Let’s talk about food. It’s about time. Enough of this running up and down mountains and canyons. Enough of this getting on never-ending buses. We need sustenance! So as we prepare to leave Peru, it’s time we had it out about Peruvian food.
For Peruvians too, it seems that food is very important. Here we have consistently been informed that Peru is the gastronomic heart of South America. “Typical/Tipical Food”, as it is advertised to tourists and locals alike, is considered to be the dog’s whatsits, (not literally of course, although we have now twice been regaled with gleeful stories of chowing down on some lovely cat meat, which we might save for another occasion.)
The problem is, with a day left in Peru, and not counting the good home cooked food we’ve had with our host family, we’d only really had two satisfactory meals. One was at Puka Rumi in Ollantaytambo, where the chef was (whisper it) Chilean. The other was a cheap but none too inspiring lunchtime menu del dia in Arequipa. Pizzas, which have occasionally featured, are also exempt.
Maybe we’ve chosen badly, both in restaurants and dishes. Maybe we’ve been unlucky. Who knows? What seems apparent is that the ubiquitous “Typical Food” typically seemed to consist of the following: lots of unseasoned plain rice, tons of potatoes (roasted, fried or mashed to within an inch of their lives), meat that has been cooked for so long it is virtually inedible, and lashings of oversized bland corn. Every plate comes with at least one human hair – it is disappointing if it doesn’t. Perhaps we should have tried the cuy (guinea pig), which we have seen eaten, complete with head, claws and all. Breakfasts almost always consist of local bread (that looks good but is invariably a semi-stale air pocket) and jam. Occasionally a bit of egg makes a welcome appearance. Coffee is bad and, like tea, risks being served with evaporated milk.
But wait! Redemption! Alpaca meat is good, but watch out for the bland, glupey sauces that tend to be its accompaniment. The soups are on the whole great – really tasty. Usually they are full of flavour and come with pasta and a chunk of meat and are a meal in themselves.
Then, lo and behold (how had we missed this?) today we discovered the dish that truly gives Peruvian food something to stand up and shout about. Wandering off the main tourist drag we went in search of what the books have described as “life changing ceviche“. We found it at ‘Cebicheria Cuatro Estaciones‘ (formally ‘La Barca’), Jr.Lima No.1031. In a dusty courtyard devoid of customers we braved the marinated raw fish, much of it straight out of Lake Titicaca here in Puno and it was spectacularly good. Zesty with lime, with the texture of prawns or smoked salmon, we literally high-fived our way through two plates of delicious zingy fish, loaded with flavour. Peru, at the last minute you’ve pulled it off.