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A visit to Peru reveals collection of its traditional food staples

October 25, 2017 Updated: October 25, 2017 at 10:50 am
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A bartender at La Mar restaurant in Lima, Peru serves a pisco sour, the countries signature cocktail. Photo by Teresa Farney

For one week in late September, I sipped Pisco and Chicha while enjoying nibbles of ceviche, causa, cuy, choclo, and papas. It was all thanks to Southwind Adventures' tour, "Peru: Flavors & Culinary Traditions." I suspect that, with the exception of the ceviche, these foods may sound as foreign to you as they did to me. Here's what I learned about these gems of Peru, a country that is becoming one of the world's hot spots for foodies.

Drinks of Peru

Pisco, not unlike grappa in Italy, is wine that's distilled into a clear spirit. At the Bodegas Vista Alegre winery in Ica, Peru, tour guide Jesús Anchante Huaman offered this description: "Pisco is wine perfume. You don't need to drink it. You only need to smell three small drops. It smells like peach, chocolate and a little woody."

Once you're done smelling it, you really do need to have a taste of it.

It's best to first sip a little of the Pisco neat (no ice or mixer) to discover its flavor profile, like other tropical spirits (such as rum, tequila, or cachaca). Pisco works wonders in mixers that have a little citrus and sugar. The most popular Peruvian cocktail is a Pisco sour with fresh zesty lime juice and a frothy egg white.

In Cusco, Peru, we learned about Chicha, a fermented corn drink that may be imbibed plain or flavored with fruit like strawberries.

"We call this an energy drink," said Fredy Cayo, another tour guide, when we stopped at a local chicheria. "People working in fields might stop every hour for a cup of Chicha."

It reminded me of kombucha, only with a mildly alcoholic fizz that was pleasantly refreshing.

Street eats

Yussef Sumar, owner of Hacienda Srapampa farm in the Sacred Valley in Peru, grows vegetables and herbs, including the giant white corn. Photo by Teresa Farney 

Although I didn't eat these foods from street vendors, their origins come from peasant food and are found on most every menu at Peruvian restaurants.

Ceviche, as most everyone knows, is basically raw seafood that is "cooked" in fresh citrus juices, chili, onion and herbs - a concoction known as tiger's milk or "the juices of ceviche." This dish is a cornerstone of Peruvian cuisine, and they take it to a higher level. I'd never eaten as many types of ceviche than what I encountered in this country; there was even a quinoa and fava bean version.

Peru is for potato (papas) lovers, and more than 2,000 (some say 4,000) varieties are found in the country. It's no wonder that the tuber is central to many dishes, including the causa. It's a savory, layered mound of potatoes topped with veggies and a thick, creamy sauce - hearty and filling.

As for the cuy, pet lovers may want to look away: This is a cute, cuddly guinea pig ... and it's what's for dinner. I must say, I could not bring myself to eat one cooked on a stick, a popular version sold by street vendors. However, I did enjoy several preparations in restaurants, including one that had been cooked in fat to produce confit of cuy.

And, no it doesn't taste like chicken. I thought it had a hammy flavor. By the way, almost every household is home to a community of guinea pigs - not as pets, but as sources of food.

Choclo, also known as Peruvian or Cusco corn (named for the capital city of the Incas), an Andean corn with extra large, bulbous kernels, almost five times bigger than North American corn, and has a creamy texture when cooked. It's somewhat similar to hominy, except it's not treated with lye or dried. Peruvian-style ceviche is almost always served with a sprinkle of corn nuts - choclo kernels that have been soaked for several days and then deep-fried until crisp. They are a tasty snack, too.

Not to be late to the table for food trends, Trader Joe's sells Peruvian-style giant corn nuts, sourced from Yussef Sumar's Hacienda Sarapampa farm, where I learned more about the unusual corn. And tasted a delicious creamy corn soup made from the large kernels at an outdoor farm-to-table lunch.

A final parting shot: On a visit to the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, I spotted a 17th-century painting of the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples were not breaking bread and drinking wine, but rather they were eying whole roasted cuy (guinea pig) and clutching goblets of Chicha (corn beer).

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