Monday, September 20, 2010

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.

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