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EL PASO, TEXAS – Three months after our landmark adventure trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, some deep impressions of that journey stick like glue to the thread of my daily consciousness: the food, and its herald…smell. Olfactory experience is strong and deep, some say our smell sense is the strongest and most ancient sense, a data base formed of the palette of scents in our lives…and their associated tastes. Here is an assembly of smell and taste sensations from a distant land, some images and descriptions discovered during the INHL expedition to Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru 2010.
A Pisco Sour is a cocktail containing pisco, lemon or lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and regional bitters (like Amargo bitters, though Angostura bitters work if regional bitters are unavailable). The roots of Pisco itself reach back to the 1500s and stem from Colonial rule. The Spaniards brought the grape to the Peruvian region from Europe, but the King of Spain banned wine in the 17th Century, forcing locals to concoct a different kind of alcohol from the grape. Pisco is a brandy, a refined derivative of grappa.
An account holds that the Pisco Sour cocktail is a variation of the Whiskey Sour, invented in the early 1920s by American expatriate Victor V. “Gringo” Morris at the Morris’ Bar in Lima. The cocktail quickly became a favorite of locals. Soon many of the grand Lima hotels at that time such as the Maury and the Hotel Bolivar began serving Pisco Sours to their international guests, helping the drink become an international hit. An old advertisement of Pisco Sour was published in 1924 by the Morris’ Bar of Lima.
In Peru Pisco Sour Day is celebrated on the first Saturday of February. Years ending with zero (0) are of special significance. The theme for the celebration is red and white (Peruvian flag colours). When the Peruvian National Anthem is played all Pisco Sours must be finished as a mark of respect. The INHL Team barely missed the first Saturday of February celebration in this auspicious year of 2010, having exited the country on January 25th. Had we known…well that should be left to conjecture! However, that first Pisco Sour we savored, which was served to us in the lobby bar of the Mirador Park Hotel in Lima on the second afternoon of the journey (end of our first full day in Lima), left a rich, smooth, tart impression on the emulsion sheet of our memory.
We wander into a nice restaurant facing the Plaza de Armas Cusco, and before we find our table we appreciate a display of wonderous “fruits of the earth” from the region: Maize, Coca, Potato, Chile, Beans, Squash, and more! This is an ancient civilization. A display at the Museo Larco in Lima tells the story of six great “cradles of civilization” on Earth, which seeded and nurtured the foundation of all human culture: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus, Shang (or Yellow River valley), Mesoamerica and Andean South America. That museum exhibit identifies Peru as one of those six unique and independently-evolved civilizations. History echoes from the ages in this display of the “fruits of the earth” at our Cusco restaurant, illustrating the historical variety of some of Andean South America’s treats. A notable star in this visual presentation: the lowly Potato!
Peru and the ancient Andean cultures that derived from this particular “cradle of civilization” were the first people on the planet to discover and cultivate the potato. That’s quite a claim! Today as many as 3,000 varieties of potato are found in the Peru and Chilean regions of South America. Therefore, every meal in Peru seems to include some element of potato…whether fried, mashed, pureed, baked, stewed, strung, chopped, boiled or blended.
The more notable uses discovered on our trek included boiled potato as a base for several dishes, or with ají based sauces like in Papa a la Huancaina or Ocopa, or diced potato for its use in soups like in Cau Cau or in Carapulca with dried potato (papa seca). Smashed condimented potato is used in Causa Limeña and Papa Rellena, shown below.
French-fried potatoes are a typical ingredient in Peruvian stir-fries, including the classic dish Lomo Saltado. Chuño is a freeze-dried potato product traditionally made by Quechua and Aymara communities of Peru and Bolivia, and is known in various countries of South America, including Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. In Chile’s Chiloé Archipelago, potatoes are the main ingredient of many dishes including milcaos, chapaleles, curanto and chochoca. In Ecuador, the potato is a staple with most dishes and is featured in the hearty Locro de Papas, a thick soup of potato, squash and cheese.
The potato has been an essential crop in the Andes since the pre-Columbian Era. The Moche culture from Northern Peru made ceramics from earth, water, and fire. They believed pottery was a sacred substance and thus, formed it into significant shapes representing important themes. Potatoes are represented anthropomorphically as well as naturally in various art forms we discovered.
Potatoes were first domesticated in Peru between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. In the Altiplano, the large high plain in the middle of the Andes, potatoes provided the principal energy source for the Inca Empire, its predecessors and its Spanish successor. In Peru above 10,000 feet altitude, tubers exposed to the cold night air turned into chuño; when kept in permanently-frozen underground storehouses, chuño can be stored for years with no loss of nutritional value. The Spanish fed chuño to the silver miners who produced vast wealth in the 16th century for the Spanish government. One might say that the potato helped fill the Spanish treasury with their silver hoard from the New World. Every “Piece of Eight” and every “Dubloon” circulating in the West Indies and the Spanish Main carried both the blood of the Inca and the tarnish of the lowly potato.
Then, there’s a surprising food specialty dating as far back as recorded history in the region: Cuy, or Guinea Pig! Not much meat on those bones, but they are easy to raise, don’t take up a lot of room, are clean and pleasant around the house, and reproduce like…well, like hamsters! Big hamsters!
Even the religious artwork of the 1600’s from Peru showed a cultural sensitivity to the “national house specialty” of Guinea Pig! Could there be a more obvious presentation as this Last Supper dinner setting to depict the importance of the delicacy to the regional population? Luckily, our exploration didn’t require the accompaniment of the apostles, but it wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the night our team actually did explore this culinary tidbit. Multhauf enjoyed Cuy in our company, a near-perfect setting at the Divina Comedia Restaurant on Calle Pumacurco in Cusco, one block up the street from our base at the the Hotel Monasterio. There we were entertained by aria-singing waiters and classical music of the highest caliber. His companions pushed their envelopes with Alpaca Brochettes.
Even on the morning we left on the trek over the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, during a quick stop for breakfast in the Urubamba River town of Ollantaytambo, we found guinea pig (cuy) on the menu! The Watakay Restaurant has a sign in front prominently featuring the delicacy and, inside the attractive grounds, a nice adobe breeding pen/hutch for the little morsels, almost as if the creatures were on display. I half expected one of the waiters to walk over and ask “Which one may i prepare for you, Sir?”
We had bacon & eggs and pancakes, but it was an interesting idea!
Guinea pigs (called cuy, cuye, curí) were originally domesticated for their meat in the Andes. Traditionally, the animal was usually reserved for ceremonial meals by indigenous people in the Andean highlands, but since the 1960s it has become more socially acceptable for consumption by all people. It continues to be a major part of the diet in Peru and Bolivia, particularly in the Andes Mountains highlands; it is also eaten in some areas of Ecuador (mainly in the Sierra) and Colombia. Because guinea pigs require much less room than traditional livestock and reproduce extremely quickly, they are a more profitable source of food and income than many traditional stock animals, such as pigs and cows; moreover, they can be raised in an urban environment. Both rural and urban families raise guinea pigs for supplementary income, and the animals are commonly bought and sold at local markets and large-scale municipal fairs.
Guinea pig meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, and is described as being similar to rabbit and the dark meat of chicken. The animal may be served fried (chactado or frito), broiled (asado), or roasted (al horno), and in urban restaurants may also be served in a casserole or a fricassee.
Maize, or corn as we know it in the United States, plays a very significant role in the world’s food supply and is part of nearly every meal served in Peru: from beverages made from it to flatbreads called “tortillas”. We found evidence of the prominence of this agricultural food product to the Incan and pre-Incan cultures of the South American region in depictions in ceramic artwork and in the beautiful golden artifacts on display at the Larco Museum.
Maize is a grass domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in numerous varieties throughout central and southern Mexico, to cook or grind in a process called nixtamalization. Later the crop spread through much of the Americas. Between 1250 A.D. and 1700 A.D. nearly the whole continent had gained access to the crop. Any significant or dense populations in the region developed a great trade network based on surplus and varieties of maize crops. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize back to Europe and introduced it to other countries through trade. Its ability to grow in distinct climates, and its use were highly valued, thus spreading to the rest of the world.
The variety of maize in the markets, restaurants and roadside vendor stands speaks to its universal influence on the indigenous culture. Variegated colorful cobs to creamy white, huge-kerneled maize run the gamut of the genetic strains of this species known as Zea Mays. Fields of cultivated maize are prominent in the countryside outside of Cusco on the road to the Sacred Valley, which we passed on our way to the start of the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu.
Before we leave for the trek on the Inca Trail, on a hike to the ruins of the Inca fortress of Saqsaywaman high above Cusco, we stop for a local treat from a street-vendor: Choclo Con Queso (Andean Corn and Cheese). There, Multhauf and I enjoy a couple of boiled ears of the sweet, fat-kerneled, white corn served up with a chunk of fresh cheese. Yum!
Of course, one must also appreciate the variety of local beverages needed to wash down these exotic flavors ….fine beer available in two national varieties: Cusquena and Cristal. Our taste of these mass-produced and internationally marketed Peruvian “cervezas” took place at a delightful oasis in the midst of the teeming capitol: the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera or Larco Museum, and its idyllic garden bar, in Lima.
Beer is an ancient concoction. Most cultures have a “primitive” version of this beverage in their history, but few still have the benefit of offering the ancestral version to their modern populations, much less their visitors. Peru claims top honors in this regard, as we discovered during the early days on the Inca Trail trek….where advertisements for Chicha were hard to miss!
Chicha is traditionally prepared from a specific kind of yellow maize (jora) and is usually referred to as chicha de jora. It has a pale straw color, a slightly milky appearance, and a slightly sour aftertaste, reminiscent of hard apple cider, and is drunk either young and sweet or mature and strong. It contains a slight amount of alcohol, 1-3%. Chicha de jora is prepared by germinating maize, extracting the malt sugars, boiling the wort, and fermenting it in large vessels, traditionally huge earthenware vats, for several days. The process is essentially the same as the process for the production of beer.
In some cultures, instead of germinating the maize to release the starches therein, the maize is ground, moistened in the chicha maker’s mouth, and formed into small balls which are then flattened and laid out to dry. Naturally occurring ptyalin enzymes in the maker’s saliva catalyses the breakdown of starch in the maize into maltose. This process of chewing grains or other starches was used in the production of alcoholic beverages in pre-modern cultures around the world.
Chicha de jora has been prepared and consumed in communities throughout in the Andes for millennia. The Inca used chicha for ritual purposes and consumed it in vast quantities during religious festivals. Mills in which it was probably made were found at Machu Picchu. During the Inca Empire women were taught the techniques of brewing chicha in Acllahuasis (feminine schools).
There is a long scene in the famous novel Moby Dick, set in a Lima drinking establishment, involving a group of people sitting at a table telling stories and drinking chicha. I can’t see for sure through the dimly lit, smoky interior of Melville’s timeless bar scene, but I’d bet good money that the members of our INHL expedition weren’t sitting at that particular table! We’ll have to save some of these experiences for the next time! There will be a next time.