By Isabel Strebe, Marketing and Communications intern
It’s been almost two months since I packed a bag and left my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota to spend four months in Ollantaytambo as an Awamaki volunteer. Needless to say, jumping into rural, small town Peru has been a huge adjustment in almost every aspect of life, including the food. While copious amounts of rice and potatoes have not been so exciting, there have been plenty of fun, interesting, and new foods to try as well. I set out to taste some of the most traditional flavors of the Peruvian Andes and documented my experiences along the way.
‘Pachamanca’ translates to ‘earth pot’ in Quechua and is a traditional Andean method of cooking underground. It is usually reserved for special occasions, but I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to indulge when I tagged along on a tour to Patacancha, one of Awamaki partner communities. I had heard multiples times how much of a delicacy this meal was and I was looking forward to trying it. When we arrived around eleven in the morning, the oven had already been dugout and heating up for hours. We watched as the women layered potatoes, chicken, beans, and bananas in the hot rocks and covered them with dirt.
Burying your food in dirt doesn’t sound super glamorous, but it actually smelled amazing while cooking.
An hour later we were sitting down to a steaming plate of delicacies. We were given no silverware, so I just dug in!
The food itself– chicken, sweet potatoes, fava beans, and plantains– are ones I eat at home, so I was skeptical how much better they would really be. The sweet potato and beans were good but nothing fancy. On my first taste of the fragrant, golden-skinned chicken, however, I was hooked — it was like a rotisserie chicken from the States on steroids.
I never could have anticipated how much I would love eating out of the ground! The only downside: I think this ruined me for all other roasted chicken…
Next, I moved onto something deeply Peruvian– Alpaca. While these fluffy animals are more commonly sheared for sweaters, the meat is also found in many forms, from a la carte to burgers to a dish called ‘lomo saltado.’ I’d never tried it before, and I figured it was a right of passage for living in the country. I sampled it at a pretty ‘touristy’ restaurant near the train station in Ollantaytambo, and ordered it in a less conventional form: a salad.
Still, the salad was served with plain strips of alpaca, which I figured provided a good opportunity to try the meat in it’s most basic form. The first thing I noticed upon taking a bite was the texture– very tough and chewy, like a pork chop, and something I’m not a huge fan of as a former vegetarian. The flavor raised my enthusiasm slightly. It was very gamey, which I know a lot of people don’t like, but I actually enjoyed to an extent.
Overall, I was not ‘wowed’ by alpaca meat, but I’m not ready to write it off completely. I would definitely jump on an opportunity to try it in another form. Maybe a burger!?
This strange but traditional drink made from purple corn is unique to Peru, dating back to Inca times. The non-alcoholic version of chicha, home-brewed corn beer, chicha morada is made by boiling purple corn, pineapple, and spices and was served chilled.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, never having had any desire to drink corn before, but the deep purple color and pinkish froth made it look pretty refreshing.
As for flavor, the corn definitely was not hiding. It wasn’t offensive, but was undoubtedly a unique and perhaps acquired taste. It also tasted a bit syrupy, but wasn’t overly sweet. I would definitely try it again, especially since I’ve heard it can vary a lot depending on how or where it’s made.
Ají de Gallina
To round out my Peruvian taste test, I ordered the famous ají de gallina. This creamy dish consists of chicken and potatoes stewed in ají yellow pepper, parmesan cheese, and condensed milk. The aji peppers give the whole dish a pale yellow color and the consistency reminded me of a curry. Mine was served with rice, a hard boiled egg, and olives.
I was a little nervous to try it, as my tolerance for spicy food is pitiful and I heard it can have a bit of a bite. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The whole dish was mild yet flavorful, I think thanks to the cream. The consistency and spices did remind me somewhat of curries I’ve eaten in the U.S., which is unique from a lot of other Peruvian food. The chicken was thinly shredded, tender, and made the whole dish very satisfying.
Ají de gallina is definitely one of my new favorites here. Like everything else in Peru it did have rice and potatoes, but the flavors were unique enough that I almost forgot they were there.