Thursday, September 24, 2009

Andean Eats

cordero asado with tamal, rocoto relleno, papas doradas & vegetables

I already knew from restaurants in the U.S. that Peruvian cuisine was both diverse and excellent, but I also knew that many dishes we find in overseas Peruvian restaurants are Lima-style, with lots of seafood and a number of Chinese-influenced dishes (Lima has one of the largest Chinatowns in the Americas). Andean food, I knew, would be somewhat different. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew I'd be eating more meat than seafood, and more than just alpaca and guinea pig. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of Andean cuisine.

rocotos rellenos with papas doradas

The rocoto is a mildly hot, squat little pepper that grows abundantly in the region, and it's most often cooked as rocotos rellenos, stuffed with chopped beef and topped with cheese. Rocotos rellenos may be served as an appetizer, a main course or a side dish.

Potatoes are abundant in Peru (they originated there, and there are hundreds of varieties). Pretty much every meal will include potatoes, usually fries, papas doradas (browned potatoes, usually whole), or stewed along with meats. The potatoes that are most commonly served are very dense and starchy. You'll often be served rice and potatoes together. Other grains, especially popular as soup ingredients, are barley and quinua, or quinoa, the "mother grain" of the Incas, which has recently become better known here through health food vendors. Though you'll see "frejol" on menus, Peru is not a bean cuisine like Mexico or the Caribbean countries. However, I was served lima beans on several occasions. A popular salad, called solterito (shown left), combines lima beans with cheese, corn, peas, onions and tomatoes. Lima beans do indeed come from Peru, so we've been pronouncing it wrong all our lives.

There are dozens, if not scores, if not hundreds of soups in Peruvian cuisine, some served as main courses. I tried a lamb and grains soup (with barley, quinoa and corn), a chupe de quinua (quinoa soup with egg, vegetables and cheese), which may be the most popular of Andean soups, a fantastic sopa de ajo (garlic soup), which was one of the best things I tasted in Cusco, and a chairo, a soup of mixed meat and vegetables (including lima beans and hominy) in what I took to be a chicken stock--it reminded me of a cross between a Mexican pozole and a Caribbean sancocho. I'm not sure what the difference between a sopa and a chupe is, and I've seen both sopa de quinua and chupe de quinua used. Also very popular are cremas, or cream soups, but I didn't get around to trying any of them.

chupe de quinua

sopa de ajo


Just about the only fish you'll find in Andean Peru is trucha (trout). But boy is it delicious. Yet it isn't native to Peru at all--it was introduced from Canada. It's a wonderfully rich, sweet, pink-fleshed trout that, grilled or poached, may be as tasty as any salmon I've had. It's also used in local ceviches, though you won't find many dedicated cevicherias in this region they way you will in Lima.


And then there's meat, and plenty of it. Though it's not a grilled meat dominated cuisine like, say, that of Argentina, Peruvians love their anticuchos, grilled skewered meats. One of the most popular is the anticucho de corazon, made of beef hearts. I had a combination of three at a restaurant in Cusco: heart, beef and that wonderful trout.


I didn't have any pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), a staple of Peruvian restaurants in New York, except as part of a buffet lunch during a Sacred Valley tour, but there are certainly plenty of places to get it in Cusco, including specialty chicken restaurants. The chicken dishes I did have, both wonderful, were aji de gallina and estofado de pollo. The estofado was a stew in a delicious red sauce. The aji is a cream sauce with garlic, cheese, nuts and chiles (aji is a kind of hot pepper), very rich, sort of a chicken a la king with a kick (I was a sucker for Swanson's as a kid).

estofado de pollo

aji de gallina

Lomo saltado, a Chinese-influenced beef stir fry is ubiquitous on Peruvian menus, but the only version I had was a tapa at an upscale Cusco restaurant.

lomo saltado tapa

And then there are the wonderful roast meats. Lechon, roast pig, is found on many menus, and I had mine at a buffet at the luxury hotel next to Machu Picchu, where the whole pig, head on, was laid out and sliced for you. At one fairly humble, completely non-touristy local eatery I had a delicious and enormous hunk of cabrito asado, roast kid, that had a marvelously complex spice rub. The whole plate cost me a whopping $4.


I ate so well in Cusco it would be hard to pick out a favorite meal, but a contender would be my final lunch before my flight back to Lima on the way home. It was a Sunday, and the restaurant, Quinta Eulalia, was bustling with local families out for their big Sunday meal. Quinta Eulalia is a Cusco institution, since 1941. It's an al fresco restaurant in a courtyard (that's what a "quinta" is) and is open for lunch only. The day's choices are written on blackboards throughout the courtyard, and I chose the cordero asado, roast lamb. For 18 soles ($6) I got a plate (shown at top) that included a large and muy sabroso serving of lean and tender lamb, a fluffy semi-sweet tamal stuffed with raisins, a rocoto relleno, papas doradas and steamed vegetables.

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Cusco Restaurants

In general, I've decided to discuss the restaurants separately from the dishes. I figure the food will be of interest to most of my readers and the restaurant details will be more useful to travelers to Peru. I had excellent meals in dirt cheap restaurants that catered mostly to locals, mid-range restaurants that seemed to get a mix of local and tourist business, and high-end places that did a mostly tourist business. While there are excellent meals to be had at the more formal or "tourist-friendly" restaurants, don't miss out on meals at local picanterias and quintas, which can be some of the most rewarding food experiences in Cusco.

La Quinta Eulalia
Choquechaca 384

On a quiet end of a street near the San Blas neighborhood, this is a great bet for an outdoor lunch among the locals, and it's an amazing value. I believe most plates include a rocoto relleno and a tamal as well as potatoes and vegetables. As I mentioned above, it's a venerable, classic quinta. In addition to that wonderful plate of lamb 'n' stuff, I had my bowl of chairo there.

La Chomba
Tullumayo 339

This is a picanteria, a working-class eatery where you're unlikely to see other tourists. It's on the street that's the extension of Choquechaca. The restaurant, with long picnic tables, looks like a cross between a mess hall and a roadhouse, and the customers will be doing as much drinking as eating. The food is really cheap and really good, and you'll soak up lots of local color. This is where I had the roast kid.

Plateros 309

This pleasant little restaurant just off the Plaza de Armas seems to be one of the best bets in the heart of the city. The food is wonderful and the prices reasonable. I had two lunches there. The first time I had the sopa de ajo and the estofado de pollo. The soup so bowled me over that I went back the next day for the anticuchos, which were also excellent.

Pacha Papa
Plaza San Blas

This open-air restaurant is designed after the quintas, but dinner is served. It's very popular, especially with tourists, and is recommended by most guidebooks, so you'll need a dinner reservation (lunch shouldn't be a problem for walk-ins). They do a wide range of Andean and Peruvian dishes, and the courtyard is very comfortable, with ample heating at night. I had the aji de gallina there as well as an excellent rocoto relleno appetizer. The slightly sweet little rolls (with an almost challah-like taste), baked fresh in an open hearth oven in the courtyard, are fabulous.

Triunfo 393

On a street that leads up toward San Blas from the Cathedral, this upscale restaurant and tapas bar serves a mix of Italian food, Mediterranean-influenced tapas, and Novo Andino cuisine. I went there to try the causa de cuy I had written about earlier, but the tapas I tried were quite good too. Note that at the bar one can order from both the dinner menu and the tapas menu, but at the tables only the dinner menu is available. If you can't get a table, it should be easier to score a seat at the bar, but make a reservation if you really want a table.

Note: the trout and the chupe de quinua were eaten at restaurants in Ollantaytambo, a town I'll be posting about later.


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