This is part three of a five-part series of ways to experience a little of Peru when you cannot be here.
What does Peru taste like?
Step aboard any flight from Cusco to Lima and you will see locals stuffing large yellow plastic bags into the overhead locker. Hidden behind the coaches in Cusco’s airport car park lie a set of market stands. These stands sell two things: pale white rounds of cheese and large yellow plastic bags.
Inside these bags lie wheels of soft, sweet, aniseed-flavored bread from the village of Oropesa, twenty kilometers south of Cusco. Eaten with the young, salty cheese it makes a delicious breakfast or supper. Anyone traveling from Cusco to Lima is expected to bring these two items as a gift for family who left behind the hills of Cusco for a new life in the capital. It is a reminder of home, a gift from their past to their present.
Here in Peru, there is no one Peruvian cuisine, rather a selection of regional cuisines to which people are incredibly loyal; no-one cooks ceviche in Cusco. You love the food you grew up with, the food your grandmother made; this food becomes part of your DNA, however far from home you travel.
So if you ask what Peru tastes like, the answer is, “it depends.”
This is what Peru tastes like to me:
I did not grow up in Peru, so my memories were made later, but there is one dish that contains more memories of Peru for me than any other. One dish that has been a constant throughout my 16 years here: arroz con huevo, rice with egg. Arroz con huevo does not belong to any particular region of Peru, you can find it throughout much of Latin America. But here in Peru, you can always find it.
I first tried arroz con huevo back in 2004, in the market at Aguas Calientes. When you finished an Inca Trail, you had time to kill before your train left. Some spent the time shopping; some went to the lukewarm springs; others ordered overpriced food and beers at one of the many small restaurants.
But the place everyone in the know went, was the local market. Here, for 6 soles you could buy a large plate of arroz con huevo: A heap of boiled rice topped with two fried eggs. Beside it on the plate; a lettuce leaf and a salad composed of onions and tomatoes, sliced into batons and dressed with vinegar, cheap oil and salt.
For 1 sol extra you could get fresh cut chips, hot and crisp if you were lucky, warm and limp if you were not.
For 2 soles more you could get a lump of steak on top, the juices of the meat filtering through the rice to mix with the yolk of the egg broken by your fork. There was no knife, there never is. Just a fork, wrapped in a square single-ply napkin, taken from a communal plastic cutlery holder.
From the hills to the jungle and back again
When the trekking season ended, I spent some months in the jungle beyond Machu Picchu, at the farm of my now ex-in-laws. Each day, without fail, arroz con huevo would be served for at least one, perhaps two of the daily meals. Eggs gathered from the hens were dropped into a battered old frying pan, deep with oil, perched over the smoky fire that burned all day long in the mud-baked stove. Accompanying them: hot, sweet, sticky bananas or slices of plantain— their drier, savory cousin.
2006, my first trip to Choquequirao, just two of us, myself and Juan Carlos, our bike guide. Arriving at the campsite we asked the owner if she could cook us lunch. She said she could if we didn’t mind arroz con huevo. We sat on the ground and devoured it, hungry from the climb. That night she made us dinner, arroz con huevo, next day she made us breakfast, arroz con huevo. Each as delicious as the last, each served with a heap of freshly cooked chips on the side.
Thirteen years later I returned to Choquequirao with a friend from England. We arrived at the same campsite as 13 years earlier. “Are you hungry the owner asked?” “Definitely” we replied. “Good, I’ll cook you something.”
Half an hour later we sat on the low wooden bench, at the old wooden table sliced from a Eucalyptus tree. Before us lay two steaming plates: boiled rice, two fried eggs and hot fresh chips.
What does Peru taste like to you?0