Meal 134: Peru

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From coastline to towering mountains to jungle, Peru offers a ton of geographic diversity. From Inca to Spanish to Asian, it’s also become a converging point of several populations, which of course has influenced the food too. It took a bit of doing, but fortunately our guest Dan helped me a whole lot in pulling together a menu that represented as much variety as possible in a semi-coherent meal. And speaking of helpful guests, muchísimas gracias to my aunt Marcia, who hand-squeezed well over 100 key limes for the ceviche and the pisco sours.


Our enthusiastic guests for the evening were Dan, Lucy, Quinn, Marcia, Jeff, Eleanor, Amilcar, Jan, Lauren, Chris, Ted and friends.

 

Cebiche | Lime-cooked fish | Recipe

No surprise that this dish represents the coastal region!

I’m a big believer in the theory that often, the freshest fish is in the freezer — it’s usually frozen right at sea, so it’s spent but a few hours at most out of the water. Using frozen fish also gives me more flexibility in my shopping schedule, I can buy it in advance and just gently defrost when needed. So I present to you a ceviche (or cebiche, in Spanish it’s essentially pronounced somewhere between a B and a V as we know them in English anyway) made with some Trader Joe’s cod. And it was good — not a truly memorable ceviche, but tasty and a good way to start the meal. It helped to have cancha, the giant Peruvian (hence, original) version of corn nuts which I was surprised to also find at TJ’s, as well as some green plantain chips and lettuce cups.

Papas a la huancaína | Potatoes with spicy cheese sauce | Recipe

Potatoes are natively from the Andes Mountains, so of course that’s the food to represent that part of the country.

Out of the many things Peruvians do with potatoes, this dish struck me as oddly specific, but I kept seeing it in my research and it seems this really is one of, if not the most, popular uses of the spud. The potato itself is simply peeled and boiled, but the sauce is something I’d never conceived of: fresh cheese, evaporated milk, a specific type of medium-hot yellow chili…and crackers, all thrown together in the blender with the aim of a thick but pourable consistency.

Frankly put, this sauce wasn’t exactly my favorite: it kinda felt like heavy, slightly grainy, moderately spicy, and intense mayonnaise, or perhaps like a bizarro aïoli. But in Peru, it’s apparently such a hit that they put the sauce on all sorts of other things, perhaps like we treat ranch dressing. Huh.

Arroz chaufa | Fried rice | Recipe

For well over a century, there’s been a substantial Asian presence in Peru. Chinese and Japanese alike were brought over to provide agricultural labor, and of course they brought their foodways with them. Peruvian-Chinese cuisine and the restaurants that serve them have their own name, chifa, which is derived from the Cantonese words meaning “eat rice.” Similarly, chaufa means “fried rice,” so the name literally means “fried rice rice.” (The other best-known chifa dish is lomo saltado, which is strips of beef stir-fried with soy sauce and vegetables and served over…french fries!)

Among the options offered in the recipe, I chose to make this with beef and the thin egg omelette. Frankly, it tasted kinda like the fried rice I’d expect to find at an American Chinese restaurant, I’m not exactly clear on what makes this dish particularly Peruvian-influenced. (The bell peppers, perhaps?) Though I will say, the MSG — which I bought for the very first time in my life for this meal — definitely made it even better!

Juanes | Steamed rice tamales | Recipe

The western extent of the Amazon basin, on the eastern side of the Andes, actually represents the majority of the country’s land mass, but those forbidding mountains plus the challenge of getting around the jungle keeps the outside attention largely focused elsewhere. The dish I found at the intersection of distinctive, relatively common, and something I could prepare with ingredients I can find here is, well, what I made.

Juanes are associated with the Feast of St. John on June 24, and Wikipedia has a fascinating claim: “The dish could have a pre-Columbian origin, but it is known that after the arrival of the Spanish people to Incan lands, missionaries popularized the biblical account of the beheading of St. John. This dish’s name could therefore be, more specifically, a reference to the head of St. John.”

What’s in St. John’s Head? Well, it’s a close cousin of tamales, similar to the Central American version in that it’s a moist dough wrapped in green leaves. However, the typical post-Columbian filling is now rice rather than corn, and the leaves aren’t banana but rather from a plant called bijao. (I figured I wouldn’t find them and went to grab banana leaves at the Hispanic market, but I noticed a different kind of bundle of leaves with a name that wasn’t bijao — which thankfully the Internet helped me conclude was in the same genus, Heliconia, and therefore was surely more appropriate than banana leaves.) The rice is drenched in lard — I went through two cups of the stuff to make the dish for sixteen people — and the filling a tasty blend of hen meat and other tasty bits like onions, olives, and yucca shavings (because apparently the rice isn’t enough starch.)

I spent a pleasant portion of the morning listening to the radio and rolling them up, and then throughout the afternoon they gently steamed. Even though there was plenty of other food on offer, most people managed to eat some if not all of these big ol’ lumps, which is a testament to how tasty and satisfying they were.

Pisco sour | Recipe

We won’t get into the debate over whether the pisco sour belongs to Chile or Peru. We enjoyed it for that meal (albeit minus egg whites and plus bubbly), and we really enjoyed it for this one. While the ingredients and technique are straightforward, it clearly took an expert’s touch to perfect, as Amilcar demonstrated. Our only regret was that we had just one bottle of pisco, so we each enjoyed our one glass of frothy, tangy goodness with concentration and relish.

Alfajores | Filled cookies | Recipe

We just made alfajores for Paraguay. So why again for Peru? Because for both countries it really is the proper dessert, and because a guest brought the cookies last time and I wanted to try my own hand. And whaddya know, there is actually a bit of a difference: while both are rolled-out buttery cookies made with both cornstarch and flour, the other ones were a bit puffier whereas the Peruvian ones are less leavened and therefore flatter, and also crumblier both in the hands and on the tongue. I happen to like these better. Big thanks to Dan and Lucy for carefully assembling these fragile treats — though, in the great tradition of pastry prep, I wouldn’t blame them if they happened to hide any mistakes by eating them!

Meal 133: Paraguay

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Paraguay is one of two landlocked countries in the Western Hemisphere (quick, try to guess the other without looking!), and is the only one where the native language (Guaraní) is understood by more people than the colonizers’ (Spanish). It follows, then, that both the content of the food as well as the cooking techniques have a pretty direct Guaraní legacy, though some Western ingredients like cheese and beef have weaseled their way in.

It turns out that Paraguay is a common Peace Corps destination; we had four guests who’d volunteered there! It was great to have their perspective, not just on the food but also about life both in the cities and way out in the country. I also never would have figured out how to make the drink that involves putting burning coals directly on sugar without Emily’s help.

In addition to our Peace Corps volunteers Emily, Gina, Caleb and Ashley, we also had Lyndi, Lisa, Craig, Laura, and friends.

Note that, other than the dessert, this meal was naturally gluten-free.

Chipá | Cheese rings Recipe

It looks like a little bagel, smells delightful when baking, and is about as soft as a teething biscuit. The RPCVs report that these snacks are commonly found on long-distance buses, and it’s no surprise, because they last roughly forever and the cheese, fat, egg, and tapioca starch make these mighty filling.

Sopa paraguaya | Cheesy cornbread | Recipe

The legend behind this dish is that a chef making a really rich soup for a government official meant to put in a bit of corn flour as a thickener, but accidentally added way too much. So she decided to bake it rather than simply simmer on the stovetop, but the name “soup” stuck around due to its origin.

I’m not sure I buy it, but whatever you call it, this is one dense and tasty dish that’s somewhere between a casserole, an omelet, and a cornbread.  There’s little in the way of seasoning; the flavor pretty much comes from all that cheese plus the corn. Apparently, it’s common to cook a big batch and keep the leftovers in the cabinet (since many Paraguayans don’t have refrigeration) for a snack or when company unexpectedly shows up.

Asado | Barbecue | Guidance

As with their neighbors the Argentinians, no good celebration or family get-together is complete without cooking a lot of meat with fire. In addition to the ribs, steak, and chicken pictured above, I also grilled up a big curl of chorizo, all of it from the Supermercados Mexico meat counter and seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper. For all of the foofaraw around rubs and marinades, this very simply cooked, modestly priced meat was really, really good.

Yuca | Cassava

Nothing more than peeled, chopped, and boiled cassava, a root grown around the world in tropical regions but native to this area of South America. A cheap, lightly flavored, and belly-filling accompaniment to the asado. (Apparently a pasta dish called tallerín is also very common, but that just seemed like too much along with the sopa.)

Cocido | Burnt mate | Recipe

 

Along with the asado, Paraguay shares with its neighbors the penchant for mate, the grassy-tasting herb with a stimulating effect similar to coffee. But I was fascinated by this way of preparing it: put the dry mate and some sugar on a heatproof plate, and roll glowing coals from the asado (preferably ones that didn’t have meat drip on them!) directly on top to char the herb and caramelize the sugar. Then dump all of that in a boiling pot of water — coals included! — pour in some milk, and strain. It looks like mining effluent, tastes surprisingly good, and got me way too wired.

Alfajores | Cookie sandwiches


These are the most beloved dessert of southern South America: crumbly cookie sandwiches, filled with something sweet and covered with a dusting of powdered sugar. Dulce de leche is the classic filling, and as you can see above, it’s a lot easier (and less messy) to apply with a squeeze bottle than from the can. One of our guests baked the cookies so I don’t have the recipe, but I made some dulce de membrillo (quince paste) that made for another sort of filling.

 

Meal 131: Panama

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For the second year, we invited everyone on the block for a late-summer Nosh. Laura got a permit to close down the street, neighbors brought over tables and chairs, and everyone sat down…just in time for the very first rain of the season to arrive!

Since most of what people know about Panama is its role in transportation due to its canal, it felt appropriate to be eating this meal in a long line in the street! It was also a treat to have the Smiths over from the other side of town; we were happy to have them crash our otherwise neighbors-only event because they lived in Panama and shared stories of living in the American community there.

A big thanks to the two dozen or so neighbors who showed up, both physically as well as for fundraising. It was one of our biggest meals yet in terms of money raised.

Patacones | Twice-fried green plantains | Recipe

Green or ripe, thick or thin or even lengthwise or diced, there’s pretty much no bad way to fry a plantain. But there’s an even better way: to do it twice. Some Caribbean countries call them patacones, others tostones, and all of them start by a quick one or two minute fry, then a smash, then a longer fry to get them crispy. Unlike the other countries, the classic Panamanian way to eat them is with ketchup on the side, a habit attributed to the Americans who built and for a long time ran the Panama Canal.

I figured they’d be popular, so I made nearly one plantain’s worth per person. Even though they’re of course best straight from the fryer, I made them all a bit before dinner and kept them warm in the oven, and nobody complained. They just asked for more.

Chicheme | Sweet corn drink | Recipe

This was kinda like Caribbean bubble tea: a fairly refreshing, milky, cinnamon-y beverage, studded with toothsome kernels of dried then boiled corn. It was fine, but most guests understandably opted for beer or other more familiar refreshments.

Sancocho Hen soup | Recipe

Most recipes for this mainstay of Panama call for gallina de patio, which pretty much means the post-menopausal hen that’s tottering around outside of the house. It turns out that at both Hispanic and Asian markets, you can find stewing hens in the freezer, for pretty cheap too. (Pretty sure they’re from an environment a tad less prosaic than a rural patio, but we make do with what we can.)

The predominant flavor of the soup is meant to be culantro, a close relative of cilantro with a sort of earthier flavor, but I couldn’t find it so I used plenty of cilantro instead. The soup was tasty, but I should have cooked it even longer, because old hens are really tough. Maybe this would be a good one for a pressure cooker.

Arroz con guandú | Rice with pigeon peas | Recipe

Even if you’ve never heard the name, you’ve possibly had pigeon peas in Indian food; one of the most common dishes in that cuisine is the stew-like, yellow toor dal made with the dried, hulled, split version of the legume. In the Caribbean, it’s typically eaten fresh, though up here you get it frozen when possible and otherwise canned, which we did here. All the same, it’s got a beany flavor for sure, but with a bit of almost smokiness to it. Which makes it perfect to mix with rich coconut rice, as a hearty way to fill your belly and get some nice flavor.

Flan | Custard | Recipe

Flan is a thing pretty much anywhere the Spanish colonized. Usually when a dish is that widespread, you see different varieties and regionalisms evolve, but as far as I can tell, everyone who cooks flan pretty much does it exactly the same way and hardly ever with any flavor variation: a lightly vanilla-scented egg custard with a sauce of caramelized sugar.  (The only variations I’ve seen involve differing amounts of fresh and/or canned milk products.)

I put the request out for a neighbor to help make flan, and there was some confusion and suddenly we ended up with way too much flan. (There was one or two out of the picture!) They were all made with different recipes, and all tasted pretty much the same. The only variation was Holly’s flan cake, which added some much appreciated variety.

Meal 132: Papua New Guinea

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Papua New Guinea, which sits north of Australia and east of Indonesia, is arguably the most diverse country in the world, with upward of 800 languages and even a few uncontacted tribes. Even though it shares the large island of Papua with Indonesia, a Southeast Asian country, it’s considered part of Melanesia, the southwestern reach of the many islands of the Pacific. The cultural grouping is certainly reflected in the ingredients and methods of cooking.

We’ve come to discover that food in Oceania isn’t centered so much around recipes, as it is around techniques that can be applied to whatever you’ve got on hand. Fortunately, a returned Peace Corps volunteer got in touch and dropped off a well out of print cookbook that provided enough guidance to pull together a meal.

I ended up cooking the entire meal with  fire. While digging out a hole for an earth oven wasn’t an option, I have both the chiminea pictured above as well as a kamado-style barbecue, so I made it work!

Our guests for the evening were Susan, George, Josh, Sofie, Andrew, Quinn, Philip, Leigh-Anne, Jessica, a few friends whose names I didn’t grab, and of course Mary.

Roasted peanuts

Just some fresh peanuts that I toasted over the aforementioned fires. Nice to have a warm snack to occupy your hands and your jaws while you wait.

Mango with coconut

Another snack to go along with the peanuts. Pro-tip: after slicing each half of the mango away from the pit, use a big metal cooking spoon to scoop out the flesh. Another pro-tip: buy frozen shredded coconut, it’s about 50 times easier than doing it yourself and sometimes even tastes better than whatever shows up in the produce section at your local market.

Vegetables with coconut milk

In a few YouTube videos, I saw people cooking over fire with a few stones to elevate the pot. So I removed the grates from the barbecue, set up a few bricks, built a little fire at their intersection, and put the pot on top. In there are a few different greens, most notably the red-streaked amaranth (native to Mexico, incidentally!), plus purple yams, slowly steaming and stewing in coconut milk. The smokiness definitely translated into the dish, which as expected was fine to eat but after a long cook and without spices was fairly basic-tasting.

Kau-kau | Sweet potatoes

Just stick the potatoes right on the coals. Cut open, and eat whatever isn’t burned. Absolutely delicious. I’m taking sweet potatoes next time I go camping.

Mumu | Pork in an earth oven | Recipe

The premise behind an earth oven is that you get a lot of heat-holding mass really hot, and then when the fire dies down you put what you want to cook on top of all that heat and let it cook for a long time. Typically this is done by digging a hole, building a fire, and putting stones on top of the fire, and then you lay down a lot of banana leaves and then the food and then more leaves. (Some places then pile more dirt on top, but I didn’t see that mentioned for Papua.)

Instead of a hole in the ground, I used a chiminea, which is typically used as an outdoor heating device, but can certainly be used for cooking. I built a fire in there and placed plenty of bricks on top; in the meantime I made a bulging banana-leaf-wrapped bundle of pork shoulder, greens, and chunks of taro root and pumpkin. I shoved the bundle in as best I could and let it sit for a few hours. At first it steamed and smoked a whole bunch, as the banana leaves singed and everything inside got really hot; as the heat died down, it smelled more and more like roasting pork and root vegetables.

With help from guests, we finally extracted the now-falling-apart bundle, losing some but not too much of the vegetables to the ground. It was really tasty, with the smoke and the banana leaves imparting a ton of flavor.

Sago dumplings with banana

This dish was a disaster. I even managed to find true palm sago and order it from Amazon (most of what’s labeled as “sago” is actually tapioca), but in the end the dumplings broke apart and then I forgot to stir it and it burned so badly that the pot was ruined. So we didn’t have dessert.