East of Heart

¿Qué estás comiendo?

What am I eating? I try to embed mention of food into my travel posts but since I happen to have a number of past restaurant colleagues with short attention spans, I have to give them a proper food post once in a while as a carrot to keep them visiting. The following is a rundown of some of the gastronomic experiences I’ve had of late.

After the long bus to Salta and before the visit to its mummy museum, I needed to eat. I asked around on where to go, and got a confident answer: El Patio de la Empanada (on the corner of San Martín and Malvinas). It turned out to be a medium-sized courtyard with seven food stalls on two sides. I dodged the first stall’s pressure to sit with them but I came back when I noticed that they all sold the same items and that no one could replicate the honest smile of the initial invitation. It turns out that owner Sra. Vásquez is one of the patio’s veterans and she’s a customer service pro at satisfying foreign curiosity for her traditional northern Argentinian food.

First up, a beautiful light corn humita, which I topped with some red pepper ají/picante. A good appetizer. Then came the main dish, locro. Locro is a common menu item in the Andes but it’s made differently in each place. Sra. Vásquez’s cooks made it with light cartilaginous cuts of rib-area beef, a yellow pumpkin (green skin zapallo) base and then the requisite mote, or big corn. Delicious, hearty and nutritious! I ended my meal with two empanadas, one of beef and one of cheese. Both were quite good, moist but not soggy inside, with a perfect crust.

As if Argentinean cuisine didn’t already feature beef (carne/carne de res) enough, I then found out that the fat they use for most of their pastries and crusts, breakfast staple pan de masa included, is actually cow fat which you can purchase in bulk from butchers. Sra. Vásquez showed me her 2kg bag of it! To accompany this delicious meal, I drank a large glass of local torrontés grape variety white wine. Less than a dollar per 400ml glass and just as good as any of the imported bottles I’ve had in Toronto.

Since I’ve crossed into Bolivia, the market food and almuerzo (lunch) menu landscape has resembled Peru’s enough that I feel know where to look for the better items, but it helps a lot that Bolivians are incredibly friendly and willing to help you find your way to a good dish.

Arriving in Potosí, I fell for the trap of starting the day with tea, bread and cheese, but just before leaving the market for the first landmark visit, I spotted what I’d actually wanted, a stall selling healthy morning meat dishes next to a butcher. I had a delicious light and incredibly fresh mondongo or tripe stew. The woman sitting next to me said the same, “this woman only cooks with the best stuff”. With the tripe I drank a glass of mocko chichi juice. It’s made by adding boiling water and sugar to half-peeled sun-dried fruits similar to peaches with a strong amaretto-like taste. The resulting juice is cooled and served with the re-hydrated fruit at the bottom of the glass. Excellent!

I tried to capture the bucket of tripe in the background in the first picture above, but I was still too head-heavy from having slept most of the night in a parked bus to fiddle with aperture. You’re probably shuddering, tripe for breakfast?!, but for my host in Montevideo, eggs for breakfast sounded like the grossest thing ever.

Next up, two dishes from Sucre. The first is a pretty boring ají de pollo served with rice and chuños, mountain air freeze-dried potatoes that are reboiled. What makes it ají is that the chicken is cooked with oil and ground red chillies (ají molido). Good but greasy and not different enough from the surrounding fast food stalls I’d avoided. The second was a good lunch sausage, a traditional chorizo chuquisaqueño (Sucre is in Chuquisaca Department), made from pork meat in real casing, with red chili powder and lots of cumin. Dryer than Italian spicy sausages but fried to order.

My best meal in the country so far was the simple first one I had in La Paz, at Camacho Market (it’s worth stating that I prefer to stick to the cheapest food available). I stopped at a stall that served chairo as a starter: a soup with chuños, barley, mote, potatoes, celery, carrots, celery leaves and the requisite yerba buena. I was told that much like regular soup is enjoyed with bread, chairo should be served with fresh blanched fava beans on the side, similar to the chairo I described in the Health in a Bowl article from the southern Peruvian Andes.

The main dish was beef albóndigas (which normally would be meatballs but here they were more like croquettes, with crunchy wheat mixed in) and lentil stew served on pasta and chuños, a hearty and thankfully not over-cooked mix of elements that sat well with the earthy chairo. Making the meal even more enjoyable were Catrine and her father Elias who shared the table with me. We had fun taking each other’s photo and joking about who could finish their apple refresco first.

Now to end with something less processed: fruit! Since it seems to be citrus season in the entire southeast of the continent, I’ve been eating a lot of oranges, grapefruits and mandarin oranges / tangerines, but you already know those.

In the first fruit binge assembly, a perfect large sour white grapefruit (pomelo) from Sucre with tombos. Tombo (or curuba larga in Colombia) is from the passion fruit family (along with maracuyá and granadilla). It taste slightly sour but its flavour and aromatics are less sharp than its cousins’, it’s more berry or grenadine-like, though still somewhat citrusy. The skin is quite good too.

In the second, some very special, evidently non-commercial fruits from the valleys around Mt. Illimani in La Paz that I found at the massive outdoor Uruguay Market today. At the front, some rich but not especially good native avocados (paltas). In the middle, some very small cherimoyas (called “Chinese apples” by some fools in Toronto, but it’s native to the Andes). One of the spiky variety, the other more rounded. Both were as good or better than any larger store-shelf specimens I’ve tried but the spiky one was much more fragrant. Cherimoya tastes sweet and floral with a soft custardy juicy flesh and large black seeds which you have to suck clean. Finally at the back, some beautiful, incredibly delicious ripe figs.

Such diversity of flavour makes me happy and attracted to these lands, but many here are expressing a strong emerging preference for unhealthy fast food made of processed meats and overcooked starches. Fried chicken, hamburgers and salchipapas (sliced fried wiener sausage with french fries covered in condiments) are taking over. I’d like to know why people prefer lack of flavour in their food, to me it seems like an obvious indicator of health and value. What is more important to this phenomenon, the non-traditionality of these ‘new’ foods or their rapidly accessible addictive carb and sodium contents?

When I ate my lunch at Camacho Market, the woman next to me told me that she had inherited many quinoa recipes from her mother but rarely encountered anyone else who prepared them. She works as a domestic employee with a well-off family in the south of the city. One day she offered to prepare them quinoa instead of their regular meat and potato or rice dishes and they surprisingly liked it. Now they are rediscovering autochthonous foods as unknown delicacies. You have to start somewhere. I’ll see if I can flesh out a clearer answer to this process in Peru.

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3 Comments

  1. Camilli wrote:

    “Cherimoya” is my favorite fruit. We cannot find it everywhere over here (MG – Brazil) and it uses to be kinda expensive.
    We, brasilians, call it “Atemoia”.

  2. Falco wrote:

    You should go to Peru around this time of year then Camilli! They’re selling cherimoyas everywhere, in many different sizes and apparent varieties. It’s one of my favorite fruits too, though I’d like to find a guanábano (soursop) one of these day to see if they’re really as different as I imagine. Apparently you’re also a fan of dulce de leche. I suggest you try Peruvian manjar blanco: the flavour is similar though much richer and with a better texture because it’s made by pressure-cooking sweetened condensede milk!

  3. Benny wrote:

    I see the same thing in Greece sadly. There are butcher shops everywhere, kids walk and eat. Always fried potatoes and meat, lots of meat, in fried bread. Madness and you get really feel the sickness in you eating that crap.

    Catrine – very cute.

    Cool food, nice glass (chichi juice) and nice pic with the butcher.