Modern cultures are beginning to understand that wholesome food is important in maintaining the body’s wellbeing and promoting a healthy spirit. Indeed, there are those who say dining on haute cuisine is a spiritual experience. Some even believe one’s body is their spiritual temple, so it’s important to nourish it with food that raises one’s spiritual vibration.
Part of getting to know another culture is sampling the local food. If you find it delicious, you might feel you’ve gone to food heaven. When it comes to Peruvian food, the ingredients are fresh, flavorful, healthful, and I think, inherently good for the soul. As a spiritual tourist in Peru, one might say that exploring the traditional cuisine of the Incas is part of their spiritual journey, a soul food experience.
On day one of my Peru odyssey, a mild case of altitude sickness made my stomach queasy, so I was careful to eat light and not be too adventurous with the Peruvian food. What I had experienced so far with the local cuisine was delightful. I looked forward to tasting more of it, particularly the things that are unique to this culture, like cuy. Cuy is Spanish for guinea pig, an inexpensive form of protein that’s often served at the Peruvian dinner table and as street food fried on a stick.
By day two, my stomach began to settle, but when we returned to Cusco that evening and the 11,000 foot elevation, my queasiness returned. Our hotel offered coca tea in the lobby, a common practice in Andean hotels. This tea, known locally as mate de coca, contains a mild stimulant similar to caffeine which helps to counter the effects of altitude sickness and has a delicious mushroom flavor that reminded me of a tea I drank while in Beijing.
The infusion is prepared with one gram of coca leaves that contains approximately 4 mg of organic coca alkaloid, the same substance that is used as a base for making cocaine. Although the amount of alkaloid in the infusion is far less than the 20-30 mg typically found in a line of cocaine, if you drink even one cup of this tea and are given a drug test afterwards, you’ll likely test positive for cocaine. Coca tea is legal in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. However, it’s illegal in the United States unless the coca alkaloid has been removed. In addition to the tea, coca leaves are used by Incan shamans in their spiritual ceremonies.
There were certain things we were warned not to eat in Peru, such as street food, ceviche (“cebiche” in Spanish), raw salads, unpeeled fruits, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these foods, but since we were visitors, we were not accustomed to or had built up antibodies for certain pathogens that might be found in this fare.
On our first evening in Cusco, we headed across the street from the hotel to Valentina’s, a restaurant that our guide Adriel recommended. This place caters to tourists, but the menu was mostly traditional, and there was a wonderful band that played Peruvian instruments, such as the ethereal pan flute. I ordered a salad that featured potatoes and avocados, and an exquisite quinoa soup, which turned out to be the best of the three quinoa soups I tasted while in Peru. Quinoa is a grain that is indigenous to the Andean regions of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. It’s high in protein and fairly available for purchase in the United States.
The Pisco Sour is the national alcoholic drink of Peru. Every restaurant we dined at served us complimentary Pisco Sours as a welcome drink. It’s a delicious cocktail made with South American limes (known as “Peruvian lemons”), egg white, sugar and pisco, a grape brandy produced in the winemaking regions of Peru and Chile.
As I mentioned previously in Part One, Peruvian cuisine is derived from the indigenous Inca civilization and influenced by native dishes of Spain, Germany, China, Japan, Africa and Italy. Staples include potatoes, corn and chili peppers, though I didn’t find the food overly spicy.
During our first full day in Cusco, we were fortunate to visit the largest marketplace in the city, Mercado Central de San Pedro, where locals shop for food and sundries. Near the San Pedro rail station, this colorful open-air warehouse stretches three blocks long and one block wide and is filled with row after row of fresh produce, meat products that included every part of the animal (cow heads, pig snouts, etc.), fish and fish roe, fresh bread, hand-crafted cheeses, fresh wild herbs, flowers, grains, lentils and legumes, handmade garments, and souvenirs for tourists. I spied a huge cooked guinea pig displayed on top of a large, raw chicken and puzzled over whether this was sanitary.
Potatoes are a main ingredient in Peruvian soups. We stopped at a booth where a woman minced potatoes and packaged them for purchase. These prepared potatoes would save a cook a great deal of prep time. The speed with which this woman sliced potatoes was truly impressive. She gave me the knife to try my hand at it. It was not as easy as it looked.
Americans are accustomed to seeing perfect-looking fruit in their grocery stores, with no blemishes or bruises. Although our fruit may look perfect, it’s often flavorless and has lost vitamin value from sitting around too long.
In the San Pedro market, the fruit was blemished, but was fresh and huge. The grapes were the largest I’ve ever seen. Peru grows about 20 different varieties of fruit, some of which are only found in Peru. Adriel took us to a trusted fruit vendor, who prepared drinks for us made with exotic fruits and local beer. It was delicious. Then he broke open several fruits unique to Peru for us to taste.
Lucuma, a native Peruvian fruit known as “gold of the Incas,” is sweet like caramel custard and used as an ingredient in ice cream and other desserts. The pepino, which Adriel called a cucumber, is indigenous to the more temperate Andean regions of Peru. It tastes nothing like the cucumber we Americans know, its yellow flesh more like the flavor and texture of a honeydew melon. A native of the Andes, the heart-shaped cherimoya with its soft, custard-like flesh, is popularly known in English as the Custard Apple and is used in pies, mousses and sauces served over fish. Its sweet flavor reminded me of a blend of bananas and peaches.
One of the rows in the marketplace was stacked with fresh bread. Some of the loaves looked like wide-brimmed hats. Adriel purchased a loaf of chuta bread for us to taste. This delicious Andean bread is characterized by its sweet, anise flavor and a large, disk-like shape.
Mercado Central de San Pedro is open every day. We were there on a Sunday, so it was not too crowded. Tourists should watch for pick-pockets, particularly when it’s crowded. There are lots of photo opportunities in this colorful place with all of the beautiful produce, unique items and the mountain folk who come here to sell their wares.
Because we were in Peru for only four days, there were many traditional dishes that I didn’t have the opportunity to sample. But I did my best to try as much as possible, including some of the more exotic foods like yucca, a starchy tuber that tastes a bit like potato, and Alpaca steak, which was mild in flavor, but tough. I tried guinea pig, too. It reminded me of pork, but a little sweeter and was very greasy. They served the animal intact, with red chili peppers turned upside down over its ears. They looked like party hats. I suppose that makes it more palatable for us tourists.
At the Inka House Restaurant, a young chef gave us a cooking demonstration. He prepared Causa, a popular cold dish made of mashed potato, shredded chicken, Peruvian lime juice, red onion, chili pepper, olives and avocado. There are many variations on this recipe, which include tuna and sometimes shellfish. It’s a delicious dish that would be nice to serve at a luncheon with a crisp, white wine.
On our second night in Cusco, over 20 of us dined at a local Peruvian family’s home. This was a unique and fun experience. The hostess had three beautiful children who also joined us for dinner. Since I was seated at the children’s end of the table, one of the first things I got to do was pour glasses of Chicha Morada for them. This is NOT the alcoholic chicha I told you about in Part Two. It’s a non-fermented drink made from purple maize, powdered cloves, cinnamon and sugar, reminiscent of grape juice but not as sweet. The Peruvian national beverage, Inka Kola, is much sweeter. It tastes a lot like bubble gum.
We tried lupine beans, a traditional legume that is primarily eaten as a snack food. These beans are poisonous unless prepared properly. The flavor was mild and the texture somewhat crunchy like a nut.
Rice pudding (arroz con leche) is a popular dessert in Peru, made with cooked rice, cinnamon or nutmeg, raisins and milk. I had several versions of this in Peru, but my favorite was the one served at this family dinner. It had the distinct flavor of freshly-grated nutmeg.
At the end of the meal, the hostess passed around a plant pot containing live mint. We each broke off a sprig and dropped it in a tea cup. She filled each of our cups with hot water, and we enjoyed a delightfully fresh cup of mint tea.
Food and friendship go hand in hand. The children, who were learning English, tried their best to chat with us. We, in turn, stumbled over our broken Spanish and managed to communicate in spite of our shortcomings. Our laughter, the nourishing, delicious food and warm spirit of companionship made this a special evening in Cusco. And who knows, maybe it raised our spiritual vibration.