Sunday, November 28, 2010

Breakfast foods are always appropriate.

I have a conflicted relationship with breakfast cereal. I love it for the first five minutes of every bowl, and then as it begins to lose crispness and become a limp, soggy mess, I find myself kind of grossed out. This reaction is in my memories going all the way back to early childhood, and I suspect fond memories are part of what makes cereal so appealing in the first place. Remember when getting to eat a sugary cereal like Lucky Charms was a big deal? Compared to parent-approved Cheerios or Kix, the little marshmallows and pink milk were pure glee.
Now that I get to pick my own breakfast items (and despite how often ‘breakfast’ really means ‘coffee’), I find myself returning to certain cereals over and over. Honey Bunches of Oats really may be perfect in any of its various flavors, though I am partial to the one with strawberries. It has a good crunch from the oat clusters even when the flakes are starting to sag and the dehydrated strawberries stay delicious even as they rehydrate a little. It is also tasty with soymilk and takes the addition of fiber or other supplements well… adult dietary needs a kid should only scoff at. Other favorite cereals, besides the still amazing Lucky Charms, include Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Mini Wheats. The Honey Nut Cheerios are still sweet cereal in my mind, like a naughty version of the regular Cheerios. Eating a bowl makes me feel like a kid sneaking dessert every time. Frosted Mini Wheats are amazing to snack on dry and right out of the box, but I find them a little heavy if you eat a whole bowl with milk.
I’m not sure whether you can really lose weight by eating cereal instead of meals, and I wouldn’t recommend that strategy anyway, but cereal is often that perfect mini-meal: just enough to keep you going, but not enough to weight you down. I think I’ll go pour myself a bowl now.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A little something to keep you going. Think about it.

I'm going to get a little explicit here for a second. Guys, why do some of you think that you deserve to get off in any given sexual encounter? You are not entitled to anything, and complaining about getting 'blue-balled' is not only offensive, it is morally wrong. This kind of obvious guilt tripping puts pressure on a woman to do things she doesn't want to do(and if it hasn't happened by the time you're complaining, it is because she doesn't want to). Your complaints are an abuse of the power you hold as a man in the western world.
And let me clarify one thing, before everyone starts yelling at me: I know a lot of great guys that would never intentionally do this, and furthermore, having done it does not make you a bad person nor does it mean you are an irredeemable asshole. We all have to stop and think about what we say and do in the heat of the moment and what the real impacts of our words and actions are on our partners. This goes for women and men, because the hardest part of any sexual or romantic interaction is trying as hard as you can to communicate and respect boundaries. The goal is that the next morning everyone involved can walk away happy and at peace with themselves about their decisions, knowing that those decisions were made in an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. A safe space, if you will. Pressuring someone, even when you may not think of it as pressure, destroys that safe space and creates a blatant power dynamic. It damages whatever trust you may have, and damaged trust is very, very difficult (and in some cases impossible) to repair.
Male-dominated culture gives added weight to the needs and desires of men, making the exercise of this type of sexual power far more difficult to resist than I believe most men would imagine. Firstly,it is truly difficult to say no to someone you are involved with, especially if you care for them and for their opinion of you. The problem is that women are expected to take on a passive sexual identity, one which promotes the idea that a man's needs have primacy and that a woman who doesn't want to indulge those so-called needs is a 'prude' or a 'tease'. When, even inadvertently, a woman is made to feel guilty or otherwise emotionally attacked, the man is projecting this sexually submissive archetype and punishing her for not meeting it. Sex already requires a certain emotional and physical vulnerability that only amplifies the damage that negative feedback can cause, especially when that feedback is expressed in the moment. Of course, it should be basic to any thinking person that women are not just vehicles for sexual pleasure, and thus the myth of the submissive sexual plaything belongs very much to the realm of fantasy. Unless two people consensually act out that particular scenario (after explicit communication of the boundaries, of course), this archetype should have no place in the contemporary couple's sexual life. But it does, and all too often it dominates a sexual encounter. So while you, my dear man, may leave sexually frustrated, she leaves feeling like a failure if she insists on 'disappointing' you or like trash if she gives in...either way, and regardless of the degree of the reaction, who wants this kind of emotional response after sex?

Women, we have to get better at saying no if and when we want to. Men, you have to get better at putting your penis on the back burner and respecting the boundaries from the outset.

I do want to note that I am aware of the heterosexual bias of this post. I would assume gender privilege is an issue in the LGBTQ community as well, but I really don't know how those dynamics play out so I do not feel qualified to engage in that discussion. I would be interested in learning more, and if anyone has resources to contribute for my and the readers' edification, please leave a comment!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Feminism and Sarah Palin

Check this article out.
I discuss feminism with an understanding that, for me and for many women in the world, feminism still means a personal and daily struggle, not just an ideological or political notion that has little to do with the individual. I am a feminist precisely because I reflect on my decisions and my context and try to identify when they are a result of my own internalized machismo or the structural reality of patriarchy. My feminism includes ambiguity, hesitation, frustration and brilliant clarity, because living out the life of a strong woman or of a conscious man is fraught with all those things. It is always a practice of self reflection, and ultimately of reflection on the global society in which we participate.

For other women, feminism may be survival, taking care of their children, finding ways to educate themselves, having a job outside the home; all things we take for granted as educated women in the Global North, but which concerns are still very present elsewhere. Policy is not the only venue in which questions of female participation, power and pure individual autonomy are being discussed or fought over. Daily life for much of the world, men and women, is a struggle against structural violence, including physical oppression, economic marginalization and social discrimination. Precisely because of the structural nature of patriarchy, the role of women in society is not an isolated issue in the US or globally, nor can it be taken apart from other struggles like economic and social justice. Thus feminism can also take the form of a comprehensive desire for a more holistic equity instead of a more narrow focus on women’s rights.

Especially as a woman of color familiar with life outside the Global North, I consider it a personal responsibility to contextualize women’s rights within racial and economic struggles, globalization and development, and the personal, intimate interactions of my own life. Feminism has always discussed the personal as political, but I think it is important to acknowledge that explicitly political interpretation of one’s personal sphere does not necessarily make one a better feminist than a woman who has never thought to call herself such. Identifying as a feminist does not make it so, but failing to identify as one means just as little.

That being said, I don’t think Sarah Palin is a feminist because she supports policies that take away women’s autonomy over their own body. A woman can be totally unwilling to ever have an abortion herself and be a feminist, but when she attempts to limit the choices of other women, when she attempts to reduce women to reproductive tracts without the capacity for nuanced thought and powerful emotion about their own bodies, I must object to her proclaiming herself a feminist of any kind.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Times Change, Don't They?

A cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake: the iconic American meal. In times like these, as we approach the end of an era of American consumerism, an older and more traditional aesthetic arises in popular culture. Shows like Mad Men have rekindled our desire for the trappings of a world where men are unfailingly charming, women are always perfectly coiffed, and rigid social hierarchies make life seem somehow “simpler” to the uncritical eye.

I recently went to the neighborhood where a good friend grew up and thought I had stepped back in time to before that period of intense social change and deceptively tranquil Americana represented so vividly by Mad Men. We went for burgers, and sitting in Top Notch diner with all kinds of people from the surrounding neighborhoods, I found immense comfort in the ritual of ketchup, mustard, tomato, iceburg lettuce, bread and butter pickles. The patty, not too thin or thick and covered with perfectly melted cheese, the white bread bun. Splitting a milkshake that is almost too thick to drink with a straw, but not quite. Despite my deeply ambivalent relationship with icons of American culture, especially those which glorify a type of American identity rooted firmly within segregation, inequality and oppression (as that of the 1950’s and 60’s undoubtedly was), I love this meal. I love the simplicity and ease, the lack of pretension in its presentation and honest enjoyment.

The neighborhood, known as Beverly, is all old Chicago; green lawns, a soda fountain, children playing ball in the street. There are even train tracks to be from the wrong side of, hinting at the unrest that socioeconomic and racial tensions still generate. Segregation is very much alive in this idyllic slice of the American dream, pointing to the deceptive nature of the American ideal in our collective memory. In our current nationwide and multi-demographic infatuation with the Don Draper mystique, we forget that not all of us could participate in that supposed idyll the first time around. In fact, the vast majority of us were excluded from the iconic privileges of American success. The unfortunate part is that despite our forward march in time and the concrete advantages brought by the intervening years, those of us originally excluded are still very much on the outside of whatever that American dream imagery is promising.

In these times of crisis the image speaks to our desire for definition, for clarity and stability, but it belies the very real messiness of life and ignores the nasty ways society maintains its hegemonies. But while I enjoy my perfect cheeseburger, grilled onions and all, and while I sip a velvety chocolate shake in the company of a good friend, I am powerless to resist a certain suspension of disbelief.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Summing up Peru...inadequately, of course.

My experience in Peru was characterized by two distinct phases, each with positive impacts on my personal life, vision and research and each with its attendant difficulties and struggles. I began my journey in Lima intending to research urban development but without a concrete goal or guidance. I found Lima’s research climate, which is mostly contact-driven, to be somewhat hostile because of my lack of connections in the field. I had expected to be better acquainted with Lima’s norms since my family is from Mexico City and I am familiar with Mexico’s social milieu, but the similarities were superficial and it was a difficult adjustment because I did not have the support structure that facilitates life and work in Mexico. At that point I realized that I should change my strategy, and I left Lima shortly thereafter for Cusco, hoping it would provide the fertile intellectual environment that I was missing.
Cusco was a different world, a city resonating with the natural beauty of the mountains and full of dynamic activity in the economic development industry. The city is surrounded by indigenous communities and has a complex relationship with them; migration from the rural areas to the urban center is a reality accompanied by discrimination, economic marginalization and an intense cultural disconnect between the indigenous and mestizo communities. The rural indigenous population is no less beleaguered, and exists in a tenuous relationship of semi-exclusion and exploitation by local, regional and national economic structures. The language barrier (Andean indigenous groups are Quechua speakers) also adds to the rich landscape for academic study and many opportunities to engage with social problems as they play out.
In Cusco I was enveloped by an open social world that made me feel comfortable and supported me. This allowed for my research question to develop fully in direct response to the actual conditions of the area. I met people that proffered insight on economic development in the region and found NGOs that provided examples of the pitfalls and successes of development programming. I gleaned the critical questions for my research: how development work functions within the communities it proposes to help, how effective that help is, and how we can create sustainable development that fits the specific community. I developed strong criticisms of NGOs and now know I want to work with a community instead of working on a problem. I seek to help generate solutions with the community itself instead of solutions based on western models and imposed upon people who may not relate to those models productively. I found a group of Cusqueños who have a similar vision to mine and we have begun working on a collaborative project to create and implement new development strategies based on an intimate knowledge of the geography, history, culture and needs of Andean communities. We think such strategies will help create sustainable change in the quality of life possible in rural and urban communities alike and see great potential for expansion to other areas.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Last Weekend in Lima

The two days and nights I was in Lima at the end of my trip were a decadent conclusion to the trip. Despite my dread of leaving I was able to spend those days in the company of wonderful people who introduced me to some fabulous food, among other things. The day I left Cusco I hadn’t slept a wink (my flight was at 9, so I figured why bother), had gone out dancing with my cousins and friends, almost fallen asleep in the club itself and proceeded to put back some red bulls to remedy that…the point is that I was wiped out when I got to Lima at 11:30 on Sunday morning. I took a cab to my friend’s apartment, where the unfailing hospitality of my host and the pearly grey light coming in the floor to ceiling windows lulled me into a great nap on the couch. I woke up to a lunch invitation to a place called El Mercado, the newest project by the well known chef Rafael Osterling. On a supremely lazy Sunday, there was absolutely nothing slow about El Mercado. The locale, a sort of semi-enclosed triangular patio with a beautiful bar, was packed at 5 pm with the beautiful people of Lima enjoying mariscos for a late lunch. While this isn’t normally my scene while traveling, since beautiful people tend to be similar everywhere, I can truthfully say that these were some of the best seafood preparations I have ever had. We started with a ceviche de lenguado ‘El Mercado’, with plenty of lime, orange aji and exquisitely fresh fish, it was easily the best ceviche I had in Lima. That was followed by a similarly perfect leche de tigre (the juice from ceviche, basically), some awesome ahi tuna sliders with house made vegetable pickles and a wasabi aioli, an arroz chaufa (fried rice) that included mariscos, lechón and fried plantain and the best pulpo ever. This pulpo was grilled with cherry tomatoes, a basil pesto, and potatoes (of course) and presented sizzling on a hot plate. It was so tender you barely needed a knife to cut it, which is really rare with octopus, and the flavor was so rich and intense that it was almost like a great steak. Really, it was a transcendent octopus dish. That sounds hyperbolic, I know…but it’s the bare truth people, go try this pulpo if at all possible.
The dessert was also excellent, some kind of molten chocolate cake with salted dulce de leche ice cream, both of which were perfectly executed. The chocolate shone in its natural complexity and the ice cream was subtle and not too sweet. Also, my Ketel One and tonic was impeccable.
I leave Rafael, the chef’s flagship restaurant in Lima, for the next post. Rest assured it was an equally excellent if very different experience.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Saturday, September 18th

My final meal in Cusco will always be a precious memory for me, firstly because the whole family came together to converse, laugh and enjoy, and secondly because it was a veritable orgy of pork products and other delights. The Quinta Eulalia is a traditional eatery dating back to the 1930’s, housed in an old casona on Choquechaka. Cusqueños feel a deep affection for its sunlit patio and cavernous upstairs dining room…and for the lechón and chicharrón that could make a grown woman weep. In the best tradition of family dinners, we ordered basically everything on the menu and shared: lechón, of course, chicharrón, lengua atomatada, asado de cordero, chairo…a banquet of interesting meat preparations. For those of you who don’t speak meat fluently, lechón is slow roasted pork (like the whole pig on a spit kind of pork) with a crispy and delicious skin, lengua atomatada is beef tongue in a tomato and onion sauce, asado de cordero is grilled lamb and chairo is a indescribably good soup made with everything you never thought you would enjoy: tripe, kidney, all that good stuff.
I can literally see people recoiling from the thought right now, but I assure you that if you try it you will not be disappointed. Tongue, for example, is one of those things that I was completely unconvinced about until a few years ago. I couldn’t fathom any reason to try it-I mean, we have tongues too! But then one day I fell victim to pride and couldn’t be that coward that didn’t want to eat tacos de lengua…thank goodness, because tongue is a unbelievably tender meat that absorbs the flavor of whatever you put on it and offers it back with immense richness. The lengua atomatada was perfectly cooked to fork tenderness and served with truly ecstatic mashed potatoes (I mean I was truly ecstatic when I ate them, the potatoes themselves were pretty calm).
It was a beautiful afternoon meal with the best company. We laughed and goofed around in the mellow winter sun and I was hit with the beginnings of parting melancholy. When I got to Peru I really had no idea what I was doing or how I was going to manage it, but I found the most incredible people with whom to be creative, to learn, and to share the beauty of daily life. I think all my travel is in search of people who want to be thoroughly present in their lives, who are complicated and difficult but who do their best to live gracefully despite everything. I found myself in an environment that is very different from my life in the US, but I found myself feeling at home on a fundamental level of my nature, more than in my own house in some ways. Though I had never thought to love living with a big family surrounding me at all times, the constant presence of loving people was wonderful. I mean, of course there were times that I begged the air for silence and peace (more likely because of the neighbor with the hammer, to be honest) or needed to get out of the house on my own for a bit, which is critical even with only a couple people here at home. I love the casual and affectionate sharing of space, the way you just have make things work as smoothly as you can. It becomes necessary to learn to not take your temper out on everyone within easy reach, which translates to a certain self awareness in your other interactions. I am profoundly happy to have found such people in Peru and shared wonderful adventures with them.

Monday, September 20, 2010

If I wouldn't gain weight, I'd eat this every day

I couldn’t tell you how to find the place with the best anticuchos and rocoto relleno in Cusco, other than that it is on Calle Belen. Beyond that I can only say have a local take you to this absolute hole in the wall, this shanty of deliciousness. I don’t even know if it has a name…I think it does, but remembering the name is completely irrelevant compared to remembering the tastes. The anticucho (de puro corazon of course) was so tender and perfectly seasoned that it immediately erased and replaced the memory of every other anticucho I’d eaten. My friend and I had been at another spot eating the same thing two nights before, but she told me as we waited that this was going to be so much better I wouldn’t believe it. I thought she was exaggerating wildly, but then I took the first bite. Top it off with copious amounts of the amazing aji they provide, a peanut based version that is creamy, spicy and nutty without tasting anything like peanut butter or peanut sauce. It is the closest thing to mole that I found in Peru, and is dangerously habit forming. When you’ve devoured the anticucho, you end up slathering that aji all over the grilled potatoes served as a side…and after that you want to lick the inside of the bowl, but please restrain yourself and order more food if you’re desperate.
Then there are the rocotos rellenos al estilo Cusqueño, or stuffed with ground beef, carrots, peas and a medley of spices that includes cinnamon, battered and deep fried to crispy golden perfection. You might be thinking that a deep fried chili pepper is a deep fried chili pepper: its going to be tasty no matter what. You’d be right, in principle. But these rocotos at this particular smoky, dank hole in the wall are spectacularly good. The seasoning of the meat filling is savory and juicy with a hint of sweet spices that give it depth, instead of the identity confusion of other rocotos I have tasted that think they are dessert. The batter is fluffy and sort of bread like under the golden top layer and balances the spice of the pepper itself. A bite of the whole combination is enough to make my eyes roll back in my head a little. I know Arequipeños are very proud of their style of rocoto (not deep fried and covered in melted cheese), and I know deep frying is not particularly healthy, but this may be the preeminent stuffed pepper in the world (including chiles rellenos in all the many Mexican styles). Yeah, I went there.

Comunidad Amaru

We spent one Saturday in Amaru, a comunidad about 30 min above Pisaq, or 2 hours total outside of Cusco. The women of the community of Amaru make beautiful weavings from sheep and alpaca wools, all by hand and natural from the spinning of the thread to the dying with native plant based dyes to the final piece of art. They also cook a mean cuy with the most beautiful potatoes I have ever seen. The cuy, or guinea pig for those of you with whom I must be blunt, is slow roasted in a wood burning oven and turns out tasting a lot like a tender, juicy roasted chicken. Though in restaurants it is served right off the spit and whole, in the community one cuy per person would be an unsustainable (and pointless) extravagance so I was saved from the dubious pleasure of thinking about the little critter as anything but food. The real joy of the meal, however, was when I picked up one of the gnarled, dark skinned, roasted potatoes and split it open: the interior of the potato was the most vibrant and rich shade of purple I have ever seen in nature. It was truly like I had cracked open a geode to reveal flawless amethyst. I literally squealed in happiness when I saw this potato, in response to which my friends could only tell me to save it until I had tasted. They were right, of course…the thousands of Andean potato varieties each have distinct looks and flavors that make the Idaho potato taste like powdered mashed potato mix in comparison. This purple one was dense, almost crumbly, and tasted like cream, flowers and black soil. The next one almost gave me a heart attack of pleasure at the mere sight: when I split it open, an amethyst purple and topaz yellow TIE DYE interior was revealed…
I couldn’t make this stuff up, people. Every potato I ate that day (which came out to like 6-they were all small ones, I swear) was a different color or colors. Some were all that intense topaz yellow; those tended to have fluffier flesh and a more straight forward flavor. Others were a delicate rose pink, glowing white or deep blue, but the stand out has to be the purple. I want jewelry made out of that potato. I will return to the Andes for that alone (turns out I’ll be going back regardless but that isn’t the point). In fact, I think the next time I’m in Amaru, I will ask if we can go up to one of their chacras, harvest a few potatoes and cook them right there. I want to participate fully in the process that brings something of such beauty to our plates, something so simple and perfect that it needs nothing else to be spectacular.

Not For Vegetarians...Sorry...

My friend took me to Los Mundialistas, a chicharroneria that comes recommended by several people in the know. Chicharrón de chancho is a familiar dish for those of us who know Mexican food, consisting of pork meat and fat deep fried to crispy perfection and served hot. Many people don’t eat real chicharrón, partly because the more commonplace pork cracklins are known by the same name but also because chicharrón is always going to be fatty, fried and not for the delicate. But oh…it is so delicious. In Mexico we chop it up and eat it in tacos with cilantro, cebollita, fresh green salsa and cheese. Here in Cusco, the presentation is a little different: those amazingly sweet fresh sliced purple onions, mint, white corn and a whole fried potato. You tear off a piece of meaty chicharrón, snag some onion and mint, and pop the whole thing in your mouth for a totally distinct, surprising and superb flavor combination. The onion cuts the fattiness of the pork and the mint gives it startling freshness (and helps with digestion). Add a little aji de huacatay, a green and spicy salsa, and you’re set for the day.
Ultimately, I think I prefer eating chicharrón with tortillas, but next time I make tacos, I am going to put purple onion and mint in there with my green salsa. That truly is a beautiful and unexpected combination.
The other house specialty is adobo de chancho, or a red pork stew based on chicha (corn beer). It tastes like the essence of pozole (a Mexican pork and hominy soup), but its broth is thick and rich with the juices of the meat, that incredible corn flavor and onions cooked to the point of disintegration. The huge chunks of pork are so tender that they fall off the bone when you look at them…that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. It was an exquisite stew and would do perfectly for any cold day with plenty of fresh bread.

Street eating in Cusco

When traveling, many people decline to eat or drink the myriad items sold on the streets or in open markets due to a fear of contamination or timidity in the face of completely unfamiliar products and the norms of consumption that accompany unknown foods. Though it is obviously wise to be careful in what you choose to eat, I see absolutely no reason to avoid street food completely, especially because it tends to be delicious and representative of the heart and soul of the city you’re in.
In Cusco, especially in the tourist dominated Plaza de Armas and San Blas areas, there is barely any street food available because the city clears vendors out (the notable exceptions are the tamal lady in Plaza de Armas and Chinita desserts in San Blas). If you turn one of any number of corners, though, you can find delicious and healthy snacks that will leave you feeling proud of your own bravery and bring you one step further in to the Cusco that exists apart from its ever present tourist scene.
The carts with steaming pots and rows of bottles filled with weird colored liquids sell emoliente, a hot infusion of cebada (barley) and herbs that helps with everything from digestion to cellulite and is quite soothing and refreshing. The elixirs in the bottles are myriad supplements that you can add to your emoliente to tailor it to your specific health concerns or tastes, but the basic and delicious option of lime juice will never let you down. If you are feeling adventurous ask what the other stuff is and go for it (the hot pink stuff is a favorite, no idea what it is but I like it). You can even get aloe juice mixed in, which as you may know is practically like drinking a magic curative potion, since it helps with everything from gastritis to dry skin.
It is worth it to ask if the emoliente vendor has quinoa as well, in the event that they haven’t sold out yet. Quinoa is a drink made from boiling the grain and is delicious hot or cold (the temperature will depend on how recently it was made, so if you want it hot get it early in the morning). You can get it with a little condensed milk for sweetness, but in my opinion the rich flavor is perfect on its own. The starch content gives it a thicker consistency and silky texture and it has pieces of the grain itself floating in it so you know it’s the real stuff. The point is that it is really pleasant, if very different.
Other vendors will have maca, also made with quinoa but with the addition of apple, which makes it taste something like an apple pie smoothie (that is a completely inadequate description but it is hard to come up with a comparison in western food). I recommend adding the condensed milk on this one, as it brings out the apple flavor. This is the perfect midmorning restorative or breakfast substitute since both drinks are healthy and very cheap (.50-1.50 soles), with refills included. You even get them in real glasses, so prepare to hang out near the cart while you enjoy.
At night, do stop by the Señora Chinita in the Plazoleta de San Blas for a bowl of mazamora morada and arroz zambito. You can get one or the other, or you can get half and half arroz/mazamora, which I highly recommend. Mazamora morada is a pudding of purple corn with fruits and spices, sort of like a Jell-O version of chicha morada but heavier on the warm spices like cinnamon and clove. Arroz zambito is rice pudding in all its attendant glories: cream, orange zest, cinnamon…the arroz isn’t too sweet at all, and that’s partly why it goes so perfectly with mazamora. Mixed, the fruity citrus sweetness of the mazamora cuts the creaminess of the arroz, and the arroz mellows the sweetness of the mazamora down to deliciousness. Voilá, perfect combination. You’ll pay 1.50 soles for a giant bowl from the Señora and you will eat every last drop.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Conservation in my Latin American life

Being here in Peru for the past while has taught me something very important: stopping the destruction of the environment is easy; we in the Global North are just too addicted to the false notion that small reductions in consumption mean huge reductions in comfort. For example: here, you turn on the water heater before you shower instead of assuming there will be constant hot water. You thus only heat water when you need it, saving energy on heating. Use of water is a huge issue, both in desert-bound Lima and here in the Sierra. In some neighborhoods they cut the water at night so you have to ration your use after a certain point in the day, and in every neighborhood you find yourself being conscious of how much water you use showering, washing dishes, doing laundry. Here’s another one…line drying clothes. While slightly decreasing the rapidity of drying time, and sacrificing the fresh out of the dryer hot jeans, line-drying clothing yields lovely sun warmed jeans with that smell that only fresh air and natural light can bring (which I deeply enjoy, by the way). Of course, in Lima’s humidity, line drying takes a ridiculously long time, but here in the dry air of the mountains you really don’t need anything else. With respect to disposable paper products, you are also forced to (pardon the indelicacy) use a lot less tp here because of the delicate septic system, which results in considerable waste reduction.
Do any of these constraints, whether self imposed or created by the economic conditions of the country, mean that I am miserably pining for a dishwasher or grinding my teeth at the 3 seconds I lose in turning the water heater on?
Most definitely not. I acknowledge that these small differences have little to do with the population’s environmental consciousness and instead are driven by price, availability, and accessibility of services. However, regardless of whether the average Peruvian would love to have the ease of consumption that we have in the US (and this desire both exists and is creating huge problems, like massive consumption on credit), there exists a culture of economizing, of getting the maximum value from a product that no longer has a hold in North American consumer culture. My Peruvian friends are witnessing the rapid death of this imposed lifestyle at the hands of Global North consumer values promoted by neoliberal economic policy and other quotidian tragedies of the economic imperialism we call globalization. The message that products will improve quality of life and that happiness lies just down the next supermarket aisle is enthralling, but ultimately hampered by the main global caveat to the “American Dream:” you need money to purchase, money to generate more money…money to get all that fresh, shiny happiness on display in the (online) windows of your local multinational chain.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Short commentary on the state of Mexican cuisine in the States

Check out this note in the SFWeekly:

Come on, attention now. The only other thing I can add to this is that Bayless acts as if his restaurant (yes, I've been to both Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) is solely responsible for the popularity and quality of Mexican food in Chicago...but, in the event that you haven't left your house or had any outside contact aside from your cats in like...a hundred years...there are so many Mexicans in Chicagoland. I assure you one or two of us know something about making a complex and fragrant mole, a pambazo, a killer taco and all the fresh salsas you could dream stuff Rick Bayless may have written about, but most definitely doesn't serve at his, ahem, up market venues. And I want to say, with the utmost pride, my roommate makes the best margaritas outside of Mexico.
I want to caveat that I enjoyed my experiences with Bayless' restaurants, and that his collection of work is incredibly useful, informative, accurate and generally procures delicious results. Bayless and Diana Kennedy have been seminal in compiling and promoting a body of knowledge regarding Mexican cuisine to the North American public, but I have to consider why it is that such a fascinating and varied cuisine has only become acceptable as such through the interest of white chefs. I assure you, in Mexico City they have known that Mexican food is haute cuisine for a long, long time. I can recommend a few places if you want to fact check that, both time tested classic locales and newer, modern gastronomic ventures. Plus some great Korean food...but that is another post.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday dinner at home, always an adventure!

My grandmother was an amazing cook. She made people happy with her food, be it something as simple as rice or as involved as a full banquet. My earliest memories include making tamales in her kitchen, the smell of masa fresca and chicken stewed in an unequaled red sauce. She would let me make tiny little tamales that were all masa, and it filled me with pride to unwrap and eat them, the product of my own five year old hands, at the dinner table that night. I remember the embroidered dresses she would wear when she cooked, the practiced movements she used to fold the tamales…just the smell of steamed corn husks and fresh masa will always remind me of those moments.
And I assure you, tamales were far from the only thing in which she was without rival. Today, in remembering her, I made a salpicon de pollo for dinner. The whole family helped, and the salpicon itself turned out rather good, if I may. Salpicon is a salad type dish made with shredded beef or chicken, fresh peas, carrots, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and cilantro…plus whatever else you might feel like adding. The mixture is dressed with olive oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper, is wonderfully light and refreshing, and is healthy to boot. Traditionally, it is served on tostadas (crisp fried corn tortillas) with a thin layer of refried beans, guacamole and queso fresco. And salsa, of course. I planned to make fresh corn tortillas to accompany my efforts, plus pico de gallo, guacamole, and the cheese.
My friends were set up to help me, we mixed up the masa as per my Abuelita’s instructions, and were ready to start putting the tortillas on the comal when I realized something potentially (ok, totally) disastrous. As I hadn’t been the one mixing the masa, I hadn’t been paying much attention. But I finally noticed the texture was all wrong, the tortillas weren’t holding together despite doing everything right…so I tasted the masa. It turns out the lovely woman at the market sold me mixed wheat and “” flour instead of corn flour. We’re talking nutty, rich, almost sweet whole wheat flour. Completely distinct and not even a little interchangeable with ground dried corn.
My helpful friends and I could only laugh. No wonder the tortillas weren’t working. Wheat flour takes a whole different approach and never in my right mind would I make tortillas out of it, especially not for a dish as light as salpicon. Needless to say, we needed a culinary rescue.
One was provided…we ended up eating salpicon with crepes. My savior added egg, butter, milk, more water…the result was something like buckwheat pancakes. They will be utterly delicious with honey and banana tomorrow morning, and nutella and strawberries would be amazing…even a good Swiss and some ham would be delectable. To tell the truth, they weren’t half bad with the salpicon, just rather odd.
Still, everyone seemed to enjoy the food and I think the salpicon was delicious. I know the salsa and the guacamole were top notch, and the caldo de pollo that resulted from the chicken has already been substantially depleted. I count the whole thing as a success. After all, cooking is not without its trials and tribulations and from those come the most entertaining and occasionally innovative and delicious moments.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nostalgia for the Home Territory

One of my best friends is in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, and since (to my great frustration) I can’t be there to do the gastronomic and touristic adventure I would have wished, I’ve compiled a list of my current favorites to guide him in my absence. May you never be without a panoply of delectable options.
First, the Classics:
Truly Mediterranean on 16th right near Valencia St. The best falafel and shawarma (lamb except Tuesdays and Fridays when they have an equally tasty chicken option). Order it deluxe, which includes potato and grilled eggplant, get a six pack at the corner store and go to Dolores Park to enjoy a nice fog tan. Seriously one of my favorite places to eat, it never gets old.

La Taqueria on 25th and Mission Sts. For some dank burrito action, go with the carnitas con todo (chile, cheese, sour cream, guacamole). The carne asada is also excellent. San Franciscans tend to have strong opinions about this, and mine is that this is the best burrito in town. They even do you the great favor of not putting rice in there, so you know you’re getting delicious meat instead of filler. (Phew, two loaded statements…I’m going to get in trouble).

Bake Sale Betty’s on Telegraph and 51st in Oakland. Stand in line for a fried chicken sandwich with jalapeno slaw that easily makes it onto the top three sandwiches on earth list (along with La Lucha’s lechon in Lima and lampredotto in Florence…lofty company). Get there early, because when they sell out…which happens…you will be that sad person watching everyone else eat their scrumptious prize at the ironing board tables on the sidewalk outside. Who wants to be that person, really?

Full House Cafe on 35th and MacArthur Blvd in Oakland. Breakfast here is enough to keep you going for days, especially since you never want to stop. They make every kind of hash you might want: traditional corned beef, smoked chicken, red flannel…I don’t ever remember more. Plus, this is the home of the most awesome biscuits with smoked chicken and sausage gravy you could possibly get outside of someone’s grandma’s house. However, this is a breakfast spot, and as such I believe they close in the early afternoon. I tend to consider that kind of behavior a grave offense, but I make an exception for Full House because among breakfasts, biscuits and gravy and hash are the undisputed rulers.

Foreign Cinema on Mission St. For an elegant California dinner or a relaxed and beautiful brunch, this place always delivers. They do an excellent oyster and raw bar, have top notch seasonal menus that always have pleasing surprises, the wine list is good and the cocktails are delicious. The space is beautiful too, and during dinner they screen foreign films in the patio (hence the name). They also have a bar next door, I believe also run by them and so with equally tasty drinks.

Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. on Harrison between 3rd and Hawthorne Sts. Excellent tapas, occasional live music, and a great selection of beers. They source their ingredients locally and always provide delicious twists on the traditional Spanish tapas. Did I mention the all organic, hand crafted beers?

Some newer options:

Nopalitos on Broderick between Fell and Oak Sts. This newish spot serves carefully executed, delicious and authentic Mexican food in the unbeatable high style of Mexico City (a place where I could happily eat all day for the rest of my days), They also have a small but well curated selection of beers, tequilas and cocktails, including a michelada. For those of you who know what this is, you also know how rare it is to see it in a restaurant (especially one of this caliber). For those of you that don’t, just go try one with some quesadillas or totopos.

Piqueos on Cortland St in Bernal Heights. The best of the recent craze for Peruvian food. I say this with a much more informed perspective these days, and while it isn’t quite the same as eating it in Lima, Piqueos does a remarkably delicious job of preserving authenticity while still adding that California touch. Also, the space is elegant and manages to preserve that congenial neighborhood vibe. The chef has another venture down the coast that focuses (or so I’m told) on scandalously fresh seafood…something to check out, because let me tell you, Peruvians know what to do with a piece of fish. I believe it is called La Costanera and is in Montara on the Cabrillo highway.

Little Star Pizza on Valencia and 15th Sts. The best deep dish pizza. Yes I know, this is a scandalous claim…especially for a Chicago resident. However, the pure quality of the ingredients shines, from the piquant tomato sauce to the light, flavorful cornmeal crust. The thin crust is top notch too. Their toppings are excellent, don’t miss the fresh sausage. As if that weren’t enough, their salads are delectably fresh and the Goddess dressing is addictive, I hear the spicy chicken wings are chronically good, and they have a great selection of beer on tap and wines. What is not to love about this place?

Some places I would like to try:

Flour and Water on Harrison at 20th Sts. Potentially impossible to get in due to this year’s James Beard Award finalist status, I nonetheless know people who have managed it and report back some tempting details. Fresh made pastas, meat butchered in house, wood fired pizza. The purity of great Italian food cannot be beat, and here they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just transmit the tradition with the best execution and ingredients (as it should be).

Domo Sushi on Laguna and Hayes Sts. Good sushi speaks for itself. And it speaks deliciously.
That is all that I can think of at the moment, apologies to the bajillions of amazing places I know I left out. If you can’t eat well in SF with that list, I can’t possibly help you…you need treatment.

Oh wait…oh my god, I almost forgot something incredibly critical:

Dim Sum! Ton Kiang on Geary and 22nd Ave. Utterly delicious dumplings served all day. This is the best, really. Particular favorites are the shrimp and pea tip, scallop and shrimp and scallion and shrimp dumplings. The roast duck is also delicious, and they make what may the best steamed pork bun ever. It is worth the excursion, trust me.

I will have to do a separate entry on Asian food in the bay…I would never finish if I started now and frankly, I’ve made myself quite hungry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sacsayhuamán, August 18

The walls are made up of huge stones, taller and wider than me, fitted together perfectly and with every edge rounded to fit the curvature of the structure. Doorways are over 3 meters high, with lintels that dwarf me completely. Their size and architectural perfection laugh at our modern notions of the possible; I find it difficult to conceive of the labor that went into building these massive walls. I wonder at the sheer brutality of these structures, how blunt and aggressive each curved stone face is despite its almost seamless integration into the hills. The walls appear almost natural from a distance, rock faces rising from the hillside and surrounding an immense open space like sentinels. But as you move closer, you realize how absolutely artificial this giant vertical puzzle is. What a majestic monument to the extent of human domination of the natural world…and in the context of its conquest and subsequent human subjugation, what a monument to empire and hegemony brought low by yet another hegemonic order. It really makes you think about how society and culture is subject to the whims of power, and how easily the kind of power valued by emperors changes hands. Somehow, though, those of us who don’t seek it always end up subject to the same abuses, the same corruptions and contortions of those attempting to hold tightly to a transient and illusory gem.
I think that was rather cliché…but sometimes you stop being able to find fresh ways to describe what is somewhat beyond your comprehension (and better that it remains that way).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Huancarani and Cuzco, August 17

Today I ate a truly beautiful salad for lunch. It included dark leafy greens, roasted golden and purple beets, sweet red onion, small white beans and carrots, all cut into ribbons and tossed. The flavors were so refreshing and bright that I didn’t miss a dressing at all (though a little olive oil and lime would have been ideal in retrospect), and the visual effect was like summer in a bowl. To accompany the greens, there were potatoes roasted in a traditional Andean adobe oven, peeled and sprinkled with a little salt while still hot. All this while sitting in the adobe kitchen house of a family in one of the many indigenous comunidades in the mountains surrounding Cuzco, having conversations in Spanish, Quechua and Italian and feeding the potato peelings to the many cuy (guinea pigs) running around the floor.
I spent the day visiting some of Centro Yanapanakusun’s projects in the comunidades in Huancarani district, about 60km outside Cuzco proper. They are particularly involved in promoting education, so a large part of the day was spent at schools that the center has helped build and provides academic support to and at the Salas de Cultura that the center has or is building as spaces for workshops, activities and afterschool programs. The poverty is extreme out in the Sierra, but it seems that at least in the schools that Yanapakusun works with, there is some effort to maintain a certain level of instruction. The lack of materials, usable space, food and everything else you can imagine is debilitating, but children are going to school and learning, and according to the director of one school, are continuing on to secondary school. A big difficulty, also according to the director, is convincing parents that school is a better use of a child’s time than work (though something tells me that this is far from the most pressing problem the schools face). But they push on, and the kids learn and get the chance to be children and not small adults. I will get more into depth regarding Centro Yanapanakusun and its work at another time, suffice to say that it is an NGO that actually manages to reach its target population with useful and deeply contextualized services and that you should check out the website for more details. And definitely consider staying there if you happen to come to Cuzco.
On another note, I want to discuss the woman who sells tamales in the Plaza de Armas here in Cuzco. They are 80 centavos a piece, she has both dulces and salados (sweet or savory), and they are so good that I cannot walk by her without buying one. The masa (corn dough) is so light and fluffy it practically disintegrates in your mouth. The Peruvian style tamal is a little different that the Mexican version many of us are accustomed to, in that it isn’t really stuffed with meat. Instead the meat and other contents are sort of dispersed throughout the tamal, and there tends to be a low meat to dough ratio. It becomes more of a snack instead of the main dish of a meal, and a pretty ideal snack at that since you can walk and eat one at the same time (it comes in its corn husk wrapper, of course). I haven’t tried the sweet version yet because I’m too addicted to the savory, but I promise I will soon. I have no doubt that it will be just as delicious and crave-inducing. So you know, she is located just outside Gato’s Market every day, all day until she sells out. Try one, you will not be disappointed.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday, August 7th

On Saturdays in the Plaza Tupac Amaru in Cuzco, Peru, the municipality organizes a Feria Gastronómica, or open air food festival. Something like 35 different vendors participate, all making the food fresh to order right there in the plaza. It is all comida típica: regional, home cooked style dishes prepared by women who call you, “linda” and “mamita” as if they were your aunts. Needless to say, we were the only tourists there and as such were regarded as a bit of an oddity as we wandered around asking questions and eating a bite here and a bite there. Everyone was pleasant and patient and willing to let us look and even taste things before sitting down to eat at the long tables each stall provided (complete with silverware, flowered tablecloths and condiments).
After doing the full tour, we decided on a couple of must try items with chicharron de calamares (fried calamari) first on the list. The calamares were tender and the batter was light and crisp. With some salsa criolla, fresh lime juice and a little ají they started the day off on a delicious note. We washed the chicharron down with some chicha morada, a refreshing purple drink made from boiling dark purple corn with spices and citrus, from one of the five or six ladies selling homemade drinks.
Our next stop after refilling our cups with chicha morada and chicha de quinoa (a white, almost malty version of the drink made with the Andean grain quinoa) was at a stand selling anticuchos, or kebabs. We shared an anticucho de puro corazón, or beef heart, the most popular and traditional. Fresh off the grill and topped with a crisp grilled potato, the meat was rich and well spiced and very tender. The ají provided to drizzle on top was a salty and mild green version that was somewhat unnecessary because the meat had such intense, delicious flavor. I would have preferred a spicier sauce in general, but it turned out to be perfect on the potato.
We couldn’t leave without trying the piece de resistance: trucha a la parrilla con escabeche de verduras, choclo hervido y papa fria, or grilled trout with pickled vegetables, steamed white corn and cold potatoes. I’m literally delighted at the prospect of eating this again…and trying the fried version. The escabeche is refreshing and tart, the corn is sweet and plump (I love it covered in salt, lime and chili…ají). The fresh trout is crisp and perfectly seasoned with an adobo-like blend of spices.
I’ll leave you with that until I go again.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Machu Picchu: August 4th, 2010

The best way to describe Machu Picchu is as a sacred place. Not because it was a temple complex or ceremonial center when it was in use, but rather because it was an entire city; a living and growing community where people lived out their lives amidst the splendor of the mountains and the awesomeness of the architecture. So much blood and sweat must have been given to build that place, its entirety constructed of unforgiving granite carefully carved by hand and lifted into place in a miracle of urban planning and what might be called a passion of execution. Slave labor, of course, but even more poignant for that element of compulsion because each rock in that citadel is shaped and positioned with ultimate care and artistry.

From every window and street, plaza and temple, you are aware of the mountains surrounding the city, sheer peaks of rock and greenery that inescapably draw the eye. You can’t help but want to fly, and you are always aware how easy it would be to fall. Perhaps this awareness is part of what makes Machu Picchu a sacred place: the constant awareness of death, of being six inches away from flight and then endless union with the mountains themselves…it is difficult to imagine a space more given to contemplation and ultimately peace.

The city is architecturally incredible, built surrounding a quarry and incorporating the mountain in such a way that allows the rigorous urban plan to seem natural and not imposed. The sixteen bathing fountains are all sourced along the same channel, but instead of simply allowing the people living lower down the mountain to use the dirty water of those living above, the Incas used a charcoal and sand filtration process in the channel after each bathing pool. That is basically a Brita filter on a large scale in the 1400s, and it wasn’t just for the elite but rather was a necessary part of a successful community. When I think of the filth and squalor of the European Middle Ages…

The temples of the Sun and the Condor incorporate natural outcroppings of rock in beautiful sculpture. The Sun temple actually rests upon a huge curving foundation stone that surges up from the terraces and allowed them to build a curved stone building from and on this rock…though it does not appear seamless, it looks like the building and the jutting rock where meant to be together always. In the temple of the Condor, that mystical great bird of the Andean peaks and valleys, there is the sculpted head of the bird on the ground, ready to receive sacrifices. Above it rise majestic wings, found art that becomes indelibly a part of the bird. The meeting of human and nature is effortless here, a union for which artists and thinkers alike have fought to even approach.

To inhabit this place, even for a few hours, is an awe-inspiring, and inspiring, experience.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Organic Delights? Yes, Please.

Today, we went to a bioferia in the Parque Reducto #2. In other words, I spent my morning with Lima’s yuppies at the organic farmer’s market. We got a little lost getting there, but the minute we saw the lush panoply of lettuces at the first stall, we knew it had been worth it. My first purchase was a half wheel of creamy, glistening queso fresco, or fresh cow’s milk cheese. It was so fresh, you could practically hear the cultures working…ok maybe not quite that fresh. At this moment, I’m eating it on fresh bread with a little ají de rocoto and it balances the spice perfectly. This market had many treasures, including those lettuces (I picked up purple and green varieties), some delicate baby spinach, beautiful roma tomatoes that made the ones in the supermarket look like laughable impostors, yucca and every kind of potato, including something called olluco that looks like a fingerling except it is yellow with fuchsia spots. There was also quinoa, many kinds of beans, lovely pink radishes, avocados the size of my head, and some carrots that made my wrists look small (I admit that isn’t hard to do, but still).

Ok, I’m done with the rapturous listing. There were some highlights that we got to enjoy right there, like the sample of fresh queso de cabra rolled in herbs, which had such a delicate flavor that picky people might not even know it was goat cheese (I promptly bought some). And then there were the vegetarians. They had a stall selling some traditional Peruvian dishes such as rocoto relleno and papa rellena, except instead of a meat filling they had a quinoa and vegetable mix. They were also making some palm sized pizzettes with fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and caramelized onion, on the comal to your order. I got a papa rellena with salsa criolla (red onion, lime, cilantro, white vinegar) and a little pizzette, and I had them add a slice of roasted eggplant to it as well.

Delicious. The caramelized onion added a little sweetness to the combo on the pizzette, and the freshness of all the ingredients really shone through. It didn’t taste like Italy, but rather like Latin America owning Italian flavor combos. It was refreshing because the “Italian” I’ve had here has been mediocre at best. The papa rellena should have been heavy, but was instead wonderfully light and fluffy, and the quinoa had nuttiness and depth as well as that scrumptious delicate texture.

Making it all even more pleasant and healthy, it was all wrapped in biodegradable, recycled paper AND the people where quite friendly and willing to answer all my questions about the names of things…though I’m sure they wondered why my education has been so lacking, they were really rather patient.

Eating these treats in the park, with the rare winter sun shining on us, was a Saturday morning worth travelling for.

By the way, the vegetarians have a café:

El Alma Zen: Cocina Orgánica

Recavarren 298, at the corner of block 4 of José Gálvez, Miraflores, Lima

Next time: The Second Best Sandwich on Earth, and why tripe in Florence still takes the cake.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An unpleasant realization

This weekend had some gustatory pleasures, including my very first Pisco Sour. I do have a complaint though. For whatever reason, restaurants have really…unexceptional…wine and beer. Apparently there is some law that prohibits the brewing of beer with anything more than 5% alcohol per volume, which means no brown ales or stouts or IPAs or really anything at all that tickles my fancy. If you know me, you know how a good IPA makes my heart flutter with joy, so this makes me quite sad. However, this law still doesn’t explain why quality restaurants in a country that imports a bunch of really good argentine wines have such pitiful wine lists. This baffling reality essentially means well-executed, thoughtful, fresh, seasonal meals with NO WINE OR BEER.

There is an upside: the cocktails I’ve had here are truly wonderful. Pisco is a versatile liquor that isn’t overpowered by the fresh ingredients used in traditional Pisco Sours or in some of the fruitier versions I’ve tasted. To my palate, Pisco Sour (pisco, lime juice, muddled lime, simple syrup, egg white froth) tastes like a margarita without the bite of tequila. Instead it has a mellow, rounded taste that is still super refrescante (and rather intoxicating)!

I like this pisco stuff, I look forward to trying more variations on the traditional Sour with all the gorgeous fresh juices that are readily available here, but…

I miss good beer.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Glossary for the week

Cebiche mixto: Mixed fresh seafood (in this case: fish, squid, scallops, octopus, cockels and crab) cold cooked with fresh lime juice, cilantro, onion and a little chili. Spelled ceviche in Mexico.

Ají: Capsicum, or chili.

Maracuyá: Passionfruit

Pisco: A grape liquor like a brandy, it is DOC and comes from only a few regions of Peru.ú

Sopa de mariscos: Seafood soup with a seafood based broth.

Calamari: Squid (the small ones).

Cockels: A small bivalve like a clam.

Choclo: Corn and maiz.

Rocoto: A moderately spicy chili.

Palta: Avocado.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's in a name...

The other day, I asked this waiter what palta was. He proceeded to explain, “Es una fruta verde y cremosa, pero no es dulce, es un poco salada.” Roughly translated, that means: It is a green, creamy fruit. It isn’t sweet but rather a little salty. My reaction was something like, “Oh…ew.”

Today, I realized that palta is in fact avocado.

I love avocado. I really, really love avocado. I eat it straight from its husk (peel?), sprinkled with a little salt and a generous amount of fresh lime.

Point is, that is honestly the nastiest description of an avocado I have ever heard. But how else do you describe it? Ideas, anyone?

First Week pt. 2

The first night here we picked up half a rotisserie chicken and French fries from the supermarket around the corner. Yes, the supermarket! The chicken was juicy and roasty and great. But the French fries were AMAZING. They sure know what to do with a potato in this town. Not greasy, perfectly golden, crispy on the outside and meltingly smooth on the inside, these were some French fries that put France AND Netherlands to shame (and there was no mayo involved, thank goodness). Did I mention I got them from the supermarket?

I think I’m going to love this city. I already am enjoying it, the combination of familiar elements and complete newness is appealing and comfortable. It reminds me strongly of Mexico City: the colorful old houses next to modern apartments next to crumbling and abandoned buildings of indeterminate age and purpose. Lima is vibrant and friendly, the people are polite and helpful, but thus far give somewhat crap directions. Maybe this is because every street seems to have a counterpart on the other side of the district, a twin with the exact same name, but none of the addresses we’re looking for. This is ok, because everyone knows wandering leads you to the best food, but I can see how it might be difficult if I actually had to be anywhere. Lima also reminds me of San Francisco, because it sits on the cliffs above the awesome beauty of the Pacific Ocean and thus benefits from salty, comforting sea breezes all day. It is also foggy by 3 pm if not before, and that in itself is guaranteed to make me feel at home.

I am already learning here, simply because navigating a Peruvian menu is daunting. I don’t know what any of this food is, it all sounds strange and exciting and supremely different from Mexican food. To start with, the native ingredients are quite distinct, including a variety of potatoes I wouldn’t ever have contemplated, incredible seafood, some beautiful corn and a bunch of different chiles. Thing is, they all have different names than these things do in Mexico, so I almost feel like I’m learning a new language to describe them all. Corn is neither elote nor maíz, but rather choclo. Chile isn’t chile, it is ají, and there are many different colors and intensities of spice used in the food. There is this natty bell pepper type thing called rocoto, it is spicy despite its innocently familiar look…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lima: The First Week

I’m not sure why I want to write to you, an imaginary public. I have not felt the urge to write out loud for a long time, since I was a kid, I think. For some reason, at the beginning of my second long foreign adventure of this year, I want to be witnessed again. Will you, the people who I imagine are reading or may read this account, do me the kindness of witnessing my words? Though nothing can ever really reassure us humans that we are being truly understood, I like the idea that we all constantly try. This journal will be my practice while here, my little piece of trying to be understood.

My stories might be about food, about eating and drinking. I won’t rule out politics, art viewing and making, socializing, reading or touristing, either. I can’t rule out loving, I won’t rule out negativity, but I will try to rule out dishonesty now, before starting.

So…I am in Lima, Peru right now, and it is almost five in the morning. I’m not sure why I am awake, but as I lay in bed I could not stop thinking about what I ate today (yesterday). Mostly, my body remembers the lime. I had a cebiche mixto for lunch, and the lime was the first and last thing I tasted. It had such a sweet zing, it made my whole body scrunch in pleasure. It cleaned my tongue for each almost translucent, delicately plump, utterly fresh piece of fish I put in my mouth. It brightened the flavor of the fish as it mellowed the bite of the purple onion liberally sprinkled all over my plate. It cut through the spice of the ají that I, Mexican that I am, mixed into the glorious cocktail of seafood before me. (Speaking of cocktails, the maracuyá, or passionfruit, sour made with fresh juice and pisco tasted deceptively healthy. One could probably drink a deeply unhealthy amount before noticing that it was in fact alcoholic.)

Alright, so the whole meal made me quite happy in the way that only new gastronomic delights can. The second course was the most flavorful sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) I’ve ever had. The broth was red and deep from the shrimp heads they used to make it, liberally dosed with cilantro and onions, and teeming with super fresh seafood: crab legs, scallops (on the shell!), calamaris, shrimps, octopus, cockels and white fish.

If that doesn’t sound delectable to you, then I think we should part company now.

…Just kidding. Maybe.