Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Intro to Peru, Peruvian Cuisine, & an Alcoholic Drag Queen

The final new country of my gap year: Peru.  The fabulous Lenora – my eternal friend and regular travel companion – again joined me for this leg of the tour.  Peru is unlike many of the other Latin American countries I had visited in that it has a high percentage of indigenous people.  While a few other countries have higher, I mainly stayed in the capital cities in those places so I didn’t get to see as much indigenous culture as I would have liked.  Being at the end of my time in Latin America, my Spanish was getting pretty decent, and I was surprised to find that it was almost useless in some places in Peru where the local Quechua and Aymara languages are much more common.

Despite having a similar amount of time as in Colombia and in Chile, I feel like I saw a LOT more of Peru, mainly because I was on an organized tour which whisked me, Lenora, and seven other random travellers around the southern half of the country.  We started along the coast in Lima before moving into the desert, the snowy Andes, and the Amazon rainforest.  Every day was something new.  The elevation in parts of the country was ridiculous – more so than in Colombia or Ecuador – and I had to actively fight off altitude sickness by staying super hydrated, drinking coca tea, and mostly abstaining from alcohol.

Also, Peru wins the award for worst driving in Latin America.  It wasn’t as bad as most of Asia, but it could give a few of those countries a run for their money.

I usually finish off blogs for any particular country with a talk about the food, but I’m defying the trend here and starting with the good stuff.  Mainly because the one question I keep getting asked is: “Did you eat guinea pig???”

The answer:  Yes, yes I did.  Come on – I’ve eaten worms and ants on this trip so why say no to guinea pig?  Cuy asado (roasted guinea pig) is a popular dish so I had to try it once.  Luckily, one was ordered for our whole group to share so I didn’t have to eat a whole one (or pay for a whole one) by myself.  It came out whole just like I expected and it looked gross just like I expected.  I got a leg piece.  I could see its tiny little foot with its tiny little claws on my plate.  I had a few bites, but there wasn’t too much meat on it.  Maybe it tasted like chicken, but I’m not entirely sure.  It’s hard to determine the taste when you know exactly what you’re eating.

Alpaca is another common meat for tourists to try.  And only tourists.  Locals don’t eat alpaca.  It’s sort of like Fosters in Australia:  nobody knows where to even get it but tourists manage to find it, drink it, and think it’s cool.  Anyway, I had alpaca meat cooked a variety of ways.  Some of the more interesting meals I had were alpaca ravioli, alpaca meatball pizza, and – the best – an alpaca burger.

Breaking away from the weird animals, a lot of the meals I had were pretty basic and pretty similar to other Latin American foods, mainly consisting of grilled chicken with rice or French fries.  While there are some very typical Peruvian foods, the locals (especially those outside the cities) really only have access to the basics.  We made fried bread during our homestay at Lake Titicaca.  It was sort of like a sopapilla.  Aside from this bread, the other bread we had almost everywhere around the country wasn’t all that great.  Another great thing we had in the homestay was fried cheese.  It was almost like haloumi and when I asked what type of cheese it was, I was told it was just “fried cheese”.  I’m ok with that.  Rice is common, and quinoa is a very popular grain as well, often cooked into a soup.  They eat lots of vegetables, and lots of corn.  There are dozens of types of corn available.  If you think that seems excessive then let me share this bit of information with you:  Potatoes.  Lots of potatoes.  There are something like 4,000 types of potatoes grown in the Andes of Peru.  FOUR THOUSAND.  So, basically, in summation:  fuck you, Idaho.

Potato is the main ingredient in the causa – a big chunk of peeled, cooked potato with toppings like chicken and vegetables.  I think this is their equivalent to the baked potato in the USA, but obviously without all of the butter and cheese and bacon and other things that transform a somewhat basic and healthy food into an artery-clogging masterpiece.

Trout is a common fish in the country and is abundant thanks to it being introduced into Lake Titicaca.  I tried my first ceviche in Peru.  Most ceviche includes shellfish which is a no no for me, but trout ceviche is quite common and Phill-approved.

My absolute favourite dish in Peru is aji de gallina.  I had my fist aji de gallina in Santiago, Chile (Peruvian food is super popular in Chile) and I thought I was going to die from how heavy the dish was.  It’s a chicken dish served with huancaina sauca, a spicy, creamy, thick yellow sauce, over rice.  Some of the fancier tourist restaurants play with the recipe and make it into a fusion dish, such as aji de gallina ravioli, but the traditional aji de gallina is delicious without the gimmicks.  The aji de gallina in Peru didn’t seem as heavy as in Chile, which means that either it was cooked more authentically or I was just getting used to it.

Every meal deserves a drink, and I had a few good ones.  Inca Kola is a popular soda, but it is too sweet for me (how old am I???)  It sort of reminds me of a mix of bubble gum flavour and Mountain Dew.  Mate Inca is a tea that helps with altitude sickness, as is coca tea – made from the same leaves that are processed to make cocaine.  Apparently I’ll probably fail a drug test now that I had a lot of the tea, but it doesn’t have any effect like cocaine when you chew the leaves, drink the tea, suck on the coca-infused candies, or eat the coca-infused biscuits and chocolates.  Pisco Sour is a common cocktail made from pisco – a brandy made by distilling wine.  Every city seems to have its own beer, but I had only two of them during my time in Peru:  the Arequipeña (from Arequipa) and Cusqueño (from Cusco).  Very creative naming.  Finally, my favourite is chicha morada, which aside from being a fermented purple corn drink, would also be a great name for a drag queen.  And just like the drag queen, the chicha morada drink can be alcoholic or not.

For fruits, I tried a granadilla which is reminiscent of a passionfruit but sort of looks like a cross between a red apple and an orange and a coconut.  Or something like that.  Lucuma is a popular tropical fruit that tastes like caramel and therefore I only consumed it in milkshake and ice cream form.  And speaking of dessert, I have two words for you:  queso helado.  It translates to “cheese ice cream” but it was not cheese ice cream.  It’s only called that because it looks like cream cheese.  It is actually flavoured with honey and cinnamon and happiness and is a specialty of Arequipa.

Finally, it wasn’t all about Peruvian food, but it sort of was.  Peru has a large amount of both Chinese and Japanese immigrants and their cuisines have evolved and merged with Peruvian cuisine.  Chifa is the name for Chinese-Peruvian cuisine which consists of a lot of stir-fried noodles and rices.  I had a lot of this.  Nikkei is the Japanese-Peruvian cuisine but I had a ton of sushi in Chile and was sort of out of the mood for this in Peru.  Sad.  Of course I had Mexican food, which was decent in Lima, but everywhere else insisited on making tortilla chips out of wontons.  WTF?  Peruvians:  you are surrounded by dozens of types of corn and you make Mexican-style chips out of wontons?  Ugh.  I guess the Asian influence extends deeper into Peruvian cuisine than I thought.   Last (literally our last meal in Peru) but certainly not least:  CREPES & WAFFLES!  I had it in Panama and Colombia and Chile, and I got to go to Crepes & Waffles one last time in Peru.  I had my favourite Mexican chicken crepe and Colombian coconut lemonade, and got a sweet manjar blanco (Peru’s version of dulce de leche) waffle for dessert.  YESSSSSS!!!!

Ok, that’s all for the introduction and food.  Next up, details of my travels around Peru.  But first, let me take a selfie.

I took a selfie with a 5-month old alpaca named Mateo.  What cool things have you done with your life? That’s what I thought.

Links to more photos of my time in Peru will follow in the next blogs.

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