Introduction: food and drink

Introduction: food and drink

Perú learned to cook many of the foods which we take for granted several millennia before the rest of the world learned of their existence. The tomato and the potato, the pimento, coffee and cocoa, a wide range of nuts - from the peanut to the pecan - all derive from Perú. Local people have been using these and other flavours for as long as the country has been settled. We have provided three illustrated sets of recipes. In addition, this section focuses on the things which you are most likely to find on a general menu, anywhere in the country.

Cooks were traditionally of low status through most of Perú's history. Housewives were, on the whole, reluctant to cook themselves if they could have an employee do the work, and men were supposed to keep out of the kitchen. Indeed, society looked askance at "voluntary" male chefs unless they were cooking something expensive and special for an event such as an anniversary, rather as US men of the 1960s were "allowed" to manage the barbeque but seen as borderline-gay if they undertook regular kitchen duties.

The implications of this were that the upper classes fed on stereotyped food, often derived from French recipes. The middle classes tended to eat chunks of meat or stodge, often thicken with condensed milk. Fortunately, all of this has changed. In fact, it seems likely that Latin recipes in geeral - and Peruvian ones in particular - may well begin to contribute to and perhaps edge out the dominance of Mediterranean-derived radichio-and-feta combinations in the world repertoire. There are now a range of schools that train chefs in Perú, from the Instituto de los Andes to Cordón Bleu schools, courses at colleges and training programs organised by the government. The graduates enjoy relatively high status, and some are beginning to find work overseas.

Cooking in Perú has undergone something of a revolution in the past 20 years, with regional and peasant dishes being brought into the coastal mainstream. Regional specialities - for example, the Cau Cau and the Tacu Tacu - have been standardised and made a sophisticate's dish. Equally, there has been a movement of cooks from the extreme North of the country - where maritime ingredients are at their very best - to Lima, bringing about a further revolution in quality and subtlety. The chifa tradition that originated from Chinese and Japanese migrants has added a further stream of novelty into mainstream cooking.

When to eat

First, we look at when to eat and then at what to eat. To understand the timing of Perú's eating habits, it is important to get a sense of how they have evolved. Country people still rise before dawn, work to about 11.00 and then retire until the worst of the day's heat is gone. Late in the afternoon, work begins again, continuing until well after dark. This means that they eat - or once ate - in the middle of the day, in the late afternoon and then finally relatively late at night. Modern Perú is moving from this pattern to a Western model, but evening events, in particular, may start late and go on far longer than visitors may expect.

The very early start to the traditional farmer's day was marked only by coffee or its equivalent, such as maté de coca, a tea made from the leaf of the coca plant from which cocaine is derived. Bread had not yet been baked. The later mid-morning meal is, therefore, rightly called desayuno ('end hunger'.) It is not at all equivalent to breakfast. It marks the beginning of the 11.00 break, and may involve fish, potatoes, eggs, sausages, bread and coffee. Almuezo, lunch, is a more substantial meal that was taken later than Western practice - typically from 13.30 to 15.00. Dinner, cena, was eaten late in the evening, often running from 21.00 to midnight. In country towns, cena tended to come after a protracted period of walking about in the evening cool, meeting friends, doing business and - for the young - flirting. Very young children are still often seen running about at midnight.

Outsiders can find this a distracting schedule. Hotels that are oriented to tourists will offer meals that you can find anywhere from Heathrow to JFK. Peruvian professionals have tended to shift themselves to a more US-EU pattern or work and eating. Competitive pressures, air-conditioning, and the prospect of four commutes a day, have made businesses less inclined to shut up shop for several hours at midday. This does not mean that evening meals occur to Western schedules, however, and if you are invited to a party by professionals, do not think of appearing before 21.00. Most will appear later, and you will be fed around 23.00.

Time tends to be more managed by the hours of daylight in highland villages, but evening fiestas are invariably late night to all-night events. Modernity has arrived in the shape of systems of amplification that would shame most pop groups, and it is inadvisable to think of sleeping on the night of a major festival. If the seismic bass does not get you, the exploding rockets will.

What to eat

Perú has a distinctive cuisine. The most sophisticated food is to be found on the coast, where sea food is exceptional. Food in Perú is moderately bland, in the sense that it has tended to avoid the Latin focus on the chili and the tomato. Rice is widely eaten on the coast. The country is, however, the home of the potato and the highlands offer - quite literally - thousands of varieties.

The Pacific off Perú is one of the richest fishing grounds on Earth. As a consequence, the sea food is exceptional. One specialty is ceviche, in which the fish is pickled in lime juice and eaten with coriander, shallots, boiled patties of yuca - the root of the yucca agave plant, peeled and boiled - disks of boiled choclo maize and chilli. Ceviche is a generic term for a method of preparation, and there are as many ceviches as their are fish. However, ceviche corvina is near to being Perú's national dish. Insofar as the fish is not cooked, hygiene is a crucial issue and it is inadvisable to eat it - or most other foods prepared on site - from the little stalls with which most roads and beaches teem. Paracas nature reserve as a small village of fishermen whose product arrives on your table within hours of its being caught; and pelicans come and beg scraps.

The use of the word ceviche is an example of a common source of confusion amongst visitors to Perú. This is because most foodstuffs are described by both their nature or their means of production (a sausage, boiled) followed by their content. Thus one can find ceviche de X on almost any menu. Ceviche is the means of preparation of the food, whilst X is the thing prepared: anything from shellfish to squid, by way of conventional fish such as corvina, or sole. Here are some other examples of these generics:

Steak (lomo) is excellent, as is beef used in mixed recipes, where it is called carne de res; but see also "saltado", above, which is a specific example of how chopped beef is used. Sheep meat is not much eaten, nor goat. Pork (chancho) is seldom eaten on its own, but rather chopped up and mixed into things such a tallarin (noodles.) It is a major component of chifa, about which more in a moment. On the negative side, red meat in the Southern highland is best avoided as the chief livestock, the llama family, produce stringy cuts of thin meat closer to elderly goat than steak. One should be very careful of pork dished in seedy coastal restaurants, as the poor quality pigs are often allowed to eat garbage and the meat may carry tapeworm cysts.

Guinea pig (cuy) is a highland staple, and it tastes something like chicken or rabbit. You may see loads of lucerne (alfalfa) being carried to feed these prolific animals. (They produce five litters of 4-6 a year, mature in 90 days and provide protein for much of the highland population.) Perú eats around 25 million cuy every year. Chicken (pollo, not gallina which in Perú has the sense of an elderly, stringy fowl) is widely available and cooked in dozens of ways.

Eggs are also eaten in all imaginable forms. Lomo del pobre, for example, is steak with fried egg on it. And fried potatoes. And fried bread. However, coastal chicken is fed on maize and fish scraps, which can lead to colourless yolks. You will see field after field of marigolds, whose petals are mixed in the chickens' food.

Green vegetables are not much eaten as separate items to the main meal. The salad has begun to penetrate Perúvian cooking, but is of course off limits for newly-arrived foreigner. (See below.) Those with a longing for anything green in their diet should resort to a chifa, where stir fry incorporate snap peas, carrots and other essentials.

Perú also does not much eat sweet dishes, although there are many small cakes available from specialised shops, called pastelerias. Pastry is not eaten. Bread is usually rather dull and soft, and benefits from salt, as does the butter. Cheese of all types has now become available, particularly in dairy centres such as Cajamarca. Some of the soften cheeses, particularly those derived from sheep's milk, as excellent for breakfast.

Perú makes some very adequate wine and many lager-type beers, chiefly under license to international conglomerates. Its most famous alcoholic drink is the Pisco sour, made from lime juice, brandy from Ica, but once shipped from the coastal town of Pisco, and whipped egg white. Some people add nutmeg to the recipe; and so forth. The result is delicious, and also treacherous. Pisco is also sold as a spirit, similar to but not identical with brandy, and a connoisseurship has grown up around the various styles and flavours that have been developed. There are some good white and dark rums available.

The food of the Andes can be exotic. The writer's first sierra meal - whilst fighting soroche (altitude sickness) and jet lag - involved a sheep's head, sheared vertically and placed in in a broth in a blue plastic tub, preceded by an very large boiled frog on a shiny green plate. Snow was blowing through the open windows over a paraffin-saturated sawdust floor. Yum.

As has already been mentioned, the guinea pig is a staple of the Andes. Chicken and pig are also enjoyed, as are eggs and cheese. However, the staples of domestic cooking are starchy, dominated by maize (choclo), potatoes (papas), pulses and a variety of native grains such as quinoa. These are sometimes dressed of meat sauces. Chili pepper (aji) makes a much stronger appearance in the Andes than on the coast, as does garlic (ajo). Chili is particularly eaten by field work gangs, who fire-cook potatoes, split them and insert a sharp little warhead of a chili, and then smile innocently as they offer it to you.

Food in the selva is usually basic, involving river fish, poultry and local fruit. There is an abundance of papaya, limes, bananas and pineapples, with mangoes and other fruit in season. Plantains (a variety of banana) are often served fried in place of potatoes. Chirimoya is a fine fruit, called "soursop" in the Caribbean, which looks like an erratic green hand grenade, but which tastes of what? - strawberries and almonds, almonds and peach. It is worth trying the local coffee, which can be a revelation to those used to supermarket pap.

Perú is also graced by "chifa", a sort of latinised Chinese cooking with Italian grace notes. This mixture is hard to characterise but almost always excellent. Chifa restaurants are virtually ubiquitous in the provincial towns and are always a good choice. Try wan tan frita, a sort of deep fried ravioli with a sweet sauce. Or the various meats prepared with tamarind and peach (durazno.) The rendering of shrimps in an extended version of soy sauce (tausi) in noodles (tallarin) is breathtaking.

what not to eat

Things for the unhardened tourist to avoid include virtually all of the produce of roadside stalls and rudimentary cafes. If you must use them, shun anything that you have not - personally, for certain - seen boiled, peeled or fried. Drink your fizzy drink (gaseosea) from the bottle. Poorly-equipped restaurants will offer you wet glasses which have been washed in a tub in which the day's activity has been sluiced. Ice is a source of gut infections if the water from which it was made was not sterile, and bottled drinks are served pre-chilled. Many small restaurants use a tub of water with a block of ice in it for this purpose, and the water that they use will have come from the nearest convenient source.

The positioning of outdoor lavatories over irrigation ditches makes strawberries, lettuce and other low-growing crops a hazard. Ceviche has already been discussed, but a recent scandal about the use of recycled battery acid in its preparation was not a one-off matter.

One should not become paranoid about food hygiene. If you have traveled overseas in the developing world many times, then you have nothing much to fear. However, those readers who have lived entirely in a world in which invisible inspectors police each last step of the food chain will be vulnerable. You will need to exercise thought as to what they are eating. Cheap food equates to food with poor ingredients, including road kill, and to poor hygiene. If you are eating in budget restaurants, you may also be staying in budget hotels. It is deeply unattractive to suffer gastroenteritis at best, but far worse when it is combined with facilities which lack water, soap, paper and and which offer a foul hole in the ground over which to squat.