Waiting for us in Peru was not only exceptional sights to see but also culinary wonders that had our small group passing plates around to share in these new discoveries. I was a long way from home where meat and potatoes were the norms.
Growing up, I ate typical American dishes found in the Midwest. My mother, who worked outside of the home, stuck to the basics. We had hamburger-helper, Mac N Cheese, roast beef and mash potatoes(on special occasions), pork chops, and a couple of chicken dishes. She rarely ventured out and tried new recipes. I viewed food as something necessary. I never saw it as something to explore. But I had an adventurous streak.
In 1964 a new drink and fast food hit the market in full force. We were living in Montana at the time. It was a year later that I saw the drink on the menu at a small hamburger joint. Intrigued by the name, I insisted on ordering it. It was a soda called Mountain Dew. My folks were hesitant. The last thing they wanted to do was spend money on something they knew nothing about. When we tried that first sip, we were surprised how smooth, refreshing, and satisfying the sugary drink was.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had been founded in Kentucky thirty years earlier, was making its way across the nation as a franchise in the ’60s. Utah and Montana were granted independent franchiser rights before the Colonel sold the company. We drove in our pickup truck to the first franchise in Libby, Montana. That bucket of chicken was the best chicken I had ever tasted. Again, a new food-inspired joy. These things weren’t considered fine dining, but they were sure satisfying. I must have learned along the way that trying different foods could create incredible experiences.
What happened next changed my view on food. Food was more than discovering new and unusual flavors and textures; it was also connecting family and friends. Conversations developed over the subject of food. Opinions were shared, and the realization that we had the same impressions brought us closer together.
As I got older, I found myself slipping into the frame of mind that nothing could surprise me any longer. Food, however, was the exception. Food can bring wonderment back into your life when you thought you had tried it all.
When I read food blogs on Peru, I was excited to find out that it had risen to the status of a world-class food destination. Famous chefs were flying down to Peru like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern to explore this new culinary star, while Peruvian chefs were becoming known worldwide (Astrid and Gaston to name one). Armed with suggestions by bloggers from Peru and visitors abroad, I prepared a list of foods to try.
Our arrival in Peru was scheduled for 10:30 pm on a Friday. It was an ideal time to get a nightcap before going to bed. We intended to go to the hotel bar and have Peru’s famous Pisco Sour. Unfortunately, our plane had to circumvent a hurricane category storm, which pushed our arrival back two hours. When we finally got to our hotel, it was 1:00 a.m., and all we wanted to do was go to bed.
With no schedules to meet the following day, we had a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, the Sonesta Hotel El Olivar de Lima. They offered an international style buffet with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and sausage, waffles, cereals, breads, and cold cuts. The breakfast was delicious, but not the Peruvian eating experience I was anticipating.
By the early afternoon, we were ready to explore the city. We headed to Larcomar, an outdoor shopping mall built into the cliffs of the Costa Verde(Green Coast) in the district of Miraflores. Ready for lunch, we stepped into Popular de Aqui y de Alla’, a restaurant that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Known for its exceptional cocktails, we were ready to dive into the cultural experience waiting for us in the form of a Pisco Sour.
When we requested the alcoholic drink, the waiter shook his head no. “No es possible,” he announced. We were confused. Wasn’t the bar open for lunch? We soon learned the country was under a mandatory “dry” period. To our chagrin, national elections were taking place through the weekend!
(As a side note: Most Latin American countries require establishments serving alcohol to shut down the bars during elections. No alcohol can be sold. The business faces a stiff penalty. A risk of the government taking away their license to operate is a real consequence).
Our expectations were shattered. Of all the weeks that we could have visited Peru, we chose the week of elections. The good news was that we arrived near the end of the process. The bars would open on Monday. We took a moment to reset our expectations and focused on the next culinary star in Peru, Ceviche.
Peru has one of the best fishing grounds in the world, and ceviche is the pride of Peru. We ordered a combo of raw grouper, scallops, and octopus topped with fresh onion. Lime juice, used to “cook” the raw fish, sat generously in a pool at the bottom of our plates. Chunks of sweet potato and roasted, crunchy corn kernels accompanied the meal. It was a refreshing explosion of citrus, starch, and spice. We enjoyed ceviche twice during our stay in Lima.
Lomo Saltado was the next culinary treat. Served in many restaurants in Peru, it is a typical national dish. Close to our hotel was a restaurant named Tanto. It was getting a lot of praise on Yelp and TripAdvisor. After a busy day of walking and biking around Miraflores, we were ready for a hearty meal. We asked the waiter for his recommendation. His immediate response was the Saltado.
Lomo Saltado is stir-fried beef with onions and tomatoes served with yellow potato fries and rice with corn. When I think of stir fry, I imagine thin, slightly chewy meat. At Tanto, this wasn’t the case. The thick slices of beef were fabulously tender. Interestingly, I did order this again at another restaurant and found out that not all Lomo Saltado’s are equal.
Curious about the produce we don’t get in the U.S., I booked a small group tour titled “Lima Colors and Flavors Walking Tour” through an online company, Viator. I believe this was the best decision I could have made. Prompt in picking us up at our hotel, our guide, Natalie, was cordial, informative, and flexible. When we wanted to deviate from the itinerary, it wasn’t a problem. The morning became a little too cold and damp for us, so we suggested stopping at a coffee shop in Barranco, a district in Lima. Drinking our lattes in the comfort of the shop, we were able to break formality and get to know one another.
Natalie took us to an outdoor food market. It lined a narrow street where pedestrians and cars vied for passage. Produce spilled out of small stores and sat in crates on the sidewalks.
We sampled fruit I had never heard of like granadilla, luwma, pithahaya, and chirimoya. Natalie showed us how to open passion fruit. Taking her knuckle, she tapped the hard outer shell and cracked it open. Inside were globes of transparent clear jellies, each with a dark seed in the middle. They looked like fish eggs. Visually, it wasn’t appealing, but when we put the seeds in our mouth, the juice exploded into a sweet and sour symphony of flavors.
In Cusco, we inadvertently stumbled onto a gem of a restaurant. Our original choice was not open for another two hours, and we were hungry. Fortunately, I had a backup. It was MAP Cafe. We found the restaurant inside the courtyard of a Pre-Columbian Art museum. The restaurant typically requires reservations. It had only one sitting for its guests that night. The host was exceptionally helpful and secured a table for us. The only one, in fact, that was available as we soon learned as we watched the dining room fill up for the night.
MAP Café soothed us. We had had an active day walking among Inca ruins. With a comfortable elegance and friendly staff, we felt at ease. Starting with their signature drinks, followed by sophisticated and tasty courses, we couldn’t help but fall into a state of bliss. We choose French Onion soup topped with a flaky, puff pastry. Jim had the Lomo de alpaca, which we all tried. I took the safe route and order the beef medallions and potatoes. The menu was inspired by local ingredients with a chef that took great pride in his craft. With the exchange rate, this “high-end” restaurant was surprisingly affordable.
Finally, the hot ticket in the town of Aquas Calientes(now Machu Picchu Town) was Indio Feliz. Our hotel receptionist recommended it, and we thoroughly enjoyed the food. It seemed to be a kind of mecca for world travelers. Pinned to the walls were foreign currencies, business cards, and letters of praise. Inside was a collection of antiques and strange odds and ends.
Be prepared to sit back and relax. It took 45 minutes for our dinner to be served. I had the mango chicken. Moist and tender, I would order this dish again. Jim, who is not a dessert person, ordered the orange pie after our meal. All of us took a bite and were in agreement that the custard and citrus combo was delicious.
We did enjoy the Pisco Sour several times during our visit to Peru. I love the frothy whipped egg whites that sit on top of the drink. A refreshing, limey drink that uses Pisco(a type of brandy), fresh lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters.
Our culinary experience in Peru was as delightful as seeing its sights.
Gran Hotel Bolivar