Sweet And Delicious Picarones

One of our family’s Cusco traditions is to go out for picarones, which are deep-fried, donut-shaped treats with molasses drizzled over them. Though not the healthiest snack in the world, they are delicious. A while back, we invited another American expat family to join us at our favorite picaroneria and they loved them as well. Their young daughter, who was falling asleep after a long day, rallied when she took her first bite. We all watched her as extreme fatigue dueled with overpowering sweetness, creating what looked like a 4-year old devouring a picarone while fast asleep.

Picarones, a popular dessert in Peru and other Andean countries, are made from squash and sweet potato, along with flour, eggs, yeast and spices. They are sweetened with miel de chancaca (chancaca honey), a sweet sauce made of raw cane sugar. They are frequently paired with anticuchos (marinated meat on skewers) and are often served during the month of October during the procession of Señor de los Milagros. Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos, which were too expensive to make. People started replacing traditional buñuelos ingredients with squash and sweet potato and the new dessert rapidly increased in popularity throughout the Andes.

Just as the Incas imported their creation myth and religious traditions from Lake Titicaca, this tradition of ours originated there as well. Coming back from our Bolivian vacation, my wife and daughter decided to visit the Titicaca islands of Taquile and Amantani, while my son and I headed straight back to Cusco. They were hiking to the top of Amantani to see the sunset and some Pre-Inca ruins when they saw a stone cottage with “picarones” written on a chalkboard in front. It was cold, windy and getting dark and the fire inside was inviting. They sat down at one of the two tables and ordered the only two things on the menu: picarones and hot chocolate. They watched the lady knead the dough and place it in the cast-iron skillet filled with hot cooking oil. After frying it, she set them on a plate and drizzled molasses on them. When my wife and daughter returned and recounted the highlights of the trip to the islands, picarones were high on the list.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered our favorite picaroneria in Cusco while walking home from work. The shop is on a corner with a large vat of hot cooking oil right near the door. Inside there are five tables and the back wall is dominated by a large photo of a smiling woman with blue eyes and too much make-up biting into a picarone. Three ladies work there: one kneads the dough, one woman fries it and the other takes orders. While close to San Blas and the Plaza de Armas there seems to be many Cusqueños frequenting this place, a Peruvian version of a blue-collar donut shop in the U.S. For me, this comparison was reinforced about a month ago when a policeman walked in and ordered a dozen picarones to go. Some things transcend borders.

Recipe for Picarones:

Ingredients for picarones:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled sweet potatoes
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled buttercup squash
1/2 kg (1 lb) of flour
3 tablespoons of yeast
2 stick cinnamons
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of aniseed
3 tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Vegetable oil

Ingredients for the chancaca honey:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of chancaca
1 cup of brown sugar
4 cloves
2 stick cinnamons
2 pieces of orange peel
4 cups of water


Chancaca honey: Cut the chancaca in pieces, put them in a pot and add sugar, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and water. Boil until it gets a little thick (200º F, 110º C), more or less for 20-25 minutes. Strain.

Picarones: Boil in a pot a lot of water with the cinnamon, cloves and aniseeds for 10 minutes. Strain. In this water, cook the sweet potatoes and the squash. When they’re ready, take them out from the pot and strain. Keep back 2 cups of water and let it cool down.

In a bowl, mix the yeast with this 2 cups of water and the sugar. Go down for 15 minutes.

Mix the sweet potatoes and the squash making a purée. Add the salt, the yeast mix and the eggs, beating and mixing good. Add the flour while you continue beating with energy. You must get a soft and elastic pastry and it mustn’t get stuck to your fingers. Go down for 1 hour or until the preparation doubles its volume.

Heat a lot of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. Moisten your hand in water with salt, take the pastry and let it fall in the hot oil forming a ring. Let them get brown and turn over.

Usually, the portion is 3 picarones topped with miel de chancaca.


A Night At The Cockfights

Squaring Off at the Cusco Cockfights
For our first seven weeks in Peru, my daughter and I lived with the Chavez family in the Santa Monica suburb of Cusco. The family is very well off by Cusco standards; they own a large 3-story house with a maid in the nicest suburb of Cusco and they also own a 35-acre corn farm in the Sacred Valley. Alfredo, the husband, has a large dental practice and drives a SUV, while Zulma, the wife, is from a wealthy family and enjoys having foreign students stay in their home. They have made a concerted effort to include us in all the family activities.

One Sunday morning at breakfast, Alfredo turned to me and said “Vamos a Gallos?” (Do you want to go to the Cockfights?) Even though Alfredo is a professional and a doctor he definitely has a macho streak in him, so I interpreted his question as “Eres Hombre?” (Are you a man?). Not wanting to disappoint, I agreed. He said to be back at the house by 3:00 pm.

Alfredo and his son Alfredito, along with Alfredito’s friend and I left the house at 3:00 pm and started winding through the suburbs of Cusco. We arrived at the “Coliseo de Gallos”, situated in a dusty area behind the airport. We paid the entry fee and entered a courtyard with food stalls, beer vendors, a smelly bathroom and the cockfighting arena itself. There were about 400 people there, 90% of which were male. The entire arena was about 50 feet in diameter and resembled a pit, with the circular, central fighting area ringed by ascending seating rows. The fighting area itself was a sandy surface about 25 feet in diameter surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside the cage were signs on either side, one saying izquierda (left) and one saying derecha (right). Since most roosters look the same, especially when the feathers start to fly, these signs help during the betting process. Prior to each fight when the betting happens, each trainer stands near one of the signs, poking and agitating their roosters (sometimes biting them on their backs) so that they become more aggressive.

As we arrived I bought four large beer bottles and quickly learned how men in Peru share beer. Despite all the news coverage of the swine flu, everyone shares a glass and drinks one bottle at a time. When the beer bottle is passed to you, just hold on to it and wait until the drinking glass is passed to you. Once it’s passed to you, fill up the glass and then keep the chain going by handing the bottle clockwise. When you finish your glass, hand it to the man with the beer bottle

Once the beer protocol was understood, I watched the trainers carefully tie the sharp blade to the rooster’s right leg and then hold them up to the crowd. Suddenly, the arena went crazy with men shouting bets. Alfredo explained to me that the betting process isn’t terribly scientific…just pick the one that looks stronger and shout out your bet to the crowd and wait for a response. The first round I watched Alfredo as he shouted veinte derecha, held up 2 fingers and scanned the crowd. A young man looked up at him from the first row and held up his 2 fingers and shouted veinte izquierda: Alfredo had just bet 20 soles on the rooster on the right side of the cage.

The fighting was now set to start with Alfredo yelling "vamos derecha!" Most of the fights followed the same pattern as this one: the roosters carefully stalked each other for 4-5 minutes until they got close enough to pounce on one another. Then after a about a minute of flying feathers and blood, one of the roosters stood above the other, the loser with its beak resting on the sand floor. Alfredo’s rooster lost this fight and I watched him settled up with the young man in the first row. After observing Alfredo, I tried a few on my own.

Over the course of the evening’s 15 or so fights, I ended up winning about 15 soles ($5). As the night wore on, more and more cerveza was consumed and the men in the crowd became filled with drunken bonhomie. A man near me affectionately babbled indecipherable Spanish to me throughout the night and I occasionally babbled something indecipherable back, to which he laughed loudly. After almost 5 hours of drinking beer, we all stumbled out of the coliseo and went home.
Tying the blade to the rooster's leg


River Rafting The Chuquicahuna

Running the "Chuqui"
Our shuttle picked us on Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and we rolled out of town and headed for a point on the Chuquicahuna River, also known as the “Chuqui,” about an hour and a half to the southeast. Our family’s plan was to spend the afternoon running the lower Chuqui and have a relaxing lunch by the side of the river afterwards.

After we got out of Cusco, we followed the river upstream past stands of Eucalyptus trees and corn fields. Once we arrived, we got into our slightly-mildewy wetsuits and took an abbreviated safety course at the spot where we were about to put in. Then we coasted down the river for about 20 minutes before we started to pick up some speed. The terrain was rocky without a lot of indigenous foliage, save for the eucalyptus trees, themselves imports from Australia.

We bumped our way down the river and I thought about how the Chuqui would flow into the Vilcanote (a.k.a. Urubamba), the river that cuts through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and winds past Machhu Picchu. From there it would head to the jungle and flow into the Ucayali, which would feed into the Amazon, which would then gently course into the Atlantic Ocean over 4,000 miles away. The river during this winter day was fairly gentle with a sprinkling of class II and III rapids and fortunately no one fell into the chilly water. The last time the four of us river rafted, my wife was abruptly dumped into a Panamanian river.

After each successfully negotiated set of rapids, we all put our paddles together, high in the air, to celebrate. Our cameraman, in a kayak, paddled ahead of the rapids and set up in the best locations for photos. Towards the end of our two and a half hour run, our guide, a woman in her 20’s from Panama, instructed our kids to “ride the bull” by climbing on the front of the raft holding the rubber handle between their legs and shouting like a cowboy riding a wild bull.

From this point, we soon pulled into camp at the side of the river, showered and had a meal of chicken, potatoes and quinoa soup. It was an uneventful day on the river – the way a rafting trip should be.


Cusco Characters: Senora Melvyn

Melvyn Douglas: 1940's Hollywood Leading Man
Approximately 60 years ago, a Peruvian couple was anxiously awaiting the birth of their child and in the days leading up to the delivery, they had yet to pick a name. As the due date approached, they went to a Lima movie theater to see a Hollywood movie and to relax. To this day they can’t remember the name of the movie but it starred an enchanting actress who was paired with a well-known Hollywood leading man. They loved the actress’ performance so much they decided right then that if they had a girl, they would name it after the actress. Unfortunately, they left the theater hurriedly and didn’t get the actress’s name and a few days later they gave birth to a baby girl.

When it came time to name the baby girl they had a lasting memory of the actress’ performance but not her name. Under pressure from the doctor who was filling out the birth certificate, they did the next best thing. They named the girl after the film’s well-known leading man: Melvyn Douglas. At that time, Melvyn Douglas was one of America’s finest actors and would finish his career with two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy award. He won best supporting actor awards for “Hud” and “Being There” during an acting career that spanned six decades.

This is how Señora Melvyn got such an interesting name, not to mention a perfect icebreaker at social events and business meetings. Señora Melvyn’s works at the CTTC (Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco) and spends most of her time working on preparations for a textile convention. She is extremely affable and warm and makes friends quickly. She seems to know everyone in town; when we walk across town for a business appointment, we often have to stop multiple times to briefly chat with business acquaintances, extended family members and friends. After every stop I remind her that she should run for Mayor of Cusco.

Melvyn and I became fast friends when we first started sharing an office. We discovered we shared a joint love for the 40’s Cuban bandleader Perez Prado and I offered to make her a CD of his greatest hits from my digital library. She was thrilled and spent an inordinate amount of time making a detailed and intricately decorated CD case for it. Melvyn thrives on details and she will often spend a good part of her day organizing her office belongings, alphabetizing the business cards of her contacts or re-writing meeting notes.

Melvyn thrives on interaction with people and is very good at getting the information she needs in order to push her project forward. I often hear her on the phone setting up appointments and often, after introducing herself on the phone, there's a pause and she launches into an abbreviated version of how she got her first name. From there the conversation becomes animated and she usually gets what she needs from the person she's talking to. Señora Melvyn has made the most out of a very unique name.


Peruvian Fusion: Salsa Dancing

One of the things that many foreign visitors to Cusco try is Salsa dancing. There seems to be dozens of Salsa Dance schools and clubs (Mythology, Mama Africa, Kamikase, Roots, etc) clustered around the Plaza de Armas.

Early on when our family was taking Spanish lessons at the Amauta Spanish Language school, we would take their free Dance lessons on Friday nights. My wife and I and our kids would swirl around doing doble enchufles with twenty-something backpackers, while the instructor barked out the rhythm “uno, dos, tres…cinco, seis, siete.” After a few weeks, we started to get pretty good and started to accent our twists and swirls with a little Latino swagger. For us this was great entertainment and exercise and, as the rest of the backpackers headed out to the clubs for more, we’d go out for dinner and then head home to our apartment.

It seems that almost everywhere you go in Latin America, there is Salsa dancing. Salsa dancing originated in Cuba, where the Spanish guitar and the African drum collided to form unique rhythms in the New World. Salsa -- also a word for a sauce with various ingredients -- became popular as nickname to refer to a variety of different music, from several countries of Hispanic influence: Rhumba, Són Montuno, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha cha cha, Danzón, Són, Guguanco, Cubop, Guajira, Charanga, Cumbia, Plena, Bomba, Festejo, Merengue, among others. Many of these have maintained their individuality and many were mixed creating "Salsa".

The more we think about life in Peru – as well as the rest of Latin America -- the more we realize how the fusion of three continents (Europe, South America, Africa) touches almost every aspect of Peruvian life.


Family Travel For A Year: What About The Dog?

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year can pose many logistical questions.  For example: What will you do with the family dog?

Our dog is a male, 6 year-old shepherd-mix that we got from Smiley Dog Rescue in Oakland, California about three and a half years ago. After a 6 month family sabbatical in 2005, one of the things we decided to do upon returning home was to get a dog. Without a lot of experience with dogs, we evaluated the pros and cons of rescue dogs and decided to get one, figuring that giving an unwanted dog a home outweighed any other considerations. By October of 2005 we had our dog and after a transition period where he would find every possible way out of our fenced yard, he settled in quite nicely. We quickly learned that he had to stay on leash while on walks, as he'd lunge and growl at certain types of dogs while he'd be friendly with others. Around the family he was very good and he was a great dog for us.

When it came time to start planning our suburban exodus, deciding what to do with our dog was not "top of mind" for us. Once we started to focus on it, the first thing we did was to add up a year's worth of kenneling costs At the rates we'd paid previously, we were looking at $9,500 for a year and that's only if he never left a 4'x4' cyclone fence cage with a concrete floor. If we added a daily 45 minute walk, it would cost close to $20,000 for a year for a pretty miserable existence.

Around the time we were starting to wonder where we could possibly place our dog, the woman who was to rent our house suggested that we could keep the dog at our home and she'd take care of him, along with her three poodles. This seemed perfect; our dog could stay in his own home and even have some canine companionship. She and my wife decided to give the idea a test one afternoon. All of our hopes came crashing down as our dog immediately defended his territory and started growling and barking and did not stop for the entire hour they were at our house. With each growl and bark, our dog's chances of a nice comfortable year in his own house slowly evaporated. Both my wife and our tenant agreed that this would not work.

A few weeks later during a dinner party with our best friends, after a few glasses of wine, the wife of the couple said that they'd love to watch our dog while we were away. As we put away a few more glasses, we ended the evening feeling optimistic about this scenario. The next day, in the cold light of day, we all realized that their house was on the market and there was no way of knowing if their future home would accommodate a dog. Back to square one.

A month later, a dog-loving friend of my wife's casually mentioned that she might take our dog for a year. My wife slowly worked up to suggesting a "doggy-sleepover" to see if such an idea might work. With no other options in sight, we awaited the fateful night. Again, our irascible canine could not contain himself. Not being on his home turf, he paced the house all night and just could not get comfortable. Again, it was mutually decided that we would pursue other options.

At this point, my wife even emailed Smiley Dog Rescue to see if there was a possibility that they'd take the dog back, even temporarily, but they said no.

As a last resort, my wife called her sister in Los Angeles. My sister-in-law and her husband don't have kids and have a nice back yard and she told me wife that she'd do it only if all other options were exhausted. My wife assured her that they were. She and my son brought the dog down in May and thus far the match has been very good. Our dog gets a lot more time walking than he did with us and my sister- and brother-in-law seem to genuinely enjoy his company. At one point during a recent walk, one of their neighbors even asked if he was for sale. From being unwanted and possibly having no home to being set up in a perfect environment and being the talk of the daily walk, our dog has come a long way.


Inca Kola: Liquid Bubblegum

I remember trying Inca Kola when I visited Peru 25 years ago and being unimpressed with the sweet yellow, carbonated cola that is the Peruvian national drink. It has an unusually sweet, fruity flavor that is often compared to bubblegum. Having learned the Spanish words for bubblegum (chicle) and juice (jugo), I often said Jugo de Chicle instead of Inca Kola when talking to Peruvians, which invariably got a polite chuckle. I knew that Peruvians love it when you like their Inca Kola, but I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it. Perhaps the most charitable way to describe Inca Kola is to say that it is an acquired taste.

Inca Kola was created in 1935 by José Robinson Lindley, a British immigrant who used the refreshing taste of lemon verbena to anchor the recipe and it became instantly popular. These days Inca Kola is owned by Coca-Cola, who owns the trademark everywhere but in Peru. Inca Cola and Coca-Cola run neck and neck in terms of market share in Peru with each brand capturing about a third of the soft drink market.

When our family arrived in Peru I thought that my 14-year old son and 12-year old daughter would love the bubble gum taste, despite my previous experience. For one of our first meals I ordered them each an Inca Kola and eagerly awaited their reaction. They both took a sip and put their glasses down to a chorus of “yuck.”


Juanita The Ice Princess of Arequipa

On our first day in Arequipa we had two goals: see Juanita, the 12-year old Inca ice princess recently found near a glacier and find a toasted bagel with cream cheese for our 12-year old daughter. Our daughter is keeping a list of the foods that she misses most from home and a toasted bagel with cream cheese is high on the list. Among other things, she has “drink tap water,” “eat real pancakes with real maple syrup,” “eat real cheese” (those of you from France, you can lower that supercilious eyebrow now) and “eat clean and big strawberries.” We went to a place that our guidebook described as a “Starbucks-style” coffee house searching for that elusive bagel, but had no luck. After eating a tasty lunch, we visited Juanita.

Juanita is the frozen body of an Inca girl who lived to be approximately 12-14 years old and she died sometime between 1440 and 1450. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) in Southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate. Juanita was remarkably well-preserved after 500 years, due to being encased in a glacier for most of that time. In September 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato (20,700 ft), Reinhard and Zárate found a bundle inside the crater that had fallen from an Inca site on the summit. Owing to melting caused by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcano of Sabancaya, most of the Inca burial site had collapsed down a gully that led into the crater. To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain a remarkably well-preserved body of a young girl. In addition, they found—strewn about the mountain slope down which the body had fallen— many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods; these included statues and food items. A couple of days later, the body and the objects were taken to Arequipa. The body caused a sensation in the scientific world due to its well-preserved condition.

Pointing out the similarities in gender and age to our daughter, we learned about what her life could have been like as Juanita. We summarized the advantages: she would be buried with expensive artifacts and jewelry, could wear a very expensive vicuña wool garment and spend eternity with the gods. As for the disadvantages, well, there’s the death thing. During the height of the Inca Empire, sacrifices were common as way to appease the mountain gods who controlled nature. Children from all over the empire were gathered for selection in Cusco and only the most beautiful, innocent and perfect child would be chosen for the honor of going to live with the gods.

We visited Juanita at the Museo Santury on a beautiful spring day in Arequipa and she was in pretty good shape for a young girl over 500 years old. While her skin was a leathery brown, her hair was shiny and black and pulled into a tight pony-tail. The right side of her face is slightly marred due to a couple of weeks of sun exposure (the time between being jarred loose from the glacier and being discovered). For half the year she sits in the fetal position in a refrigerated glass case in Arequipa; the other half of the year she is on tour.

Anthropologists and historians have deduced that Juanita and the presiding priests walked 150 miles from Cusco and climbed the chilly Ampato volcano for the sacrificial rites. At the summit, she would have been extremely cold and was probably given a libation that put her to sleep. When the ceremony was over, she was struck with one precise blow just above the right eye that killed her instantly.

After learning all this, my daughter respectfully declined consideration for the role of sacrificial virgin. We decided to go hunt for the toasted bagel and cream cheese instead.