The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Sunday, October 23, 2011


A local mother butchering and preparing cabrito for a school function.
 Peruvians are nothing if not proud of their food. One of the first questions I’m asked by people is, “Do you like Peruvian food?” and then, “What is your favorite Peruvian food?”

I have a hard time answering this question, and sadly not because I love all of it. I am not Peruvian food’s biggest fan. But do I say I don’t like it? Of course not! A) I have to follow the rule of not being negative in anyway, even if that means lying and B) It’s always better to emphasize the things you like than talk about the things you dislike. Therefore, I say, “Well, I looooove food so much I of course love Peruvian food! I love all types of food! But if I have to pick a favorite, I would say…” After filling them in on my favorite foods (which I have posted below) I then tell them I am still acostumbrando a Peruvian food, since I am still not used to eating so much rice. I then take the opportunity for a cultural lesson on how in the U.S. we eat a lot more vegetables, and rice is more of a side dish that is eaten occasionally. Whenever I tell them this, they look at me like I just told them in the States dogs meow and cats bark.

Since food is such a big deal here (and such a big deal to me) it makes me a little sad that I am not in love with it, and only occasionally like it. A lot of this has some to do with my limited options (gluten-free), and the mountainous portions of rice and excessive use of boiled potatoes and maiz morado (purple corn) in the platos tipicos of my region. You’re hard pressed to see a vegetable on your plate (corn is not a vegetable! It’s a grain!), unless there are peas in the stew, and even with the wild variety of fruit available in Peru, it is most commonly used for freshly made juice puree with a ton of sugar added.

Being gluten-free in Peru is hard. There is good food in Peru, but I don’t always get to eat it. Having said that, I still know people that are completely capable of eating anything on this planet that have a hard time with the food in Peru. As one volunteer said to me, “It’s hard never being excited for a meal, and never feeling satisfied.” But, much of this has to do with the fact that we’re in the Peace Corps, not on vacation. (If you’d like to check out a blog of someone who does love Peruvian food, you can check out my friend Lindsay’s blog, The Glutton’s Digest.)

So here’s a run down on my experience with Peruvian food; the stuff I like, the stuff I eat even though I don’t really like it, and the stuff I can’t even try. And P.S.- I´ve only been here 4 months, and I´ve only been in a couple areas of Peru, so I´m of course giving you a very limited view at Peruvian cuisine. So just remember, what I'm saying isn´t 100% how it is everywhere. That´s why you should read Lindsay´s blog. Plus she´s awesome.)

Before we start, some vocabulary words and common foods/condiments:
Ajinomoto: MSG. It’s used in practically everything, but a lot of times as a substitute for salt.
Aji: a sauce made from peppers and other ingredients, aji is made into a variety of different sauces of all different colors and levels of spiciness. I can’t try all the different kinds because some are thickened with crushed up crackers.
Camote: Sweet potato. They just eat it plain, but the second I find brown sugar I’m going to introduce them to the amazingness of sweet potatoes a la Thanksgiving dinner.
Yuka: The first time I tried yuka I thought it was an extremely dry potato. However, it is a root that looks like a section of trunk from a small tree when you buy it at the market (literally has bark on it) but is peeled and boiled or cooked down to essentially straight starch.
Choclo: a type of corn that has extremely large kernels. This along with yuka and camote are common side dishes to cebiche, cuy, and just about anything else.
Chicha: This is a drink made from corn, and it can be both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. It is often sickeningly sweet. Chicha morada (made from purple corn) is made with cloves and cinnamon, or with lime. I loathe it.
Inka Kola: Peru’s very own and frequently consumed soda. It’s Simpsons-esque “nuclear-waste yellow” practically glows, and it tastes like bubble gum.
Queso, leche, y yogurt: This is another one of those things that changes from department to department, but in many areas dairy can be hard to come by. Cheese is not common and can be bought at large grocery stores in the city (which is very expensive). Milk can be bought at the store in a can, in a box, or in a bag and often isn’t refrigerated until after it’s opened. Yogurt is drinkable, often isn’t refrigerated, and I have yet to find any that’s thicker or sugar-free. Even “natural” yogurt has way too much sugar in it or uses fake sweetener. Where I live, however, we get milk everyday from a friend’s cow (which we pasteurize at home) and we’re close enough to the department of Cajamarca that we get to indulge in some awesome cheese (which I am not 100% sure is pasteurized).

Also, it should be noted lunch is the most important meal of the day, not dinner. It is when everyone takes a break from work in the fields and comes home to be with their family before they head out to work again, and also around the same time kids finish with school. Breakfast is usually bread, and dinner is usually leftovers from lunch.

Hunka’ hunka’ burnin’ cow heart
Street vendor in Trujillo, La Libertad, firing up the grill for
our anticuchos. 
While I was in training they often forewarned us about comida en la calle, or street food, especially during our first weeks of our bodies adjusting to life in Peru. Street food was seen as a one-way ticket to an evening riding the bicicleta (Peruvian slang for diarrhea). So, seeing as how I didn’t want to lose the pool and poop my pants, I stayed pretty far away from it. But, after a few weeks of less than mediocre meals* that left me unsatisfied and with crashing blood sugar level due to the fact I was mostly just eating rice and potatoes, I caved to the sizzling sounds and wonderful wafting smells coming from the street carts. I am so glad I did. Street food can be tricky for me, because not only do I have to worry about the normal stuff like, “How old is that meat?” but whether or not there are any GF friendly options. So, my tried and true street food friend has, and shall continue to be, anticucho. Anticucho is basically any meat barbecued on a stick, kind of like shish kabobs, but is most commonly known to be cow heart. You can also get cow and chicken intestine, but they tend to be chewier. Anticucho is amazing for so many reasons: 1) Because it’s heart, it can be overcooked and still be more tender than regular meat, 2) it comes with delicious sauces that are spicy and wonderful, 3) you can get it in practically any town on any ol’ street corner, and 4) it’s cheap!
*side note: I now live with a family that feeds me more than rice and potatoes and I don’t have to rely on street food for protein and food fulfillment. I still love it, though.

Pato Guisada-- stewed duck. I only ate this once in the department
of La Libertad, but the guiso is typical of any meat. 
My other “go-to” Peruvian foods that I know I don’t have to worry about (at least too much) are pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken served with french fries) and cebiche (fish cooked with the acid of lime/lemon juice and served with red onion). Also, basically anything guisada is pretty tasty, which is stewed meat, sometimes served with a few small morsels of vegetables.

Luckily desserts aren’t a big problem for me. You can get flan, arroz con leche (rice pudding), and ice cream just about anywhere. Some Peru-specific sweets I have taken quite a liking to are:

Chupetes: Homemade popsicles that come in a plastic bag. They have a ton of different names and are called marcianos in La Libertad. They are usually made with all of the awesome different and unique fruits of Peru.

Cocadas: Think no-bake cookies, only instead of oatmeal it’s shredded coconut, and instead of chocolate it’s caramelized sugar. Okay, so it’s nothing like a no-bake, but it’s freaking delicious, and they’re sold at 50 centimos a pop.

Lucuma flavored anything: Lucuma is a fruit specific to Peru that I have yet to eat. I do however enjoy all things Lucuma flavored, which includes yogurt and ice cream. I wish I could describe it, but I just can’t.

So typical...
As I’ve said before, Peruvians love their rice, and they eat essentially an entire plate of it with a side of meat and potatoes (some people aren’t lucky enough to get the side of meat). Here are a couple typical dishes I eat that are actually decent, but I don’t love them so much I’d eat them as regularly as Peruvians do.

Cabrito: Kid goat, stewed and served with some white beans and rice. I ate this my first week at site and then got food poisoning. Needless to say, it’s been ruined for me, which is unfortunate because it’s served at every event and party.

Arroz con pollo: mildly seasoned rice with peas, choclo, and tiny chunks of carrots, and a chunk of chicken. Woohoo. A little boring, but it´s growing on me.

Cuy: Guinea Pig. Yep, that cuddly, oversized rodent many elementary students in the U.S. cherish as their classroom pet and name something cute like “Mr. Snuggles” is mostly just known as “lunch” here. Cuy is eaten in many different ways, but typically is served frito (fried) or guisada. Cuy have a high protein content and once you get past their extremely thick, fatty skin, they are pretty tasty. Although I have been chastised for not eating the skin—most Peruvian’s favorite part.

On a school field trip many of the kids brought
along a tupper of cuy and rice for lunch.
Causa: There are some different versions of this typical dish that depend on what department you are in. When I had it, it was salted fish topped with pickled onions on a plate garnished with mashed potatoes, camote, and choclo. Another version I’ve heard of was more of a layered dish, the salted fish stuffed between layers of mashed potatoes and mayonnaise.

Arroz con minestras: I like lentils, and I like peas. But ends up, I’m not a huge fan of smashed up peas/lentils on rice.

Mosemora: A desert as popular as arroz con leche, I go between being able to eat this just fine and never wanting to see it again. It is basically the warm, goopy, gelatin version of chicha, sometimes with fruit chunks in it.

As I said, there is good food in Peru, but I can’t always eat it. Here are some classics that I always have to miss.

Papas rellenas: fried mashed potato balls stuff with stewed meat, raisins, olives, and hard-boiled egg. It’s actually pretty good, but they roll the balls in flour before frying them. I had the opportunity to try them once because some were made special for me.

A papa rellena I helped make in my language class during
training. This is the only one I´ve eaten, since I got to
make it without flour. 
Papas a la huancaina: same mashed potato balls, only instead of stuffed and fried they’re covered with a thick sauce that contains crackers.

Chicharones: breaded and deep-fried meat. Served with? You guessed it. Rice.

Chifa: Essentially any type of Chinese food. Mostly fried rice, though. I can’t have it because it’s made with soy sauce (second ingredient: wheat) I’ve also seen it eaten with mayonnaise on top.

Lomo Saltado: I actually ate this before realizing I shouldn’t. It’s a beef stir-fry with big fat slices of tomato, red peper, and onion, served with french fries. It was absolutely delicious. It also has a ton of soy sauce in it (whoops). It was worth it.

Caldo de Gallina: Chicken noodle soup, often with full-on chicken feet. I hear it’s tasty with lime.

For desserts, I just try to remind myself sublime bars (chocolate with peanuts) and cocadas are just as good…

Tres leches: I was lucky enough to try this in Costa Rica before I knew I couldn’t have gluten. It’s a white cake soaked in evaporated milk, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. Seriously delicious.

Picarones: Fried donuts made with sweet potato flour. They smell divine, but of course have regular wheat flour in them as well, so I’ll never truly know.

Churros: The classic fried-dough roll, usually filled with manjar blanco, Peru’s version of caramel.

Paneton: A classic Christmas favorite served with hot chocolate, it’s basically a fruit cake, only people actually like it.

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s…
My host-sister helping me plate the chicken enchiladas,
black beans,and spanish rice I made for my host family.
I have been known to dream about American Dream gluten-free pizza, have withdrawals from my Mom’s homemade enchiladas, and spend way too much time fantasizing about simple foods I used to make for myself at home or indulge in at restaurants. But when I joined the Peace Corps, I made an oath: I will do the same work, eat the same food, and speak the same language as the nationals of the country I live in. Of those three things, food is definitely the hardest. I have lost all control of my daily diet, which I used to be in charge of. The only food I really make for myself here is my breakfast, which is usually yogurt and bananas, or plain oatmeal. Food has so many connections to our lives; it fills a basic biological need of course, but it also connects us to our family and to our culture. It effects our mood and energy, it’s filled with nostalgia and sometimes “made with love.” In some cases, controlling what we eat seems to be the only control we have in our lives. And when I came to Peru, I lost that control and handed it over to the family I live with. I make the occasional “American meal” for my host family, but for the most part I am at the mercy of their personal diet decisions. And to be fair, I am actually getting pretty used to it and liking it a lot more. 

Food has also been something that has helped me make stronger connections to those around me. Telling my host-mom I want to know how she makes a certain dish shows her I appreciate her and care about their traditions. Making food for my host-family helps them experience just a taste of what the U.S. is like. But when I’m backed in a corner and people want to know, “Which food do you like more? American food or Peruvian food?” I’m left with little choice but to say…

“Peruvian food, of course!”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Sometimes I get stressed out hearing the TV in my house. Having a stay-at-home mom for a host-sister means the TV is often on, cued in to whatever telanovela happens to be on. Have you ever watched a telanovela? Have you ever watched three telanovelas in a row? I didn't grow up in a household with a lot of fighting or crying (unless you count me in my teenage years) so to hear nonstop angry diatribes, crying, and melodramatic lovers quarrels spewing out at a decibel just a tad too high for comfort is, well, uncomfortable. My favorite part of watching telanovelas is laughing everytime someone passes out or fake cries. This happens a lot. I think I ruin telanovelas for my host-sister now, because she doesn't watch nearly as many with me anymore. Who wants a crazy person laughing at serious stuff all the time?

Which seems to be the theme of my life here these days--the crazy person who laughs at the wrong times, doesn't laugh when everyone else is laughing, says things that don't make sense, and sometimes cries for seemingly no reason. At least the girls in the telanovelas have a reason to cry. Their supposedly dead husband never really died and shows up at their wedding to their new man, and when they get ready to re-marry their once-thought dead husband, his secret second family shows up. Talk about problems. Why would I cry?

Which is why I hate getting too deeply involved with emotions and feelings in my blog posts outside of blind optimism. Because who wants to hear about the crying and conflicted feelings. But let's get serious--it's not all sunshine and sublime bars, brother. There are days of frustration, loneliness, and confusion.

Don't get me wrong, things are still great. Each day I become more and more comfortable with my host family, my co-workers, teaching English classes, walking down the street in my town, dancing in front of everyone, etc. I can't walk down the street without at least five people yelling my name. And it feels really good to know things are slowly getting better, to know I'm here on the adventure of a lifetime.

But some days just suck. Some days I don't want to be stared at by everyone as I walk down the street or be chased by a group of 10 year old girls. Sometimes it sucks that I'm so far away from home, missing out on all the things happening with family and friends. Sometimes I just want to call a friend and talk, and I can't. And some days I just want to express my feelings and thoughts to the people around me, and whether its language skills or cultural differences, I can't express myself properly. People don't get it. I just continue to be the odd person who sounds funny and says things that don't make sense, is tired when she "hasn't done anything," is sad when no one has died, or is not doing things the way they should be done. 

This week has been a big festival in my town and everyone has been out celebrating. There's a ferris wheel up in my town, food booths, trampolines, carnival games, a haunted house--the whole works. It should be awesome, but it's probably been the most frustrating week I've had in site with miss-communications abound. I just wanted to hide in my room and ignore everybody, but I made myself go out and see all the festivities. Last night I was hanging out in the plaza with one of my new friends (and by "friend" I mean person who I am in proximity with a lot for a youth group) making small talk, taking in the scene of people dressed in their nicest clothes walking around eating their cotton candy, popcorn, and candied apples. Then out of nowhere, completely unprompted, my friend asked me, "Do you have a dream?"

It kind of took me aback a little because not many people have tried to have deeper-than-surface conversations with me, or at least personal deeper-than-surface conversations. And now this guy wants to know what my dream is and what I aspire to do?

I looked at him and kind of laughed as I said, "Well...I guess this is my dream. I'm living it right now!" He looked confused, probably because my dream involves a tiny town he's lived in his whole life and just wants to leave. "My dream has been to travel the world, learn to speak new languages and get to know new people and cultures. And I'm here with you, right now, speaking in Spanish, living and working in this small town in Peru. I've been thinking about this job for four or five years now."

His dream is to become a dancer. But that's beside the point.

As I left the festivities far earlier than anyone else, but still late for me, I couldn't stop thinking about the question of dreams. No one really tells you that even when you're living the dream things are still going to be hard, or that you will still want to "get away" from it all.

I got home and somehow ended up looking through a years worth of photos from my last year living in Boise. That was seriously one awesome year. Being separated from the comforts of home has made me extremely nostalgic. I have had a lot of luck in life with friends and opportunities to travel and live in different places. I've met a lot of amazing people and seen a lot of beautiful places. My heart is still in Idaho. And Oregon. And Spain. And....

The problem with a dream being the world is it gives you more and more people and places to miss. And someday in the next two-years, I'm going to be thinking back on the days I spent in Peru working for the Peace Corps, wondering where the time went...

You just can't win.