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Peru Plate by Plate

Peru Plate by Plate

Lima for me, means one thing: Ceviche in El Muelle in Barranco. The excitement begins building as soon as the idea of a trip to Lima is even floated. Ceviche can be found in Cusco, but it’s nothing compared to the fresh, spicy, refreshing flavours of a ceviche in Lima, with an ocean breeze and the sharp smell of salt in the air.

And so sometimes without even stopping to drop off bags, we head straight to El Muelle, fight for a table, order a round of beers and watch as the table heaps with ceviche, causa, chicarrones. I always start with causa de pulpo al olivo: creamy mashed potato, seasoned with spicy ají and lime and moulded into a semi-solid rectangle, with a layer of octopus in olive sauce sandwiched in the middle. You can fill it with anything – from prawns to chicken to avocado – but it’s always topped with an olive and a slice of boiled egg.

After scooping the last of the rich, black olive sauce from my plate, I turn my attention to the ceviche: thinly sliced fish, flash marinated in lime juice, seasoned with a variable combination of ají, ginger, coriander, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, milk. It’s topped with a pile of red onions and accompanied by avocado, sweet potato, and the oversized kernels of Peruvian corn.

The sharp acidity of the lime cuts through the oiliness of the fish, and the heat of the ají is soothed by a sip of cold, just-bitter-enough beer. This dish is an obsession for most limeños: the defining taste of summer, the ultimate hangover cure, the dish around which families and friends spend their Sundays.

Travelling back to Cusco, by bus, is a 22-hour odyssey of endless switchbacks and C-grade movies. Four hours out, I’m thinking of caldo de gallina in Plaza Tupac Amaru.

My friends Willy and Gabriel pick me up at the terminal, and before we even drop my bag off at the hostel we stop at the rather unoriginally named “Caldo de Gallina”, a tiny restaurant packed with benches and plastic tables, where locals eat elbow to elbow.

I love this place. It’s loud, crowded, and rushed, with rather aprubt service, but the criollan food is cheap, delicious, and generously proportioned. I always over-order. A caldo to begin with is essential; giant slabs of gallina, or hen, still on the bone, boiled egg, potato, noodles, steaming broth. I squeeze in lime, drop in slathers of ají and roll up my sleeves.

My seco al norteño is dropped down in front of me before I can even finish the caldo and I eat it under the impatient stares of people still waiting for a table. Beef so tender you can cut it with a spoon, drenched in a coriander sauce, served with rice. I barely make a dent in the plate, have them pack it up for me, and relinquish my seat to the next hungry diner, leaning against the wall as overworked waiters squeeze between tables and the boys finish their frijoles or bistec or ají de gallina.

At home in the hostel, the kitchen countertop is covered; I finally manage to squeeze my wine glass in between a plate heaped high with sliced tomatoes and a huge pile of fresh, green, sharply fragrant cilantro. There are mounds of sirloin strips, sliced onion, hand-cut potato chips, parsley, bright orange ají, soda biscuits, cheese.

On the stove more potatoes boil away, and some of the hand-cut chips are already frying.

Manu Chao’s Clandestino plays tinnily on someone’s phone, and it’s another dinner, spontaneous and unplanned. The boys drop by to visit, phone calls are made to missing friends, somebody is sent to the market. And here we all are.

Dinner is papas a la huancaina, a classic Andean dish, and lomo saltado. Angelo and Barbie are in charge of the salsa huancaina – they blend fresh Andean cheese, ají (chilli), soda biscuits, milk, and are done. A creamy, spicy orange sauce, poured over boiled potatoes.

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Meanwhile, the chips are ready, and Kathy begins to throw the rest of the ingredients for the lomo together. It’s essential to have everything prepped for this dish, I’ve been told a million and one times, because once the beef starts frying it all comes together rather quickly.

Garlic and onions fry, my favorite smell in the world; then beef, soy and vinegar thrown in at just the right time. The tomatoes have a quick whirl around the pan, then the herbs are thrown in, and the Peruvian-Chinese fusion stir fry is served over rice with potato chips on the side.

An hour after the preparations started, we are all sitting around the table, toasting the chefs, biting into just-cooked tomato, tender beef. The flavours are sharp and balanced and fresh. I think of the hours of preparation I would put into a dinner party at home, and raise another glass.

The women shout out at me, waving newspapers, indicating the stools in front of their juice stalls. “Jugito, jugito, amiga.” Walking into Mercado San Pedro, past the first two rows of alpaca sweaters and alpaca gloves and alpaca hats, there they are. Two rows of identical little stalls, shelves groaning under the weight of pineapples, mangos and papaya, the señora – always a señora – dressed in apron and hat, waving you in.

I’ve been going to the same woman for months now. I pull up a stool and flick through the paper, while Evelyn whisks pineapple and passionfruit, no sugar. She hands it to me, waits till I finish to top my glass up again from the blender. We chat about nothing, then I gather my empty shopping bags and delve deeper into the market, past live frogs swimming in water-filled buckets and piles of fresh fruit and vegetables. Each aisle has its own smell; that thick decadent waft of chocolate, fresh pungent coffee beans, the blood-and-flesh stench of the meat section, piles of fresh cut herbs reeking of fresh air and healthy living.

Bags filled, I walk home to another dinner with friends.

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