Hey everyone! I think a blog is long over due. I kept planning on writing on the topic of Peruvian food but kept forgetting to take photos of what I was eating... because, let's face it, whats a food blog without photos?
First off I would like to send a shout out to the wonderful friends and family who have sent me letters or packages over the last couple of months. My mom sent me a really great package with some peanut butter (which you can't find here) and post cards of Colorado. The latter went over a little better than the former but my host mom said she liked the peanut butter. The love of my life, Katie, has also been sending me some really great letters and small items from Japan (where she is currently studying). And also, thank you to Danny Lambert for the awesome letter in spanish as well as the articles. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, he knows we don't often get too much good intellectually challenging reading material out in the field.
For those of you who have asked what you can send me in a package, here is a list of things I would like for my work as well as a few comfort items for good measure ;) Oddly enough I can't find these items here (except the books of course)...
- Duct Tape
- Zip Lock Bags (sandwich size)
- Any books in Spanish (Katie and I are starting a public library)
- Sharpies (fine tip – any colors but black is always king)
- US Candy Bars (cus I miss them)
- Peanut Butter
- Dodge balls
In case you need my address again, it is:
Pasaje YoYo Flores 180
That should do it. I am putting together a youth development activities kit that will allow me to do pretty much any team-builder or leadership game upon request. I hope to incorporate non-formal education in the youth center as well.
Now onto the main point of this post – the food.
Before getting into my newfound love for Peruvian food I need to point out that I do not eat as the majority of Peruvian families (and by extension, my colleagues in the field) do. The typical lunch of a Peruvian living here in the sierra consists of boiled or fried potatoes, rice, and a small portion of meat (usually chicken and sometimes beef or pork). This is due to the extreme poverty (potatoes and rice being very cheap and filling), but I am still unsure as to why the cheap vegetables are not popular (maybe just a cultural aversion). This leads to a very carbohydrate heavy and nutrient poor diet for the majority of the sierran population. I am currently working with the ministry of health in a campaign to educate people about the importance and benefit of a nutritionally diverse diet.
Because of this reality, many Peace Corps volunteers must take multi-vitamins and travel to nearby cities to buy vegetables to supplement their diets. I have the great fortune to live with a very progressive family that understands the value of eating vegetables. More than that, I am lucky to live with the best chef in the city (this is indisputable) who enjoys experimenting with any new foods she can get her hands on. I have been compiling photos of my meals (hence the long time since a post) to show you all what some famous – and delicious – Peruvian dishes are. It took me a little longer than I expected because I kept forgetting to take the pictures when the food was set down in front of me. I became so excited at meal time that often the camera would sit on the table forgotten while I dug into the food with the fervor of a rabid wolverine.
First, allow me to educate you on one of the Peruvian staples you might be familiar with: the potato. Experts can actually trace the origins of all potatoes to the Andes mountains – having only been introduced outside this region a mere four centuries ago. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science “over 99% of all cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of a subspecies indigenous to south-central Chile.” This important food was first domesticated in Peru between 3000 BC and 2000 BC and has always been the principle carbohydrate source in the area (from the Incans to the Spanish to the modern Peruvian). One can expect that the folks living in the birth place of the potato have perfected its culinary preparation and, indeed, the things that my host mother can do with a potato are magical – for lack of a better word.
Perhaps on of the most typical and famous potato dishes here is Peru is one called papa a la huancaína. This is an appetizer of lettuce, boiled potatoes, and a thick cheesy ají chili sauce – garnished with olives and hard boiled egg slices. This was one of the first dishes I tried upon arriving in Peru and was my first step in a long discovery of great food. While this is a really good dish, for me nothing beats a Peruvian sweet potato (called camote), boiled and served plain... sooo good.
Camote is often served with yucca as a side to the delicious food known as ceviche. Ask anyone here who invented the popular seafood dish and they will proudly insist that it is Peruvian. While there is some argument as to whether this is true, archaeological records show that raw fish cooked only with citrus juice (the basis for ceviche) was eaten by the Moche civilization of Northern Peru as far back as 2000 years ago. This is an amazing, probably my new favorite, plate consisting of onion, ají chilies, lime juice, and white fish... anything else is overkill – or so I am told by the ceviche cooks. Since arriving here, ceviche has become my seafood of choice – winning out over even the best sushi I have tasted.
In general, lunch is the biggest meal of the day (which is healthier than a huge meal before bed). I had to acclimate myself to the huge afternoon meal that usually consists of a large soup, plate of food, and dessert. Usually I have to lay down after trying, and often failing, to fit all that wonderful food into my stomach. I absolutely have a better understanding of the siestas of Mexico and often jealously wish we could sleep in the afternoons here as well. The soups are... well, super (yeah, I said it). They always consist of a real slow cooked chicken or beef stock packed with veggies, meats, and pastas and rices. It is often that I am almost full just after the great soup!
The real magic here is in the local fresh food supply, lacking long travel times, tons of pesticide, or any genetic modification. I think I can count the number of times I have eaten a packaged food item in my house on one hand. I could never have said that in the US. I have a much greater appreciation for the health and flavor benefits of this kind of food chain. Sure, the variety is lacking in comparison to the United States, but the whole lifestyle is more sustainable, healthy, and fresh – something we North Americans lost a long time ago.
Also, food hold strong sway within the Peruvian culture. The poor may not have much but what they do have is access to cheap food staples such as rice and potatoes. What they can do with just a few simple ingredients is often nothing short of miraculous and a gift of food is always the first thing to greet a guest – be they family or stranger. It is considered a grave insult to not eat everything offered and this is not made easy by the fact that the food is plentiful and often followed up with seconds (I challenge anyone to come out here and try and finish a campo meal and walk upright immediately afterwards... I posit that it cannot be done).
And of course as good as the food is, that does not mean I do not miss my own comfort foods from home. I would give almost anything for something with cheddar cheese on it. I cannot say I am really all that thrilled with the cheese selections here – no matter how fresh and local they may be. I can't help but dream about a Anthony's pepperoni pizza with extra cheese every once in a while. Luckily my cravings almost always pass when I arrive home from work to the smells of my madre's fantastic cooking.