From the Streets of Lima

by Shannon Kintner

Even in winter, when street lamps replace daylight earlier and earlier and overcast weather mutes the senses, Lima, Peru, bursts with swirling colors, sounds and smells. Despite being sand- and dirt-dusted, buildings pop with turquoise, mandarin, lilac and royal-blue paints, and the hazy exhaust from city buses can’t compete with the heady scents of basil and cilantro wafting from the barrio markets into sidewalk traffic. And from every sidewalk, corner and park come the familiar sounds of busy street-food vendors at work: coins ringing on linoleum counters, papas sizzling in pots of molten oil, businessmen and schoolchildren ordering tamales.

peru-2bPrevious Image: Peruvian citizens spend their evening on a pier, looking at the colorful boats and fishing for small clams. This Image: A vendor reads a newspaper after helping customers in his typical, neighborhood mercado stall. These common markets boast a selection of anything from fresh produce and meats to prepared sandwiches and soups to household goods.

I found it impossible to stroll one city block without the smells of at least five different foods vying for my attention and tempting the jingling soles in my pocket—and it was best just to give in. In the morning, it might be fresh papaya juice and pan y palta (ripe avocado wrapped in a pocket of soft, white bread and sprinkled with sea salt), then for lunch, fresh ceviche served with spicy salsa de aji (made with hot yellow chilies), sweet potato chunks and roasted corn, and I couldn’t pass on the ice cream made from lúcuma (a local fruit that tastes of maple and sweet potato), the crispy plantain chips or the picarones con miel (sweet dough rings bobbed in hot oil until golden, then drizzled with a citrus-infused honey). 

peru-3cA man vends sweet potato and plantain chips, popcorn and roasted, salted beans near the beach. Andean women sell fresh produce, like cactus fruit, avocados and apples, in a street market in the mountain town of Cusco.

My personal weakness, however, quickly became quinoa emoliente—a warm breakfast drink made gelatinous with quinoa pearls and sweetened with pineapple chunks. Sipping on this nourishing elixir filled me with the same satisfaction as a steaming bowl of brown-sugary oatmeal in the dead of winter when I was a child. And I found this Peruvian staple everywhere—around the corner from my friend’s apartment, two blocks away on a corner next to a rushing roundabout, even outside the airport of the mountain town of Cusco.

peru-4Ceviche, a traditional dish of raw, marinated fish, is a source of pride for this gastronomic capital of the Americas. A “coca sour,” a spin on a traditional pisco sour, is made with coca leaves and coca syrup. Drinking tea (or cocktails) with coca leaves aids in reducing altitude sickness in mountainous areas.

Walking through Lima all day was akin to walking through an eight-million-person tapas bar. I’d grab a bite of papas y huevas (potatoes and eggs smothered in a spicy cream sauce), try a taste of fried yucca and nibble on roasted beans throughout the day. But whether I spent time browsing the mountains of avocados, melons and bananas at the market or simply snacking on the go, every good day ended with a friend, a “Salud!” and a few pisco sours (a nectar-like cocktail of grape brandy, frothed egg whites and fresh lime juice)—which allowed me to hazily ingest the country’s sights, sounds and scents. By the time my friend and I would find our way home, smells from the mercado would already be dancing with the dark salty air, and the rumbling chorus of our stomachs would make me wonder where I would buy a quinoa emoliente when I awoke.

peru-3bStreet vendors line avenues in any Peruvian city, grilling meats, slicing juicy melons or frying whole potatoes and yuca fries.