Cusco has impressively good food.
My current favorite place to eat is a vegetarian restaurant called El Encuentro. They have a rotating set menu, which includes salad, bread, a huge bowl of soup, a large main dish and hot tea. The main dishes are authentic Peruvian food made without the meat, which is really nice for me. It costs S./8, or approximately US$3.10, and everything so far has been amazing.
John’s favorite place is the polleria (chicken shop) around the corner. He gets salad, soup, rice, fried potatoes and a chunk of amazingly cooked chicken. They roast the chicken on spits inside a huge wood burning oven. (He claims it is amazing, though I haven’t tried it for obvious reasons.) It costs him S./5, or US$2.
Needless to say, the food here is cheap (as long as you move just a little out of the tourist bubble, that is. Locals can eat for even cheaper if they have stronger stomachs and are willing to brave the places with less clean kitchens.) It’s so cheap and good that we’ve actually decided to eat out more than usual. [Edited to add: We have since mastered the small San Blas Market where you can get an amazing and filling two course vegetarian meal with tea for S./3, or about US$1.15. Follow that with a S./3 freshly made juice from another stand that's chock full of fresh fruit and huge enough to share, and you're leaving the market a happy camper.]
However, I do still love to cook. And I love to learn how to make the local dishes, of which there are many delicious ones here in Peru. So we decided to take a cooking class with Erick, a chef at one of the popular local restaurants here in Cusco.
Our cooking class began with a trip to one of the local markets, where Erick schooled us on some of the local produce. We even sampled a few things we’d never had before. The white fruit with purple stripes is a mix of cucumber and melon – it tastes refreshing and slightly sweet, and would probably be yummy in a salad. On the right is one of the many types of passion fruit. This one was a bit too sour for my taste.
These funny looking fruit aren’t really edible, but apparently locals believe they have the power to cure cancer. They boil them in water, then serve the liquid as a type of healing tonic.
These green guys are called custard apples. They taste exactly like you would expect something called a custard apple to taste.
We tried a tasty fruit that had the consistency of a sweet potato and smelled like butterscotch. Then we learned about some of the varieties of potatoes grown in the Andes (there are 4,000 varieties here in Peru.)
We also sampled different types of roasted corn and hand made caramels, and smelled the local coffee (which is roasted with brown sugar and orange peels for more flavor.) When we finally left the market, John and I were amazed at how many things we would never have discovered without a little guidance. Things like the purple corn below. It looks kind of like blackberries on a cob. You don’t eat it straight, but rather boil it to get the flavor and use the resulting water to cook with.
After the market it was off to one of Erick’s four restaurants for our cooking lessons. This is the view from the terrace – the only rooftop terrace in all of downtown Cusco. (Don’t tell me you are sick of overhead views of Cusco. I’m certainly not.)
Once we went back inside, Erick gave us a little lesson about pisco, and the restaurant’s bartender taught us how to make a Pisco Sour (pisco, simple syrup, lime juice and egg white), and a Chilcano (pisco, simple syrup, lime juice, bitters, ginger ale.) Then he let us sample some of the infused pisco they make in house. The yellow pepper pisco has been aging for a year – very flavorful.
Time to cook. Our first course was Causa, a dish made of mashed potato mixed with lime juice and yellow pepper sauce, then layered with a number of different fillings. My vegetarian version featured red pepper sauce, hard boiled egg and avocado.
John’s added black olives and shredded chicken to the mix.
Both were incredibly delicious and quite easy to make. For the main course, we made alpaca saltada (or veggie saltada for me.) This is a classic Peruvian dish made with onions, orange and red peppers, and tomatoes. The recipe we made had a heavy Asian influence, with ginger, soy sauce, and cilantro included in the ingredients. After chopping everything, Erick led us into the restaurant’s tiny kitchen (clearly not built for tall people, as both John and I nearly hit our heads several times.) We each got to saute our dishes over the flames, which as you can see became huge when we added pisco to the pan.
Peruvians serve alpaca saltada with fried potatoes and rice. (It’s commonplace here to eat potatoes and rice together, which most visitors – including me – find odd. Erick said that’s just how they do it, and with 4,000 varieties of potatoes to eat, I’m not surprised.) It was good, but so filling we had to take half home. Below is my dish (John’s is the first one of this post.)
Is your mouth watering yet? Ask nicely and I just might make these for you in the future. If you’re in Denver, there’s a great Peruvian restaurant where you can try lomo saltado and other yummy dishes. Go try it. I’m off to eat my leftovers :)