Peruvian, Part 1

Trabaja sin cesar, no digas nada,
aquí la calidad de vida es alta,
buena para el sistema digestivo,
para los huesos buena, y el bolsillo.

Without Peru, modern American civilization might not be here. With the exception of maize and squash, almost every native American food we eat in quantity today hailed from the Inca empire of the 12th to 14th centuries. Potatoes, quinoa, a huge number of chile peppers, tomatoes, peanuts: all hail from the west side of South America.

macchupichu.jpg
tgraham @ flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

Peruvian food is at once alien and comforting: a fairly short list of familiar foods combined in unexpected ways. Lawrence Durrell once said that olives had a taste as old as cold water; that same sense pervades Peruvian food. Even modern, high-end Peruvian dishes carry the pedigree of more than a thousand years of tradition; eating Peruvian is a bridge to the past in a way few cuisines can match.

That's not to say that Peruvians aren't open to culinary commingling: Thor Heyerdahl proved that Peru in 1947 was well within range of Asian explorers, even given the technology of Inca times; there are thousands of Asians in Peru. There is a huge ethnic Japanese population in Peru (the former President of Peru was named Alberto Fujimori), and Chinese cooking is so prevalent that the word for it in Peruvian Spanish is chifa, from 吃饭 (chi fan), meaning "eat".

Peruvian cuisine has lots of divisions, but arguably the most useful division is coastal food vs. mountain (Andean) food. Much of what is served in Peruvian restaurants in the United States owes at least a token nod to the cuisine of the Pacific, but some mountain specialities show up now and then.

Today's episode of Ethnic Eating 101 covers appetizers and first courses in Peruvian food.

Ceviche

Every tostada de ceviche in every Mexican restaurant in the world is trying to live up to its Peruvian counterpart.  There are no tomatoes in Peruvian ceviche, there is no Clamato juice, there is no cilantro and no garlic. The list of ingredients in a Peruvian ceviche are simple: fish or seafood, salt, lime juice, onions and rocoto or limo chiles. The ingredients are blended together and allowed to sit. The acid of the lime juice wreaks a chemical reaction in the fish, similar to cooking; the proteins denature and bind up, and the texture becomes firmer. The acid has a similar, though less powerful, effect on seafood, which is often cooked with heat before being marinated.

ceviche.jpg
donlucho.com (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The result is a powerful dish, with fresh fish and a citric punch that lands in the upper palate. Beer is a good choice to accompany ceviche, incidentally: the Mexicans got that right, and it will help with the thirst that ceviche can cause.

True Peruvian ceviche is served very simply, with some or all of these accompaniments: toasted seaweed, cooked potato, cooked sweet potato, choclo (enormous, juicy, cooked fresh corn kernels, each about the size of a man's pinky nail) and cancha (corn kernels that have been parched in sand, then cleaned and tossed with salt, like the best corn nuts in the world).

The liquid left over is called leche de tigre--tiger's milk--and is served as a stimulant and a hangover remedy. A shot of this sour, spicy, tangy liquid has a caffeine-like effect on the nervous system. Any Peruvian restaurant in the region will serve a portion leche de tigre with their ceviche for the asking.

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