The hard reality of the overrated cuisine of Peru
Traveling for food and cuisine has become a huge trend worldwide, and such “delicious” meal destinations as Italy, Thailand, Mexico or Japan have been in spotlight for a while, therefore some other countries have decided to get a “piece of the pie” too..
This will be a sad story of cuisine of Peru.
I understand that with this article I will step on toes and hurt many people’s feelings or make them sad, but my mission highly is to raise the discussion and raise the awareness of the differences between the life in the cities and countryside.
First of all.
In every country you can find good, high quality and diverse food if you stick to the main cities, big cities. And it is the same in Peru. But fancy world-class restaurants is not the main character of this article.
I believe, that the real traditions, cultural signature, soul and heart of any nation’s cuisine lies in the countryside cooked by grandma on direct fire in a simple shack.
When we were planning our trip with the new project – “How To Fall In Love With The Earth”, we prioritized to travel around remote areas of Peru in search of pure nature, distant villages, and of course, authentic food, as it is something you find very attractive when placing a search in Google – “What to do in Peru”.
Ceviche, lomo saltado, Guinea pigs, causa limeña.. just to name some. And of course, birthplace of 4000 varieties of potatoes, quinoa. It sounded almost hypnotizing to my stomach.
I remember, before leaving for Peru, I had a picture in my mind – I am sitting in a restaurant with the menu in my hands, and when I open it I find a full page only with different potato dishes and other page with quinoa dishes.. To fast forward – it never happened. As apart from quinoa soup, this grain has been the main export product of the country with 50k cubic tons/per year and it hardly makes its way on the table of local cuisine. When it comes to the potatoes – the variety and colors of it in the local markets are stunning! BUT – when I asked the sellers, about each of 20 varieties they are selling to explain me how to cook and prepare them – the answer was sad as all the Peruvian kitchen itself – French fries or boiled.
We are chefs and we are not picky – open for any dish that would represent the country. So we were focusing hard on finding local flavors, national dishes and traditions. But it feels that especially potatoes in Peru have lost it’s place and is not appreciated anymore.. It’s so sad!
French fries? Seriously? That is real humiliation for a true potato!
You have 4000 varieties of papas!!! Each with different structure and flavor! Chuño – freeze-dried-dehydrated potato. Mostly used in soups and stews. Although the ones we were served tasted little raw and crispy. Anjo –white and long – when boiled had beautiful and creamy flavor like mashed potato. Camote – sweet potato, creamy and delicious. Just to name some. But the only potatoes you will eat while in Peru is French fries (that almost always comes as side dish together with microwaved rice) and Causa Limeña dish (only in cities) – that is layered potato mash with chili aji souce, chicken and vegetables. That is a delicious dish. But sadly hard to find while in the countryside.
Usually one of the areas where to search for traditions is the local market. Big cities or small towns, they all have a market, with food stands.
On my travels I always love to eat in those – as that’s the place where you can communicate with your “chef” and find “real” authentic food. Sadly – not a story about Peru.
In Peru – you will find 20-30 or maybe even more food stands in a line. But to my surprise – they all, ALL, sell copy-paste, food. No creativity, no signature, no passion or heart. If it’s a sandwich – it’s plain bread with cheese, or plain bread with egg, or meat. Same everywhere. If it it’s soup - it’s quinoa soup served by all the market ladies. If it’s chicken broth – it’s the same broth with over boiled spaghetti pasta in it, sold by everyone in the market. No options to choose, no passion in the sellers eyes and heart.
Just a job to be done and couple soles to be charged…
How about ceviche? Yes, you can find it.. In the cities. In the mornings. And at the street food stands. And that is where we got our best ceviche – fresh fish marinated in lime juice. Usually served with cold, boiled sweet potato slices and toasted corn grains.
Even though it's s one of the signature dishes of Peru, it mostly fails when served by local, impassionate chefs. Fish is cut in big chunks – so it doesn’t marinate all the way through, “lime juice marinade” has no other flavor except lime.. (when comparing to Mexican ceviche, for example, which is served with onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado). Ceviche was one of those dishes that we order time by time on our 2 month travel. But, just a moment ago, we had a chat, and realized that we remember only 2 good ceviches out of dozens – and those were served in fancy and good restaurants.
And again… Ceviche is something you will find ONLY in towns. No villages or countryside will serve or offer you this dish.
Alright – then it is time to talk more about countryside of Peru..
The vision of organic, high quality and diverse cuisine comes to ashes pretty fast, the next moment you turn off the federal road. Shouldn’t it be the opposite?
Fields of grains – corn, quinoa, oat. Impressive and steep terraces of potatoes, beans, roots, guarded by herds of alpacas and lamas. Simple adobe shack, mud brick wall and dirt road.. I stop next to a local man who is waiving to the only passing car. We get out for a friendly chat.. His handshake is solid and firm – “Americo” – he shakes my hand. His wife, in a dirty, pink, hoodie, shyly hides in distance. “Bring some potatoes for our guests” – he shouts to his wife, and just a moment later we bite into warm and delicious, boiled "papas".
Farmer tells us about his land and plants he grows. “The altitude is too high to grow corn” he says - “but for potatoes it is good”. He has alpacas too. There is a lot of work to do, but all the community men gather together to help each other. They have no money, they have no Tv, but the pride, the land, the valley. They are not starving as the “pachamama” – the Mother Nature will provide with the best.
They are simple people. No need for much. Just time by time heading down to the city to buy some rice and oil. When the winter comes they eat guinea pigs and alpaca meat. That’s great source of energy and protein that is highly needed in this 4000m altitude!
When we get back to the main village down at the bottom of the valley of Americo, we are starving and ready to explore the local eateries. It is past 7pm and around main plaza – Plaza de las Armas we spot several places - “Let’s see what we can find”.
Big signs with 20+ dishes on the menu in front of each. Oh my God! How to choose! It looks and sounds amazing. My stomach is already in heaven without even trying a thing..
We step into the closest one – wide, bright and spacious with loud and dusty Tv hanging from the ceiling.. The middle age owner, chef and waitress in the same person greets us – “Oh, we have only roasted chicken with rice and lomo saltado”
No worries at all - we still have other options in town, so we walk down to the next colorful menu post with 20+ dishes on it - to see what they can offer.. Surprise, surprise – “we have only roasted chicken with rice, French fries and lomo saltado”.
Long story short – we ended up in one of those places. As there are no options, once you are in the countryside. If you are lucky, depending on region, you might find “trucha frita” – deep fried trout – of course served with microwave rice or French fries. And those two last side dishes ARE the real and authentic cuisine of Peru.
Not any rice, not any potato but – microwave rice and French fries.
I believe it was our 3rd week of our journey when we all were sick of the rice and French fries served on every dish, so every time we ordered the food, not even knowing if it is served with the rice (and of course it always is) we asked for a dish without it.
There was only once (!!!) that a lady in restaurant offered us to cook something else for a breakfast – kind of - “banana balls”. No surprise – next morning she couldn’t find the ingredients and we never had a chance to try it.
If in countryside you ask someone to cook for you – don’t expect to get anything authentic – I’m not even gonna use word “traditional” – as that’s what you WILL GET – microwave rice and French fries.
It seems that people in the countryside of Peru, in it’s poverty, have forgotten the traditions and became lazy in favors of fast food and sodas. Could this be a sad side of hard work and lack of time?
Many locals we talked to recognize the dishes, but don’t know how or who could cook them. Classic cuisine of Peru lives and survives only for tourists.. While the countryside.. sadly has been left for oblivion..
Later, shocked of incapacity by finding good food, we asked our local friends about it – as Peruvian cuisine is second main reason why tourists choose to visit Peru, just after countries magnificent landscape.
Something didn’t match there..
We found out that government of Peru is funding touristic marketing of selling it’s cuisine as new trend worldwide, while its countryside is living in complete poverty and doesn’t have any capacity to withstand demanding rise for quality and traditional food.
The quality of life and difference between the cities and remote villages in Peru is shocking. And as Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu is all what 90% of all the tourists who visit Peru will ever see, it’s easy to sell it to the world as true and real, authentic Peru.
I truly believe, that people in countryside of Peru still have some hope left. The life is not easy there, but they have all the tools - fertile soil, climate, hard working men to reconnect with Mother Nature. Their hearts and souls have been closed for traditions and natures heritage as rebel against the economy and politics. But that shouldn’t be so..
Pachamama is there for you..
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