Workshop recap: Peruvian Cooking Experience
When we first started planning our trip, I had visions of learning how to cook traditional foods wherever we’d go. In South America these visions consisted of images like me and a well-worn abuela, making empanadas. Me and an Argentinian butcher, grilling up all those cuts of beef I’d never heard of before. Me and a Chilean fishmonger, me and a Peruvian potato farmer, so on and so forth. Heads together, laughing, eating, poking fun at each other, exchanging knowledge (in a mostly one-way exchange, let’s be honest). But I’m not exactly sure where I thought I’d find these people; people with time and patience to spare and the interest in opening up their homes, their businesses, and/or their kitchens to teach a gringo how to make their traditional food. People who I’d be comfortable enough with to poke fun at. Now that I’ve been to some of these places, the thought is hilarious at best and embarrassing at worst. Also, I probably should have taken into consideration the consistently recurring fact that I don’t speak Spanish. Brett does a wonderful job translating for shopkeepers and hotel receptionists and flight attendants, but that only goes so far and gets pretty exasperating after even the shortest of exchanges.
And thus it was that, with only a tiny bit of logic and reasoning, my dreams of picture-perfect, authentic, intimate South American cooking lessons were bashed.
So in the absence left behind, I’ve sought out tourist cooking classes as we’ve planned each city – entirely touristy, yes, and almost certainly of the sort that merely guide you through a couple of recipes and send you on your way, but still a chance for me to ask questions about the food and get answers from people who at least somewhat know what they’re talking about.
But – it turns out these sorts of classes aren’t as common or as affordable as they are in other parts of the world (I’m looking at you, Southeast Asia …), and in each city I’d come up empty-handed. Until Arequípa, Peru, that is. In Arequípa, I found one that was even better than I could have hoped for, a three-part workshop designed by the owner of our hotel, who used to be a professional chef, and set in the hotel’s beautiful outdoor courtyard.
For 65 soles each (usually 75 – staying at the hotel gives you a 10 soles discount), Brett and I spent six hours learning about the food and drink of the Arequípa area. We opted for all three optional parts of the workshop – a guided tour of Arequípa’s central market, a three-course cooking class, and a pisco class, including a lecture on the origins and uses of the liquor and a lesson in making pisco sours. As someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen and generally knows her way around a cooking class, I wasn’t honestly expecting to learn much more than a few new recipes and maybe a few new fruits and vegetables at the market – but I actually came away with much more than that and would definitely recommend the experience for anyone spending time in that part of Peru. (Also, Arequípa was an entirely lovely city and the hotel was fantastic – a perfect place to lay low for five days around New Years, especially after the touristy chaos of Cusco and Puno/Lake Titicaca.)
At 10 a.m., our group assembled for a tour of the market, four blocks from the hotel. It was New Year’s Eve and the area around the market was bustling with people picking up supplies for parties and celebrations that evening, everyone with armfuls of garlands and party hats and packets of confetti, all bright yellow to bring luck in the new year. And if the area outside the market was crowded, the market building itself was stuffed to the gills with people. People buying food, people buying cloth, people buying good luck charms and herbal remedies to bring in the new year. First thing, our guide walked us to the mezzanine on the second level, a quick escape from the crowds so she could show us the general layout of the market and explain where we’d be going. We then descended into the madness, stopping in a selection of market sections so our guide couple point out or explain things we saw and buy us a few things to try.
Our first stop was the potato section – one entire aisle of potato vendors, each seller dwarfed by massive mountains of potatoes piled onto tables and onto the ground. As anyone who’s spent time in Peru can tell you, the variety and volume of potatoes available is overwhelming – black potatoes, white potatoes, neon red potatoes, purple, yellow, pink, blue, and every other color you can think of. There were huge potatoes with waxy skins and long potatoes with rough, bark-like skins; sweet potatoes and starchy potatoes and everything in between. There are over 3,500 varieties of potatoes in Peru, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a good portion of them that day.
In the fruit section, our guide quizzed us on a variety of Peruvian fruits, the vast majority none of our group had ever seen or heard of before – “tomato fruit” and cocona and lucuma and the like. We tasted cactus fruit and the subtle Arequípeña papaya, and picked out mangoes and a pale, thin-skinned melon to have for dessert at the end of the cooking class.
We tasted coconut sweets and learned about Arequípa’s traditional three-cornered bread, joked with a man selling frogs (dried or live), stood in awe at the massive, lacy nets of orange roe hung out to dry, and saw an entire pig butchered to order. Like other South American markets we’ve visited, there were precarious towers of cheese wheels, barrels of grains and flours of all colors and types, and booths packed with cans and boxes and bottles of everything from tuna to dried pasta to rose water.
We certainly could have walked around the market on our own, but having a guide meant we knew what we were seeing, and it gave us a fantastic excuse to linger at booths, shamelessly taking photos and staring at things and asking questions.
Back at the hotel’s outdoor kitchen, our group of 10 quickly got to work on our meal. First was ceviche, served in the traditional style with boiled sweet potatoes, boiled corn, and crunchy fried corn (boiled corn is more traditional in the south, fried corn in the north, but we were provided both to see what we liked more – I preferred boiled). We chopped and combined everything for the ceviche under the direction of our instructor, who explained the importance of the various ingredients and all of the ways ceviche might be served in various places. My previous experience with ceviche had all been with the Mexican variety, and from what I can tell the main difference with Peruvian ceviche is that it often includes a fish broth-based liquid called “tiger’s milk,” containing a bit of all of the non-fish ingredients in the ceviche (e.g. onions, celery, chilis) pureed together with fish broth. Many cevicherías offer small glasses of tiger’s milk on the menu, and it’s widely considered to be an aphrodisiac. (Or so I hear.)
After we gorged ourselves on our ceviche creations and bottles of Arequípeña beer, we moved onto our second dish – pescado ala macho, a fried white fish served with creamy, peppery seafood sauce and white rice. Before dredging our fish in flour for frying, we coated each piece with pureed garlic, a genius move I am certain to take home with me. In pairs we fried our own fish and made our own seafood sauce, a silky smooth and flavorful thing made with garlic, onion, brilliantly flavorful pepper sauces, fish broth, pisco (which we flambéed), cream, and chunks of local seafood including octopus and mussels (and some other things we were unable to identify-via-translation beyond their Spanish names). It was fresh and powerfully flavorful, and we all congratulated ourselves and toasted to our success.
After our second course no one was sure we’d be able to eat any more, so thankfully our dessert was just a small cup of the mango and melon that we had picked out at the market that morning. Both were perfectly ripe and sweet, and a perfect way to end the meal.
After lunch, those of us who wanted to stay for the pisco part of the workshop headed upstairs to join Armando, the owner of the hotel, to learn about pisco and make some pisco sours. There’s a lot to know about Peru’s most famous liquor, and we learned about how it began (a grappa alternative, and something to do with grapes that didn’t make very good wine), all of the various types (from various regions of the country and of significantly different flavors), modern pisco-related political issues (pisco from Chile is not the same as Pisco from Peru), how to pick out good pisco at the store (for instance: clear bottles mean better pisco), and the complex rituals around giving pisco as a gift (including: never wrap the bottle in anything, and be ready to drink!). Armando is incredibly knowledgeable about the food and drink of the Arequípa area (and Peru overall), and it was fascinating to learn more about the history and current issues surrounding Peru’s culinary world.
After learning all about pisco, it was time for tasting and making cocktails. Armando provided acholado pisco (one of the three dominant types), and we tasted a bit on its own before making two rounds of pisco sours. A pisco sour is a fairly straight-forward drink – pisco, lime, and sugar (in something around the classic 3:1:1 cocktail ratio, depending on how sweet or sour you like it), shaken with an egg white until foamy and topped with a dash or two of Angostura bitters on top once strained into a glass. There are various ways to play around with the recipe and once we’re home I’m sure to work on something and post our favorite method here.
Taking this workshop certainly doesn’t mean I’m well-versed in traditional Peruvian cuisine, but it certainly brought me a bit closer. It was well worth the money spent, and I’m looking forward to bringing the information into my own kitchen and into future classes.
After the cocktails, Brett and I stayed around to chat with Armando for a bit, and ended up with an invitation to join him for lunch later in the week. He toured us around the city a bit and took us to one of his favorite Arequípa restaurants, far off the tourist trail. For a few hours we chatted about food and life in Peru, and gorged ourselves on fava beans, fried cheese, lamb stew, and roast suckling pig, washed down with chica (a very traditional slightly alcoholic beverage made from fermented purple corn) and followed up with queso helado (a cinnamon and coconut dessert akin to a combination of ice cream and granita). It was definitely one of best meals we’ve had in South America, and a great opportunity to learn more about Peruvian cuisine. (Thanks again to Armando and his hospitality in showing around two low-budget gringos with big appetites.)