It was the best of food; it was the worst of food. This tale of two cuisines details our gastronomic ups and downs while dining in Peru. After only a few weeks of eating all kinds of dishes, a pattern began to emerge: Peruvian food is really good and most (Peruvian) attempts at “international cuisines” (i.e., Italian, French, Mexican and American) are pretty bad. That Peruvian food is really good should come as no great surprise. The Economist (1/29/04) observed that “…Peru can lay claim to one of the world's dozen or so great cuisines.” Everyone has heard of ceviche (chunks of fish marinated in lime juice) and some will have heard of Lomo Saltado (beef tenderloin, sliced and sautéed with onions, tomatoes & French fries) or Aji de Gallina (chicken stew of hot peppers, cheese, cream and peanuts), but what has been surprising is the depth and number of consistently good dishes.
For our first 7 weeks in Cusco, we lived with the Chavez family whose house servant Lina is a very good cook. My introduction to Peruvian, as well as Andean, cuisine started when Lina began to whip out one great dish after another. The mouthwatering Palta Rellena (Creamy avocado half stuffed with diced vegetables) was to be followed by a light and fluffy Causa (mashed yellow potato squares sandwiching chicken or tuna) which in turn was followed by a spicy Rocoto Relleno (Hot aji pepper stuffed with chopped beef, eggs, peas, carrots & potatoes). The secret to Peru’s culinary prowess is twofold: Its biodiversity and its immigration history. Peru’s distinctive geography gives it 28 of the world’s 32 known climate zones, making it one of the world's most ecologically diverse nations, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Peru boasts 1,500 miles of coastline, offering a plethora of seafood and 250,000 square miles of Amazon basin with its plentiful fruits and vegetables. The many ethnic groups who have immigrated to Peru – Spanish, Basque, African, Chinese, Japanese –have mixed with indigenous Peruvian flavors to create a very diverse cuisine.
These facts alone should have convinced me to eat only Peruvian food, but when one is away from home, one craves the familiar. A few days after arriving in Cusco, I ordered a hamburger at a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas. The hamburger meat was infused with huacatay, a green, pungent Andean herb one normally finds stuffed inside cuy (roast guinea pig, an Andean delicacy) and I could not finish it. In fact, I haven’t ordered a hamburger in a restaurant since.
After a couple weeks of living in Peru, my daughter and I were greatly missing Mexican Food. We’d tried nachos, quesadillas and enchiladas at various restaurants around the Plaza, but all were a disappointment. One day I passed a restaurant on Plaza Tupac Amaru called “Tex-Mex Tacos” and I looked inside. It looked and felt authentic: bright colors and pictures of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata on the walls and authentic selections like horchata, chilaquiles and pozole on the menu. We excitedly looked forward to our first visit and ordered tacos and after a few bites looked at one another, shaking our heads. The tacos were greasy, the tortillas broke in half and the margarita I ordered was far and away the worst one I’ve ever had. It was no surprise to us that two weeks later the restaurant closed down.
Another disappointment in Cusco is pizza. I ‘d ordered pizza a half dozen times and each one had an inferior crust, a funky Andean cheese that barely melts and terrible sausage and ham that reminded me of the baloney in my lunchtime sandwiches in grade school. After each pizza, I swore that I would not eat another. While at a festival in Paucartambo, a small town halfway to the Manu Biosphere, we looked for a place to eat and everyone agreed on -- you guessed it -- pizza. A pizza was brought out very quickly and I labored through two undercooked slices and lost my appetite. That night I was violently ill with food poisoning and remained sick for 4-5 days. I still can’t think about a Peruvian pizza without my stomach starting to turn.
I have learned my lesson: stick with Peruvian food.