Food Culture, Restaurants

Mexican Food in Cuzco

Chalupa, El Cuate, Cuzco

Mexican food in Cuzco sounds weird.  But then so does Thai, or South Indian, or Chinese, or Dutch and yet each is found here.  Because of tourism the city is cosmopolitan.  It responds to its international clients’ demand and to the interests of its restaurateurs.  But these cuisines did not appear in Cuzco at random.  They have a history behind them.

With the boom in Mexican food in the United States and elsewhere, Cuzco restaurateurs began to offer tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.  First it was one restaurant and then, as they saw the offering was successful, many others jumped on the bandwagon. As of this writing seventeen restaurants claim to offer Mexican fare in tourist Cuzco. There are even more outside the city’s tourist core.

El Cuate, is perhaps the oldest Mexican restaurant in Cusco.  Located on the narrow and often crowded Procuradores street, near where signs begin to appear in Hebrew, El Cuate claims twenty-two years of continuous service.

But Mexican food arguably arrived in Peru forty years ago, around 1970, when the reformist military government was at its height.   Mexican food did not come here directly from Mexico, but from the versions of so called Mexican cooking that were becoming widely popularized at the time in the United States, even though at that time relationships with the United States were not the best, with its fear of any left-leaning government and the Peruvian’s cultivation of the Soviets to hold the Americans at bay.

This is when Taco Bell and similar fast food restaurants spread from coast to coast in the US, purveying what they called Mexican food to an American, suburban audience.  Taco Bell opened its first restaurant in California in 1962.  All over the country people learned to eat a crisp taco without the shell crumbling in their hands.  That was not easy as many may still remember.

The path to fame of fast food, as well as ma and pa Mexican restaurants, run by Mexican immigrants to the US, that increasingly served an American style of Mexican cuisine noticeably different from what was found south of the border, was blazed by the success of California in the American imagination of the post War period.

In part, this California dream with its reworked Mexican food was spread by the very successful Sunset Magazine, along with newspapers throughout the country; it popularized the food as part of the fantasy of living where the sun sets on land that still had the Spanish Hacienda style, at least for marketing purposes, and whose food was sufficiently exotic from the common American mindset, and yet not the troubled reality of Mexico itself.

Nachos at El Cuate, Cuzco
Nachos at El Cuate, Cuzco

Though California laid the base and was the home of Taco Bell, Texas was another hotbed of appropriation and recreation. For example, the famous nachos were created on the Mexican side of the US Mexican border by a Mexican restaurant worker Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya in 1943, at the same time the border was becoming more and more of a fantasy playground for Americans.

In the next thirty or so years, Nachos spread throughout Texas although they were quite laborious since each chip had to be decorated individually. In 1977 reworked nachos, more like the contemporary ones were offered at the concession stand in Arlington Stadium. Broadcaster Howard Cossell liked them and he and his colleagues began promoting Nachos on Monday night football. In the early eighties, this food craze took off and now nachos are found in many restaurants in Cuzco, including El Cuate.

Shortly afterwards promoters also discovered the south Texas taco called fajita in local parlance because it was made from beef “skirt stake” the “faja”, which was considered the poorest cut of meat and hence something eaten by a poor and primarily Spanish speaking population.  It was adopted as a symbol by Chicano students at the University of Texas and served in a few Texas food stands and restaurants, as one of several tacos made from beef.

In 1982 George Weidman offered “sizzling fajitas” at the restaurant of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas. The marketing potential of the name grabbed promoters who switched the meat to sirloin, thereby merging the fajita with other kinds of Texas and north Mexican tacos, such as arrachera or tacos de al carbon, and a craze was born.  It was only enhanced by the idea that the marinade, not the cut of meat, is what made these tacos fajitas, and so chicken and shrimp fajitas could be born in the marketing complex of the US.

This is the food brought to a leftist Peru along with a passion for other American fast foods such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and hamburgers, when the first taco shop, Tico Taco, opened in Lima.   But the idea of the food as Mexican fit into something else that created demand, the broad experience urban Peruvians had with Mexican film, television, and music.  Mexico’s culture had long been popular among Peruvians.

"Tacos" at El Cuate, Cuzco
“Tacos” at El Cuate, Cuzco

In those media Limeños and other urban Peruvians had seen and heard about Mexican food, especially the prototypical taco that may be one of the most Mexican of things.  But American style, fast food tacos were ready to fill the niche and fuse with Peruvian sense of how food should be.

Although Peruvians had known about Mexican food for a long time, it was very difficult to obtain the ingredients necessary to carry it off in Peru, such as the corn tortillas and Mexican chiles.  The ground was tilled and watered, but it took Peruvians who borrowed American tacos to begin to market them to Limeños.

The owner of “El Cuate”, a Mexican word for “dude” that every Peruvian knew from television and film, relates their restaurant began when her daughter returned from Mexico twenty-five years ago with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant in a Cuzco that was just at the end of a tourist boom–the guerrilla war of the mid-eighties and early nineties  reduced tourism considerably.

Though their story emphasizes “authenticity” a word that must be associated with Mexican food in the Anglo mindset for its marketing to be successful, and a direct connection with Mexico, the restaurant displays the effects of Anglo American reworking of Mexican food and marketing it to make it popular. It also fuses Mexican with local Peruvian in its offerings.

For example, El Cuate claims to be the “only” restaurant which serves “authentic Indian corn tortillas”.   However, those mysterious corn tortillas are almost entirely absent, replaced by a version of the ubiquitous American flour tortilla.

With lunch at El Cuate we were served a complementary bowl of nachos.  Fried triangles of flour tortilla, sprinkled with a white cheese and baked, abundantly filled a basket and were served along with garlic bread, a pleasant bowl of pico de gallo sauce (finely diced onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers), and three “creams”–white garlic cream, a pesto-like sauce of basil, and a sauce from Peruvian peppers, like the creams served in Peruvian pizza parlors.

Hybridity and reinvention ruled the table.   The menu lists not just Mexican dishes, but Italian and Peruvian ones as well in that common Cusco effort in mid price tourist restaurants to compete by offering a little of everything.

Tortilla Soup, El Cuate, Cuzco
Tortilla Soup, El Cuate, Cuzco

Nevertheless, the food was tasty, even it not strictly Mexican.   A tortilla soup was a tomato purée with pieces of fried flour tortillas in it, grated cheese and sprinkles of diced parsley.   It did not have the rich tomato broth that is common for Mexican tortilla soup, nor the strips of fried corn tortilla.  But it was a good and soothing tomato soup.

Tacos were rolled flour tortillas filled with meat, a choice of chicken, beef, or mixed–and then fried.  Two long tacos filled a plate along with a purée of beans, and a guacamole. More like burritos than tacos, per se, none the less they were called tacos. A Burrito was a single, large, stuffed flour tortilla served on the plate.

And, to add to the hybridity, if one wanted one could order classic Peruvian creole dishes as well as pastas.

Papas a la Huancaina, El Cuate Mexican Restaurant, Cuzco
Papas a la Huancaina, El Cuate Mexican Restaurant, Cuzco

Now, on the Peruvian culinary scene, another actor enters the Mexican food fray. The Mexican government decided to build on the success of this hybrid cuisine in Peru, although passed through the United States, to promote Mexico´s own varied and rich culinary traditions. For example, at a recent gala in San Isidro guests celebrated the declaration by UNESCO that Mexican food is an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  This is something Peru strives to achieve for its own cuisine. Mexican cuisine’s success all over the world, even if mediated by the US, is a model of success, even if the model of its growth will be different.

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2 Comments

  1. The hyperlink to the “seventeen restaurants” is not functional (second paragraph). If possible, could you update that link and suggest their locations? We’d love to visit some of these restaurants while in Peru! Thanks!

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