I think that the biggest surprise in all of our travels in Peru was just how incredibly good the food was in Cusco.
Those of you who know me well, know that I love cooking and I love experimenting with my food. I knew very little about Peruvian food, other than the fact that quinoa and potatoes were used ubiquitously, and so I assumed that the food would be quite plain. Was I ever wrong! I was simply floored by the tastes & textures, the variety and the creativity that was inherent in the dishes we tried while in Cusco. THIS was no Costa Rican rice & beans food culture!
I just had to learn more… how did they create the flavours that danced in my mouth? What did they do to produce their signature dishes so well? What were their food influences? How did cooking here develop?
Stay with me over the next couple of blog posts and we’ll explore this phenomenon…
As Elvira, our cooking instructor put it, “In Peru, we don’t eat healthy, we just love to eat. We like to combine flavours and textures.” I wanted to know, to taste, to experience and to understand these flavours and textures.
So we ate high fare in great restaurants like Ciccolina and Uchu and low fare in street food eats. We ate plain food while trekking on the mountain trails and food in its whole food form from farmers’ stalls in the rainforest. We drank coffee right where it was skinned, fermented, dried and roasted. We took a cooking class. We went on a culinary tour. And we went to the local market.
It all starts at a market… Honestly, as much as I travel for adventure, I also long to search out and explore local markets. Markets the world over are fascinating places. They provide a splash of local colour to any trip, and more importantly, they give tremendous insight into what a culture values.
I’ve seen flat bed trucks heaping with hot peppers in a Turkish farmers’ market in Urgüp and pyramids of spices, lit by a bare bulb in the night markets of Cairo. I’ve seen ginger and galangal roots and lemon grass spears laid out for sale alongside crabs with their claws tied together in a dirt lot in the small mountain town of Chiang Dao in Thailand. I’ve seen extraordinarily high-priced dried mushrooms and birds’ nests in a Singapore Chinese street market (we’re talking hundreds to thousands of dollars for a handful). I’ve experienced the perfect, crunchy baguette at a Parisian farmers’ market and ever-so-sweet dates sold right beside ancient silver jewellery in Siwa, an Egyptian oasis (the oasis had just received electricity and the women were selling off their silver jewellery to purchase refrigerators when we were there!). I’ve purchased bamboo segments filled and then roasted over coals with red beans, rice and sweetened coconut milk inside at a Malaysian rainforest hamlet called Taman Negara.
Markets the world over have such a hold on my interest, intellect and imagination.
Food nourishes and sustains us, but it is through food and the preparation of meals for family and for friends that we reveal important aspects of our cultures. It is often through food, through its preparation and sharing, that we express ourselves and explore and evolve our traditions. I see food as the perfect window into a culture and never miss an opportunity to explore a market at home or on our travels.
Mercato San Pedro
When you want to immerse yourself in a culture’s food, you need to go to its source. You need to find a local market and explore its ingredients. This is a perfect way to begin a travel adventure and it sets you up well for what is to come. Lucky for us, it was not a strenuous activity, so it was perfect as we were acclimatizing to the altitude on our first full day in Cusco.
Mercato San Pedro lies in the heart of old town Cusco. The market spills out onto the busy street where Quechwa people, in their traditional brightly coloured woven clothes and tall hats, sell everything from bread sticks to snail shells, sewing needles to thumbtacks and gargantuan exploded kernels of popped corn to temple offerings like small seed packets and mini idols. We were surprised by how many entrepreneurs there were out on the sidewalks selling just about anything you could imagine.
Often these “stalls” were simply a blanket or a tarp, laid out on the sidewalk, with goods for sale set out in neat little stacks and rows at the seller’s feet.
A large covered market spanning several city blocks, the Mercato San Pedro has about 230 stalls under its roof. It has a thriving, energetic atmosphere of hustle and bustle: it was a place of commerce, yes, but it also seemed to be a community centre where people came to visit and catch up with their neighbours and friends over a meal, a flower bouquet, a pig’s head, or a sack of light-weight, chalky & dried out potatoes!
There was a definite sense of organization to the chaos. The stalls that lined its outer walls were given over to the selling of trinkets (like polished rocks and crystals and small dolls) and clothing (like woolen hats and fabrics and woven textiles). Each of these stalls was incredibly tiny, with just enough space for one body inside, and lined floor to ceiling with products for sale (sorry, these stalls were dark and my photos did not turn out). Their jam-packed nature added delightfully to the visual chaos of the market atmosphere.
Then the interior of the market was given over to the larger food stalls. There was a pork & alpaca aisle, a fish & roe (huevos de pescados) aisle, veggie aisles, bread aisles and even two aisles, given over to, and many other stalls scattered throughout the market that featured, the potato! (The potato features so prominently in Peruvian cuisine that I’ve already given an entire blog piece to the amazing Peruvian Spuds!)
Seeing all of the items that were for sale in this market set us up well for the learning we were going to do at the Marcelo Batata Cooking School with Elvira, and then later on, after our trek, on the culinary tour experience that had us eating and walking our way around Cusco with Chef José Luis. It was through those experiences, that things got really interesting. Not only were we taken completely by surprise, shocked by how incredible Peruvian food was, but we seriously deepened our understanding of just how such amazing food came to be.