Food Culture, Recipes

On Sunny Days Cuzco’s Gentle Limeade Quenches Thirst

Frozen Limonade

It is hot and you are thirsty. Maybe you have been walking around, shopping, or even playing soccer. Something is needed. It should restore liquid, give minerals and vitamins, make you relax and feel refreshed.

What can do this for you? Cuzco has many things, but nothing is better than a glass of limeade, whether in traditional form or in a slush called “frozen.” But in Cuzco’s Spanish the limeade is called “lemonade” or “limonada”.

Thirst and exhaustion are demanding. At times like that who has patience for such confusion. You need something to slake the thirst and you need it fast.

But crossing the boundaries of language and culture can be so frustrating. Is it any wonder that so many visitors try to find food like that at home. In the US lemonade is made from a yellow citrus called “lemon”, but that fruit is almost not found in Peru–or most of Latin America. If found it would be called something like “Italian lemon.”

The fruit called limón, or lemon, here is yellowish or green. Americans want to call it a lime and it does look a lot like limes. In the US, after all, there is limeade but it is sharper, more bitter than lemonade.

Latin America limones, the plural of limón, just do not taste the same as the limes of the United States. they are more acidy and sweeter tasting all at the same time.  And, in every country and region they taste different.

To make it worse, there is another fruit called lima, which is what lime would be if you just translated it to Spanish. But this fruit is relatively tasteless, though refreshing. It is the size of an orange yet green.

Lemons on Cuzco Markets
Limones in Cuzco Markets

How come there is so much confusion?

Blame it on the Spanish, if you want. Both lima and limón, which is literally a big lima, come ultimately from a Persian word that apparently just meant citrus fruit in general.

In other words, it is likely that when the Spanish came and brought the fruit of their country, many of which came to them originally from the Arabs who got them, in turn, from the great Persian Empire. Their citrus fruit probably did not have the exact forms we see today now that agroindustry and marketing have had their way with them.

The confusion where countries do not have the same fruit and the words seem sometimes to turn upside down and mean something radically different is because over the last five centuries the fruit slowly changed and took different relationships with the words available in local Englishes and Spanishes to talk about them.

Only recently, with globalization, have people traveled from one country to another in such large numbers and tried to make their language and tastes come into alignment with what they find in the new country.

Yikes. All this, and all I want is something refreshing to drink.

But I order a lemonade and it does not taste like what I expect.

Oh my. There is more. In the United States people tend to like  citrus fruit drinks  concentrated and strong. Not only is limonada made from a different fruit in Peru, it is not strong and sharp.

It is more a citrus tincture; Peruvian limones are squeezed to flavor water. The acid is there, it just does not overwhelm. Then sweetener is added to balance the acidic flavor and make a synergy that is so much greater than both parts. It sings.

Don’t worry about the differences. Taste it. Let it carry you away.

The fruit sure carried away Peru’s natives once the Spanish brought it. The little, round, yellow green fruit that you don’t peel and eat has become on of the pillars of Peruvian cuisine.

It is found in every market and supermarket and around it has developed a deep cultural tradition. It is used in salads, rice dishes, fish dishes, desserts and drinks. Among the latter the simple, but complex, lemonade claims first place.

Lemons For Sale
Lemons For Sale

Ok. I know there is Peru’s signature drink, the pisco sour around which there is an entire industry. It may take the name of the distilled wine called pisco, but it is nothing without limón juice.

The pisco sour is flashy and special occasion. There is no industry in Peru around limonada, but it is found in almost every restaurant and on almost every table in the country’s cities. As a result, it must take first place.

Because no industry has standardized limonada, no two lemonades are the same. The vary in color, texture, and flavor. As a result, in Cuzco’s restaurants and homes limonada is made fresh and is natural, mostly just water, sugar and limón juice. There are two general forms, however, the one generally served at room temperature and the other a slush served cold and called “frozen”.

Limonada is served just about everywhere. Even in Cuzco’s markets it — or another fruit based “refresco” or drink — is the common complement to the economical set meals, called menús.

This limón flavored water goes with a whole range of foods since its acid and sweetness are well balanced. It seldom overwhelms.

While discussing limonada with a friend who is a trained chef, I was given some professional advice. He said that the limes, once cut and the seeds taken out, should only be squeezed once to extract the juice. Though more may remain in the limón, it is considered bitter like the lime peel. In order to get the sweeter, richer flavor, one should not do that second or even a really forceful squeeze.

On the other hand, when the frozen is made (the limonada slush,) the second squeeze and even sometimes the zest is used since its acidity blends with the ice and sugar. Because it is served very cold, it needs more acidity to keep the rich flavor of limones.

One should only blend it briefly, however, or the zest will make the resulting frozen bitter. In addition one should only use white sugar or even better a simple syrup, since Peru’s blond sugar (a more “raw” sugar will color the resulting drink yellow.

Frozen should of course be served immediately and drunk without to much waiting since it melts and, consequently, looses flavor and body. Its flavor becomes stronger and more bitter as it warms

My friend said that a well made limonada enchants you with its touch of acidity and sweetness, neither overwhelming but in perfect balance, whether warm or frozen.

Of course for me the best limonadathat I have tasted is the one my mother makes.

A Glass of Lemonade
A Glass of Lemonade

Though I like both the regular and the frozen forms of limonada, the traditional form at room temperature instantly takes me back to my childhood. It reminds me of when I would come home from playing with my friends and my mother would have a fresh limonada waiting for me to welcome me home. I love that blend of sweet and tart.

When it is hot, as it often is in these July days when the sun never takes a break, nothing is better, more cooling and refreshing, than a frozen. But after a lot of exertion, like after a strenuous soccer match with my friends, nothing clams my thirst like a traditional, room temperature limonada.

In Cuzco’s homes a pitcher of limonada is almost always present. Not only is it simple to prepare, it has known health benefits. Whenever someone is not feeling well people will recommend they have a limonada.

Sometimes they even recommend they have it hot and made with honey, instead of sugar.

They say that limonada is even good for people on a diet.

Though simple and seemingly everywhere, the limonada does require good technique. For example, it is always good, they say, to remove the seeds of the lime before squeezing them. The seeds are small and look so inoffensive. But if left in the limonada, shortly after its preparation, they make the drink terribly strong and bitter. Even if the drink does not sit at all, they will upset the stomach.

But when well made the limonada is soothing and a delight. It is one of the ordinary pleasures of life in Cuzco.

Hebert’s Recipe for Limonada

1-1.5 liters water

2 limones (key limes or one half, large US lime)

2 tbs sugar.

When I make limonada I first boil water and let it come to room temperature, to make sure the water is safe.  Then I slice two limes (limones) in half.  Once the water has cooled I squeeze each half between my fingers (Peruvian limes are smaller than US limes, much more like key limes in size).  But I only give them one squeeze so that the bitter flavors remaining in the limones don’t enter the drink.  The I add sugar to taste and stir until dissolved.  Everyone has a different amount of sugar they like, but I use two tbs. for a liter or maybe a liter and a half of water.   You can find the amount of sugar that strikes you as giving the best balance with your limes.

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