I know as much about Peruvian food as I do about the Large Haldron Collider, which is to say I know the general premise of it. Peruvian food involves smashing potatoes, the LHC smashes protons. They're similar in that they both demand smashing of things. That limited amount of knowledge on both subjects has served me well enough and there has been little need or desire to pursue either any further.
However, when my co-worker, Estrella, invited me to a Peruvian food festival I decided that this was a golden opportunity to learn about a foreign cuisine I knew little about. Looking through the flyer she gave me it listed all sorts of tasty sounding goodies which my limited Spanish was unable to translate. I saw the words arroz verde (green rice) and masa morro (red corn) but that didn't tell me much.
I knew through my thesis research was that Peruvian food's primary food source is potatoes. I'm not saying Russets or Yukons, but any number of varieties and all sizes and colors such as bright green Emerald potatoes, oblong pink and purple potatoes, and tiny, red potatoes the color of a matchhead. Other key ingredients are apples, red corn, rice, and just as famous as the potatoes, Guinea pigs. It's a strange mountain ritual using the familiar and unfamiliar in creative ways to make dishes that are both strange and comforting.
Take, for example, the sweet potato doughnuts. Each culture has a delicious fried dough recipe that they hold dear. Here a sweet potato dough was slowly poured out into boiling dough like a churro or funnel cake. They were served with a bit of maple syrup, a modern, new world ingredient for Peruvian communities in America; one they've happily adopted.
Right across from the sweet smell of doughnuts the hot sizzle of vinegar and oil in cast metal pans echoed outside. Here bits of skirt steak were tossed with onions and tomatoes in a blazing hot pan. A few quick turns in a pepper vinaigrette and the mix was laid atop of fries and rice with a small dollop of neon green chili sauce. The flavor was epic, sour and savory it burst with flavor while the chili provided a subtle heat that enhanced with pungency of the flash-cooked vinaigrette.
Inside, away from the smoke and oil, other dishes bubbled away. Lamb layered with cilantro and culantro. Next to that piles of empanadas sat steaming; you could hear their crispy skins crunching underneath the weight of each other. The next table over had piles of roast Guinea Pig slathered in chili sauce. Potato dumplings in a molten aioli so spicy you were compelled to drink the morro fresca, a drink of boiled red corn and apples that's sweetened and strained, in order to cool your fiery tongue.
Potato dishes of every kind were readily available from smashed to mashed, boiled to fried, in desserts to drink and each was new and different.
Desserts were there in plenty, another red corn and apple pudding mixed with cinnamon was the most popular treat, but alfajores, bread and rice puddings, and even small Napoleon like desserts were available.
It was as educational as it was tasty. I, sadly, can't recall the names of most of these dishes. I wasn't writing it down and the Peruvian names to these dishes were for the most part so foreign to me that I won't even try to recreate them for you out of fear that I may simply butcher them so badly that I'll accidentally utter some strange and forgotten Lovecraftian curse. Furthermore it was one of those situation where I was so focused on the flavors and the eating that the details are all lost to me in the ether of deliciousness.
Regardless, I came away from the festival with this: Peruvian food is too unknown and under-appreciated. If you find the opportunity to go to a Peruvian restaurant, do so. You'll find a riveting new cuisine that's just bound to surprise you.
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