Culinary adventures

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

One of the big surprises in Peru has been the amazing quality and diversity of food available. At local markets every inch of space is crammed with fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and bread. Where, as is frequently the case, the markets are built along railway lines the goods are set out on the tracks themselves to a height that ensures they are not disturbed by passing trains. Specialities include hundreds of varieties of potatoes and multiple types of San Pedro – Ayuhuasca’s cactus-based hallucinogenic cousin. It has been a pleasure to be able to buy delicious, naturally deformed produce by the kilo and at reasonable cost – the polar opposite of the extortionately priced, flaw-free, flavour-free packs of four available from UK stores.

I have also indulged in a little culinary tourism at local restaurants. First, I tried guinea pig – ‘cuy’ in Spanish. Now before you berate me for snacking on the family pet I should say that 1. the wild guinea pigs found on the Peruvian grassland differ considerably from their domestic counterparts and 2. if it’s good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me. The Catholic church in Cuzco has a large oil painting depicting Jesus and his disciples sharing one of our furry friends as part of the last supper. All the same, I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the prospect of a whole animal sitting – nose, toes and all – on my plate so I ordered cuy stew instead. This turned out to be a mistake. The stew still contained an entire guinea pig – only coated in a gelatinous gravy rather than the more usual crackling. People have since asked what guinea pig tastes like and I can only say that, based on my experience to date, it tastes rancid. I may do the dish a disservice, however, as I suspect that the particular piece of meat I ate actually was rancid. I certainly felt unable to complete it and was very glad when the night passed without the need for an urgent trip to the bathroom. The experience has put me off trying guinea pig again for a while so you can put that pan-piped version of Bright Eyes away for the time being.

My experience of another local speciality was somewhat better. On arriving in Lima we asked our taxi driver to suggest a good local ceviche restaurant. If you are not familiar with ceviche it is seafood ‘cooked’ by chemical reaction with its lime dressing and is considered by most Peruvians to be their national dish. It is traditionally served with corn on the cob, lettuce leaves and sweet potato. Our taxi driver took us to a surprisingly cheery restaurant down a dark back street. Despite the fact that it was around 3.00 on a Friday afternoon it appeared that the working week was over. In one corner karaoke was in full swing while in another a group of business people sat nursing local beers and puffing on cigarettes under a prominent no smoking sign. The dish when it came was delicious – so much so that I sought out and have included a recipe. Apparently each chef will have his own signature ceviche but the following is considered to be something of a classic.

Recipe

800g firm white fish such as sea bass
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 red chilli pepper, finely chopped
1 yellow chilli pepper, finely chopped
Juice of 15 limes
salt

Cut the fish into small chunks, dress with the lime and season with the salt and chilli peppers. Serve immediately. (The fish can be swapped for or supplemented by cooked crab meat, cooked octopus, blanched squid or scallops).

I’ll certainly be trying this out when I get home.

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