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.