By Christine Whalen
Last February, I traveled to Peru with my husband’s family to visit close friends, Jorge and Pierina—Peruvian locals who’d offered to help us navigate the country and its cuisine. From the hearty potatoes and corn in the mountains to the tropical fruit in Lima and the Amazon, the food was incredibly fresh, varied and abundant. We spent several days around chilly Cusco—the historic Inca capital about 11,000 feet above sea level—and stayed warm by drinking hot herbal infusions and eating quinoa soup and choclo, a giant-kerneled corn served with slabs of queso fresco that’s sold on the street.
One afternoon, I sat at a cliff’s edge taking in the Andes while my in-laws hiked a ruin. I must have looked a little green because a local man asked if I was okay. When I told him it was la altura (the altitude) that was affecting me, his eyes brightened and he told me to stay put. He disappeared down the mountainside and returned with a fistful of wild herbs. “Muña,” he said. “It helps soroche (altitude sickness).” I bruised a leaf with my fingers. It smelled like mint, oregano and grass. I chewed a few leaves. The herb’s freshness and the man’s generosity exemplified the food and the people I had encountered in Peru.
Later, I asked Jorge about Gastón Acurio, a Peruvian chef known for introducing Peruvian cuisine to the world. He was excited that I’d heard of Acurio, and he told me that his efforts have “raised Peruvians’ national pride about ten times.” Then he made a reservation at Acurio’s restaurant in Cusco’s city center, where we ate potato bread and papas rellenas, potatoes stuffed with quail eggs and fried crispy, and drank chicha, fermented corn beer.
Getting back to sea level brought hot temperatures and new things to eat. It was February—summer in Peru—and fruit season. I devoured an incredible variety of fresh, seasonal produce, some of which I’d never heard of before the trip, and I’m sure I only scratched the surface. Outside one of Lima’s chifas, Peruvian-Chinese restaurants, I was shocked to see vendors’ carts brimming with bright yellow granadillas, a kind of passion fruit, for three nuevos soles (about one U.S. dollar) per kilo.
In the jungle, and at the beach, we feasted on fruit: tiny, pungent bananas with flavors of strawberry, pineapple and butter; lucuma, waxy green orbs with starchy orange flesh that tasted like caramelized sweet potatoes; cherimoya, a giant custardy fruit tasting of pineapples, raspberries, pears and cream (my new favorite fruit); mamey, a fuzzy brown fruit with a bright orange interior with flavors of pumpkin and plums; and shockingly fresh mango, pineapple and papaya. We picked and ate fruit right off the trees like carambola, tart star fruit; guanabana, cherimoya’s milder, spikier relative and cacao pods with dark beans surrounded by mildly sweet white flesh.
Lots of sweets featured the fresh produce. We tried mazamorra morada, a thick purple-corn pudding with tiny sour fruits at the bottom; picarones, thin pumpkin doughnuts with molasses syrup; candies made with invigorating maca (a mildly creamy, bittersweet root known for its medicinal properties) and cacao (the key ingredient in chocolate that ranges in flavor from deep and mellow dried fruit or vanilla to assertive green grass or strong coffee, depending on the variety and how it’s processed) and Pierina’s homemade coconut flan. The tropical fruits made their way into ice cream sold at the beach and along Lima’s busy streets. After sampling banana, lucuma and granadilla ice creams, we finally found cherimoya at the ice-cream shop in Lima’s airport.
After returning to Austin, I tracked down cherimoyas and tiny bananas, but they just weren’t the same. While they looked similar, their flavor paled in comparison to those in Peru, which reinforced what I already knew: food is best when it’s fresh, local and in season. Luckily for me, citrus season was in full swing in Texas!