Peruvian food, and especially the food of Cusco’s streets, hotels, homes and restaurants, is fantastic fare. The San Pedro Market, host to many of its fine ingredients, is the perfect place to explore. A window to the culture, it gives a unique perspective on Peru, its people and its food.
Let’s take a closer look at the Mercato San Pedro, now that we have a deeper understanding of the geographic, historical and ethnic influences on Peruvian cuisine that have made it into the wonderful fusion sensation that it is today…. (If you missed the previous posts in this 4-part series, go here first and then here second and then here third.)
Dogs roam the market freely here and hang out, especially in the meat aisles, where butchers wield their machetes and trim cuts of meat for their customers. The dogs stand there, ever so politely, hoping for scraps. Interestingly, they seem to be completely tolerated.
The meat aisles of Mercato San Pedro were fascinating places. You can tell a lot about a culture by its meat aisles. In North American cities, we have sanitized meat in perfectly sanitized, plastic-wrapped packages, lying in sterile chest freezers in our grocery stores. We are tremendously distanced from the source of our food: one look at these meat packages, and we have no image of, and no true sense of the animals from which they came. In Cusco’s Mercato San Pedro, as it is in many markets the second and third world over, it is an entirely different story.
In North America, our neatly packaged cuts of grocery store meat are ready to put into recipes. Often the “best” cuts of meat, you will never walk into a supermarket, or even a farmers’ market for that matter, and see hooves or heads, intestines or organs.
Unfortunately, food waste is simply something with which we are not concerned in our comfortable, privileged lives. The meat aisles of this market show the opposite end of the spectrum. There were stalls that seemed to specialize in entrails and heads, intestines and organs… what we would consider the disposable parts.
This was clearly a culture that used every cut of meat, every part of the animals that they raised and slaughtered. There was no waste here: from heads to testicles, hooves to organs, and tongues to tails, every part of the animal is used, and seemed for sale, here. One stall was full of bocca del torro, or bull’s mouths. One had complete pigs heads. Another had piles of intestines. I don’t mean to sound callous here, but poverty is most definitely an issue in this culture, and you can see it by what is offered for sale in its markets.
Interesting traditions come out of this reliance on using every part of an animal’s carcass. On our culinary tour, Chef José told us about a wedding tradition in the Cusco area: we went with him to a restaurant that specialized in a special type of consumé. Made with lamb, it is based on a local tradition: a lamb’s head soup is served at wedding feasts in and around Cusco and is filled with far more than flavour and nourishing sustenance.
To make this soup, an entire lamb’s head is cooked in the pot. Tradition has it that the best man and maid of honour are to eat the lamb’s tongue, for a tongue gives advice. The parents of the bride are to eat the eyes because this will enable them to see how their daughter is doing in her new, married life. The bride and groom are to eat the lamb’s ears, as this lets them hear the advice of the best man, the maid of honour and their parents. Gruesome, perhaps, but Chef José told us there were many traditions like this that exist, to this day, in the highlands and jungles of Peru. I find it fascinating to experience the ways that a culture embraces, and makes the best of necessity.
The day we visited the market, it was packed with people. This seemed to be where life was happening. Travelling through the market, walking its aisles and exploring its sacks and stacks, its towering piles of produce and its mountains of meat and potatoes, was a captivating experience.
There was no better place to experience its energy that in its food prep zones. The Mercato San Pedro was segmented into eating areas, a little like food courts. Unlike our farmers markets, or even mall food courts in North America, these sections of the market had bench seating where people could buy prepared dishes and sit watching their food being made, and then continue to sit and eat it right there on borrowed dishes. This seemed to be the heart and soul of the market. It was where the most people were to be found.
Foods are not eaten from disposable plates or with plastic cutlery: dishes are eaten in regular bowls, and then the dish and its cutlery is returned to the stall.
One aisle was all about juices: there were dozens of small juice bars. It was easy to see that we were in an equatorial country with the wealth of fruit they had on display. Juices here featured mangos and bananas, lemons, limes, oranges, pineapples, papayas, kiwis, grapes, passion fruit and even cucumbers and carrots.
Many stalls featured storage techniques from pre-Incan civilizations and times. The Incas were masters at preserving and storing the food they grew and the animals they raised. If you have been following along in this blog, you’ll know that agricultural terraces and qolcas (storage houses) were built on a site long before houses and temples were constructed.
The Incas were able to have 15 months worth of food on hand at a time, to ward off the effects of wars or bad growing seasons or natural disasters so that their populations were not affected by starvation. In fact, it was their mastering of food storage techniques that helped them add to the size of their empire. Surrounding territories were tempted to become part of the Incan Empire knowing that their food needs would be met.
The San Pedro Market had two food items that show the dehydration mastery of the Incas (and the Pre-Incan cultures) that are still in use today. There were dried alpaca meat stalls where giant pieces of leathered alpaca meat, called charque, were sold, sort like dehydrated jerky, along with spicy chile pepper condiment sauces. These cuts of meat do not need to be refrigerated and so, still have a place in modern day Peru (even in Cusco, in the poverty stricken areas we travelled through whenever we left the city to trek or to explore the Sacred Valley).
And there were the dried vegetables, including the mysterious white stones… great sacks of dehydrated potatoes that seemed to be everywhere throughout the market. For more on these exceptionally lightweight, abundant, form of potatoes see the blog post, “So You Think You Know Potatoes? Think Again.”
As you can see by the way writing about a simple market has become a four part series, I love a good market and I find browsing its aisles to be entertaining and enlightening. Markets like Cusco’s San Pedro Market are full of the raw ingredients that support not only its cuisine, but also its culture. Food is sustenance, but with the cultural traditions that surround coming together over a meal, be it an every day meal or a special occasion, a meal eaten on the trail or on the street, in a roadside cevicheria or in a high class restaurant, it is also a window into the soul of a culture. What the Peruvians choose to grow and to cook, and how they prepare and share it is so revealing. Nothing short of fascinating, to me.