…

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Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Peru

While preparing for our travels back in England, I asked my softball pal Pete to share some of his top tips from his recent trip to Peru. Alarmingly, one of the first things he mentioned was that Cusco had a McDonalds in the main square, despite knowing that one of the main reasons I travel is to eat memorable food. I assumed Cusco was a forgettable tourist trap for the hordes who pass through this area on the way to see Machu Picchu.

It was a pleasant surprise to arrive and discover that Cusco is a very likeable city (and that you shouldn’t ask a bloody Aussie for travel tips). Although we couldn’t resist stopping by Macca’s, just for you Pete…

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True, the many travellers and agencies arranging treks and other excursions to the pre-Inca and Inca sites nearby form Cusco’s lifeblood today. But historic beauty is everywhere: huge Inca stone walls are on either side of cobbled streets which lead to wide, well kept plazas with flourishing flora, fountains and grand colonial cathedrals. It would take more than the modern tourism industry and a few fast food joints to diminish a place which used to be the centre of one the world’s most eminent civilisations.

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Cusco used to be the Inca capital and is South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Even the name (originally Qosq’o in Quechua) means “navel of the earth”.

It is a lovely city to wander around and just a short puff away, up from the main square, are some good views.

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A bit further away is the temple of Saqsaywamán, which forms the head of Cusco’s distinctive and intentional puma shape (other significant parts of the old town form the puma’s belly and genitals). The puma is the most powerful land mammal of these parts and a symbol of human prosperity. There are hundreds of significant symbols still within the stones, such as this puma paw.

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Although it sounds like “sexy woman” (tee hee!) Saqsaywamán means “satisfied falcon”, named after gory bloodshed between indigenous people and their Spanish conquistadors in 1537. After the battle, flocks of hungry condors were attracted to the site littered with thousands of dead. This event is memorialised by the name it is known by today, and the eight birds depicted in Cuzco’s coat of arms.

Today only 20% of the original structure remains after looting by the Spanish – though the odd stone can be found in Cusco city, where they were taken to be used in colonial buildings such as the cathedral of the main square. The stones which remain must have been too large to budge – the ones in this picture weigh more than 70 tonnes.

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We signed up for a day trip to explore the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba river, not far from the centre of Cusco. The main attractions include the ruins in Pisac and Ollantaytambo, plus numerous Andean villages along the way.

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The Inca stone work is impressive, especially since nobody knows the exact methods used to get such precise lines. Although it is known that the Incas didn’t make things easy for themselves – they didn’t use the wheel, or slave labour, and often built structures miles away from the source of the heavy granite stones.

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Incas knew about sophisticated techniques such as building the walls of houses and temples with a slight inward incline to protect against earthquakes, or creating terraces for efficient farming and irrigation.

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Weaving is also an ancient and important way of life in these parts. We learned how intricately patterned, versatile and durable fabrics are made from llama and alpaca wool and natural plant and insect based dyes.

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By the way, with so many guides, tour groups and agencies in town it is important to shop around for the best deal. Many offers are very similar so in the end we decided to pick the guide with the cutest kid. This little charmer won us over!

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Lake Titicaca

Bolivia is a country of surprises and superlatives – it is the southern hemisphere’s highest nation with the world’s highest capital city. It has some of Earth’s coldest, hottest and windiest places. It is South America’s poorest country yet rich in natural resources.

Our final experience of this remarkable country was exploring yet another superlative: the world’s largest high altitude lake…with the world’s funniest name.

For fact fans:

  • 3810m above sea level
  • 8560m2 total area
  • 4996m2 on Peru side
  • 3564 on Bolivia side
  • 281 m maximum depth
  • 71km of islands
  • 896,000,000m3 volume of water

After a short minibus ride from La Paz, we had to hop on a ferry to cross a small stretch of water before we could arrive in Copacabana, a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

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We climbed on a tiny dinghy while our bus and all the luggage drove onto a larger barge. Luckily this system runs smoothly and we were reunited with our bags after a few minutes waiting on the other side – just enough time to buy some snacks from this little cutie.

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Thanks to Lake Titicaca’s bountiful supply of fish, we ate the best food we had in Bolivia in this area. Dinner in Copacabana was this grilled trout “a la inglesa” – apparently people in South America think we Brits smother everything in a cheese sauce.

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The quinoa fritters we ordered as a side dish were a treat I will definitely try to recreate in the UK.

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The next morning we took the 1h 30min boat trip to Isla del Sol, one of the most important areas for Andean culture. Inca mythology says the sun was born here and many people travel to see the footprints he left behind.

Andean/Amayran cultures believe there are three levels of existence: the lower level, often depicted by a snake, is where Pachamama resides. The upper level, portrayed by a condor, represents spirit life. The middle level, depicted by a puma, represents powerful human life.

Although it didn’t stop us giggling like the puerile idiots we are at any mention of “titicaca”, we learnt how “titi” is Quechua for “puma” and “caca” means rock – Isla del Sol is home to a famous puma shaped rock which gives the lake its name.

Isla del Sol was pretty close to my idea of paradise: gorgeous views, vibrant colours, fresh air and peaceful tranquility.

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We cheekily hijacked a guided tour and overheard a lesson about moonya, a local minty, citrussy herb which helps with altitude sickness and nausea when sniffed or brewed into tea to drink.

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Near to the puma rock or “titicaca” were pre-Inca structures, including a stone table used for sacrifice rituals – I was reminded of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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We meandered along the path from the north to the south of the island, a lovely three hour walk with plenty of photogenic vistas along the way. But no trees along this route meant no shade from the sun, made fiercer by the 4,000m altitude!

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We realised we hadn’t eaten since early morning so decided to follow some locals to find a good spot for a late lunch.

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Our llama guides did well, leading us to a picture postcard spot where the specialty was, of course, fresh trout.

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Tummies full, we found a lodge to spend the night which had a wide terrace, perfect for watching the sunset along with a bottle of Malbec saved from Mendoza.

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I could easily while away days on end on this island – it is an ideal spot to get lost in some good books or take up painting. Sadly we had a bus booked from Copacabana to Cusco via Puno the next day, so had to get back on the ferry in the morning.

Puno let us see the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It is famous for the Uros community: several hundred people who live on floating islands made from layers of reeds, which you can visit by boat.

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While this was a good way to pass the few hours before the next leg of our bus journey, Mark and I felt a little uneasy about the blatantly touristic and voyeuristic setup.

Although some debate that the steady flow of visitors to these areas ensures that this way of life is preserved, to us it seemed forced, false and borderline exploitative. The villagers sang snatches of songs to please their international visitors; “row row row your boat” followed by “sur le pont d’Avignon” and then a Japanese ditty while I cringed inwardly.

It seemed a world away from the peaceful authenticity of Isla del Sol, where visitors mixed quietly and respectfully with the farmers and fishermen.