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Culinary Inca Trail

The lobby in Cuzco airport was the size of a McDonald’s.  Booths along the periphery served up packaged treks, SIM cards, cheap hotels and luckily, free oxygen.  I wandered over to the oxygen booth for a quick drag.  There’s something about landing at 10,000 feet that makes you appreciate oxygen.  While most of my fellow passengers boarded their tour buses, I wandered out to the taxi line, my travel-mates in tow, with the name of our hotel.  Cuzco was bright and dusty.

Most visitors do not step beyond the ruins, the packages and vistas of the classic Inca Trail.  But we set our sites on the Culinary Inca Trail, an improvised, largely uncharted journey of discovery.  Our goal: to see and more importantly taste the entire country in a short eight days.  From bottom to top. With a little help from our mobile devices, we’d immerse ourselves in the cultural broth of the country.

We climbed into our cab, llama trinkets dangling off the rearview mirror and headed into Cuzco proper.  The city rolled by as a kaleidoscope of packaged tours, alpaca sweaters and billboards.

Where was the unpackaged Peru we came to see?

Inca Matzo-Ball Soup

“Do nothing,” our hotel clerk warned when we arrived.  “For the first day, nothing.”

Altitude sickness was the culprit, a real downer on any trip to the Andes.  So we sat in big leather couches in the lobby and he brought us coca tea.  The tea is made by pouring hot water over four or five coca leaves.  The result: a light green concoction which tasted very grassy with a hint of mint.  But forget the taste.  Coca tea is savored for its alkaloids!  The brew wards off altitude sickness and includes a scant 0.4% of legal cocaine.  The thought of all of that in a single cup alone perked us up and we were suddenly very hungry.

“That way,” the hotel clerk told us.  “Away from the square.  The best places to eat, my friends.”

Sure enough, walking around the main square, Plaza de Armas, we found a disappointing array of tourista restaurants stacked two-up, offering special deals and free drinks.  Their menus were filled with pastas, pizzas, Thai noodles, and of course, local specialties.  But we were a little suspect.  Instead, we headed away from the main square, down a back street and found Q’ori Sara, a small bustling café.  We peeked through the window.  It was jammed with locals, large steaming bowls of soup on every table.  And not a single tourist in sight!

We’d found our trailhead.

Aguadito,” the waiter said when we pointed to the soup. “Not on the menu.”   (It turns out many of the best dishes in Peru were not on the menu!  “Just look around you,” our hotel clerk had suggested.  “The best dishes are right next to you.”) Served piping hot with a creamy radish texture, aguadito is a fragrant chicken-and-yucca broth with large chunks of potatoes, yucca and chicken on the bone.

“This is like Incan matzo ball soup,” I declared between slurps.  “Except with yucca.”

We then ordered platefuls of grilled alpaca, which arrived piled high with rice and potatoes.  The alpaca was slightly salty with a beefy (and slightly liver) taste.  It was fork-tender and charred black around the edges. The meal with drinks and dessert cost a pocket-friendly 15.00 soles ($5.36) per person.

Here it was: simple home-cooking, Peruvian style.

Magical Empanadas

The next morning our hotel clerk introduced us to Alexis, a local driver.  We liked Alexis immediately.

We had one condition.  “We want to eat where you would eat.”

He smiled at this, pleased, and we were off to the Sacred Valley.

The Sacred Valley was the heartland of the Inca empire, prized mainly in the 1400’s for its ability to produce prodigious amounts of maize.  It was the Iowa of the Inca culture (without the genetic engineering).  Many of the Incan towns had survived, including Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Chinchero.  All of these small towns were linked by winding roads that Alexis navigated effortlessly.  Occasionally, the local police would set up an informal toll booth and charge a fee.  Alexis would just shake his head at this.

“First you need to try Nati’s empanadas,” Alexis said as he pulled off of the main road near Yuncaypata.

He parked in front of Horno Tipico, an outdoor bakery with a huge wood-fired oven and a petite proprietress (named Nati) who invited us into her yard.  She made only three things:  empanadas, pane (a whole-wheat flatbread), and chutas (refined rolls).

When we ordered the empanadas, she grabbed her 11-foot peel and scooped a batch from the back of her oven.  She served each of us one piping hot empanada on a napkin.  Her creations were miraculous folds of soft, golden bread.  Inside was a dedicate blend of seasoned onions and cheese.  We’d had yucca, plantain and traditional empanadas before.  But Nati’s empanadas were pillows of puffy goodness, sweet and cheesy.

It’s Chicha Time

On our way to Chinchero, we saw red flags on almost every house.  “Those flags mean the chicha is ready to drink,” Alexis explained. “You should try some.“

So, we stopped for a morning chicha, which I found out, was homemade corn beer.  It was brewed in large caldrons by the women for their men.  “In fact,” Alexis said, “you probably have seen plastic jugs filled with chicha on the donkeys, as the farmers made their way to their fields.”

Making chicha is a week-long process that starts by soaking purple corn (choclo morado) in water until it softens, then sprouts.  It’s then ground into a mash (or wort) and added to a large pot of boiling water where it simmers to extract all of its corny goodness.  This mixture is strained and left to ferment in a cool, dark place.

One day later, it becomes chicha, a yellowish-brown brew that tasted much like murky corn cider with a bit of fizz and alcohol, and little bitterness.  It was a traditional Inca drink dating back to the 1500’s.  In those days, the women would chew the sprouted corn and spit it out into large bowls of mash.   (The birth of communal spitting?)  The saliva helped convert the starch of the corn into maltose for fermentation, although this method (thankfully!) was not used today.

One glass of chicha was .20 soles (7 cents).

The leftover corn mush was fed to the scampering guinea pigs in the kitchen.

“Pets?” I asked.

“Dinner,” Alexis replied.

Dinner with Bucky

There are times when you simply regret entering a restaurant and sitting down.  And when this is compounded by ordering a dish that takes some skill to prepare, you are left hungry and disappointed.

I say this because I ordered cuy (guinea pig) at the wrong place: a tourista restaurant.  When the plate arrived, Bucky was sprawled out on the plate like a science experiment gone bad.  (I’d named him while I waited the hour and a half it took to prepare him.)   The poor guy with buck teeth appeared to have scampered over the coals as part of a new-age religious experience when he stepped on a third grill rail.  Now, I had to finish him off.

Unfortunately, Bucky’s skin had the texture of a fried baseball mitt.  Although the taste was similar to pork skin, it was impossible to bite into. There were remnants of meat scattered on the bones, dark meat which tasted like turkey meat, and strands hidden between the ribs.

A hungry dog sniffed around the table and I threw a small piece of cuy to the ground.  He tried gnawing at it for awhile, then spit it out. Tried again, but spit it out again.  He looked up with his sad face.  Poor guy.

Maybe in a different restaurant, it is prepared fresher and with the skin more edible.  But this preparation was a definite low point.  I lost my enthusiasm to try it at other restaurants.

Straight from the Heart

The next morning we stepped off the 6:15 bus at Machu Picchu, and stood quietly on the bluff overlooking the ruins, clouds moving slowly around us, the mountaintop very serene.   This was the lost city, an Inca treasure hidden in the Peruvian jungle for centuries.  We could say very little.  Before us: the Temple of the Sun, erected in the intricate stone work, with fountains and small canals where water still flowed throughout the city.

Around 9:00 AM, a small number of visitors were allowed up the companion peak, Huayna Picchu. The steps seemed deceptively easy at first, with room for two people.  But these became narrower and smalled then shot straight up the side of the mountain, shrinking to only indentations before disappearing entirely.  At the top, Machu Picchu was directly below us.  Carefully we found our way down, holding onto rocks and to each other.  At the bottom, we bypassed the much ballyhooed buffet at the Sanctuary Lodge and instead, hopped on the train back to Cuzco.  There, Alexis greeted us and suggested anticuchos, a meal on a skewer.  We happily agreed.

He took us to Condorito’s, a lively, family spot with wandering singers, and an open grill in the kitchen.  They served only two dishes:  anticuchos, and rocoto rellenos (stuffed chilies).  We ordered both.

“These beef skewers are fantastic!” I shouted over the ruckus.

“Beef hearts, my friend,” Alexis smiled. “These are beef hearts!”

I was completely fooled.  The meat tasted exactly like juicy slices of lean sirloin marinated in garlic and flavored with cumin.  The skewers were grilled over open coals kept blazing hot with an industrial leaf blower.  Yes, leaf blower!  This produced a nice char.  The rocoto rellenos (hot red chilies stuffed with beef heart, rice, and peas) were deep fried and crunchy.   (We found hot salsas were always served on the side in Peru, never on the plate.)

Feeling came back to our legs and we felt we had the energy to get back in our driver’s car.

Floundering in Lima

The next day, we presented Alexis with gifts and our thanks, then hopped a plane to Lima.

In Lima, the culinary capital of Peru, the scene shifted.  Gone were the home-cooked cafes and street vendors with skewers to sell.  Instead, we found our way to Alfresco in Miraflores, an elegant, fusion restaurant that offered Italian-themed dishes alongside traditional Peruvian fare.  We ordered two platters of the ceviche.  The first was a traditional cebiche de Lenguardo which were delicately marinated strips of flounder, with thin onion slices, a small touch of red peppers, and lime juice.  Then, to contrast, we ordered some kicked-up varieties in the tiradito tricolor.  This was actually three types of ceviche, the first in a pesto, the second in a light olive oil (with garlic) and the third in a creamy orange pepper sauce.  Through each preparation you could taste the lightness and delicacy of the flounder.

We had reached end of our culinary trek, our final night, and had done it all in eight hectic days.  We passed around our cameras and quietly clicked through the pictures, reliving the cafes, the bowls of aguadito, Nati’s golden empanadas, and the foamy glasses of chicha.  There was Alexis toasting us over anticuchos and Bucky, the ill-fated guinea pig.  I asked for a moment of silence for poor Bucky.  He deserved better.

The Culinary Inca Trail is not for everyone.  It does not have the usual trail markers and step-by-step guide to seeing Peru.  It is an improvised, seat-of-the-pants rambling through a wonderfully diverse country.   It forces you to find your own way.  But in doing so, you make new friends and experience the unpackaged, authentic Peru.   When you reach the end, as we had, and feel that you are emerging from a place long past, you don’t want to travel any other way.

[reprinted by request from original article in Real Eats]

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