Health in a Bowl (and other Andean delicacies)


General restaurant food in Peru is ordinarily a lot duller than it's made out to be and mostly revolves around rice, peeled white potatoes and saucy salty meat preparations. Those who search though will find that plenty of unique foods remain to back-up the country's reputation for gastronomical diversity. The dish above is my best find yet: a bowl of vegetarian chairo at a food stand in the main square of Sicuani, a transportation hub town about 5 hours south of Cusco.

Chairo is a quechua word substitute for picante, or a south-Andean dish of mixed chopped components which usually includes some meat. Here was a magic day-starter: a base of stewed potatoes (papas) and big corn (mote) shared the dish with fresh steamed peas (arvejas), chickpeas (garbanzos), fava beans (habas) and cuchayillo leaves (I have not been able to find out more about this last ingredient, even the vendors seemed to know little at the time, it tasted and looked like a stewed vine leaf), topped with steamed chopped turnip leaves (nabo). Naturally, the textures of the ceramic bowl and wooden spoon enhanced the nutritiousness of the experience. Then, to max out the perfection of the ingredient combination, a large glass of slightly effervescent carrot chicha, fermented corn juice.


Herbal infusions of all kinds are sold in the street throughout Peru (I've mentioned Lima's emoliente vendors before) but from what I have seen, this particular plant and root combination is unique to Cusco. Sold as mate de hierbas, it has the important viscosity-lending flax seeds and lemons of many other such health drinks, but the rest was beyond me. Importantly, the flavour is very full, earthy, toasted and root-like. Presentation seems to play a very important role here: you instantly recognize the colourful product as something healthy and freshly made, reinforced by the fact that in these parts of the country, the people around you seem to gravitate towards these properties even more. The other plants in the picture make for a neat contrast: the picture was taken in the middle of a Christmas market where mountain moss and grasses were being sold everywhere as nativity scene decorations.

From what I have  gathered, everyone who goes to Cusco comes to know the tamal vendor in the corner of the Plaza de Armas. At 1 sol each and available from 6:30 am until late in the evening, walking over with a few coins and asking for a couple salados (salty ones, they have a tiny piece of meat) or dulces (sweeter corn with a few raisins) several times a day in your rambles through the city's historical neighbourhoods is effortless. 10 points for a fully organic presentation that reinforces the specialness of each unit. Similarly, softer fresh cheeses are often sold in markets wrapped by a ring of grass blades (from what I could tell), as you can observe from a park frunch ("French lunch") of avocado, cheese, two-rib slice of suckling pig, yeast-less bread, olives and roasted sweet potatoes that I shared with a friend in Arequipa. The picture is admittedly terribly non-illustrative.


Up next, two sources of re-invigoration. The first, some coca leaves bought from typically up to five varieties, and chewed with sweetened grey clay to help release the stimulating alkaloid compounds that pleasantly quicken the heartbeat and lighten the mind in order to lessen the effects of breathing oxygen-poor air at high altitude. The second, a fantastic bowl of chicken broth (caldo de gallina) at the Cusco central market. You pay either 5 or 10 soles depending on what kind of meat you want (lower-leg and breast cost double) and it's served with tangy stewed carrots (zanahorias) soaked in vinegar, potatoes, some spaghetti (fideos) and cassava if you ask for it (yuca).


Finally, a unique character of the fruit stand: pacay comes in large, hard pods of 20-40cm. You open it by snapping the pod in two and then twisting each piece so that the halves separate to expose a row of seeds. The final step is sucking the sweet and fibrous white pulp sheath off of each one. You are left with a lot of inedible plant matter and a dozen or so wonderful black pebble-like pacay seeds to grow some trees.

Peeling a grapefruit, picking grapes, chewing through an apple and avoiding the core, these manual interactions are the essence of what make fruit palpably and thoughtfully good for you. Thinking back to the majority of my hand-eaten meals in India, I sometimes wish probing and savouring food through touch were extended to the rest of what we eat, especially since fruit, due to pesticide spraying, transportation and storage, is not justifiably cleaner than anything else on our tables. In this spirit, here I am ripping apart some oven-roasted guinea pig (cuy) (non-veg) and dipping it in delicious cusqueño ají made of panca and yellow peppers, peanuts, basil and lemon juice (again, from what I could tell).

I'll admit that eating through an entire rodent presented on one dish feels a bit barbaric, but it brought back good memories of the last time I shared the dish with a taxi driver in Ecuador. Out of custom, I was made to crack open the skull and eat the brains (ceso) that time! It tasted gelatinous and oily, in less salty contrast to the rest of the flesh.