To get close to a plate of salchipapas, even though it is simple, is to be wrapped round and round in a world of attraction and gusto. Although not a typical food of Cuzco, this combination of fried potatoes and sliced, fried franks draws people as if it were a wonder. It has become a kind of tradition; several generations have now grown up with it.
Salchipapas, a plate mounded with french fries and sliced franks, accompanied by sauces such as ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and hot sauce, has become one of Peru’s most popular dishes. This is certainly true in Cuzco where it is sold daytime outside the city’s universities and students seem to devour it. In the evenings night carts selling salchipapas appear all over the city to popular demand. But this popularity needs explaining.
Potatoes evolved in Peru and neighboring countries. As a result they are one of the country’s great staples and have changed the world as they expanded outward. But this simple potato recreates itself when deep fried. Instead of being a simple starch packed with vitamins that is a staff of life in this jagged land, it becomes something else entirely.
The Japanese have a word that comes close to describing salchipapas, a word that has struck the culinary world in the last decade or so. It is umami and refers to a savory flavor that “has a mild but lasting after-taste difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a furriness sensation on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth.” Although not exactly the same, in a technical sense, nonetheless deep-fried potatoes in their combination of crispness, and savoriness on the surface, along with the butteriness of the flesh comes close to being something like umami.
The same can be said of the franks, sliced on a bias and lightly fried. That bit of toasting not only gives them a bit more oil, it gives them that savory brown flavor that keeps one wanting more.
It is not just this, however, that draws people. At home one tends to eat Cuzco-style food, at least in most families. Often this is a soup along with a main course, a bit of meat with favor and potatoes. Salchipapas are aesthetically different.
They are abundant fried potatoes and sliced franks, just that. Besides their savoriness, they serve as vehicles for the sauces which symbolize the contemporary, as opposed to the tradition of home.
The modern, of course, is not new. It has been around for a while now. But salchipapas are a Peruvian fast food, not unlike all that has taken over the United States. Besides being served by women working at stoves in movable carts, salchipapas are served in restaurant called “snacks”. These specialize in fast food which is to eat while in movement, rather than enjoyed over time in a sit down meal.
Snacks developed with the growth of Peruvian cities and a group of people who worked and did not always return home to eat. As a result it is the counterpart of the growth of food carts on the street, although these last also often continue with old traditions of street life.
The carts emphasize a distinction between home and street, which fills Peruvian life from beginning to end. But the snacks contrast not just that, they also build a distinction between the typical–that which is the essence of Cuzco– and that which belongs to the world of industry, media, discos, and work. In short it is the endless but constantly changing contemporary.
Frankfurters are not native to Peru, though potatoes are. Neither are most of the sauces native. The franks, called salchichas, came with German immigration at the end of the nineteenth century and in the inter-war period of the early twentieth century. And, like beer and pollo a la brasa, these Germans also enabled this other prototypical modern food, sliced frankfurters and french fries, or salchipapas.
For many Peruvians, there is just something unexplicable in the delight of greasy fries, so different from the pillowy boiled potatoes of home, and the texture and taste of franks so different from the pork, chicken, beef, or guinea pigs they eat at home. The meat is finely ground, colored, and seasoned in a way that is just not standard for Peru.
But the color of the resultant dish, is something very satisfying. The salchichas are red and the potatoes basically white and form the colors of the national flag. These colors, of course, are not recent, but go deep into the Inca past as sacred colors.
Not just university students line up to eat salchipaps. There are stands for those who work the night, taxi drivers and others, such as on the Tupac Amaru Avenue in the neighborhood of Progreso in suburban Wanchaq. The vendors set up around seven pm and serve through three or four am, when their food runs out.
Another nighttime place for salchipapas is near the town’s discos and clubs, or along the Plateros street downtown. After dancing and drinking while enjoyign the company of friends, Cusqueños stop for a snack either before going home or before continuing what in Spanish is called juerga, a good time.
At one snack in Cuzco, in the area where cars are repaired, the different styles of salchipapas take the names of cars. A fine salchipapa more abundant and perhaps with Peruvian chorizo instead of the frank would be a Ferari while more basic servings would be something like a Tico, the ubiquitous taxi from Korea that is both inexpensive and long lasting.
In short, the salchipapa has entered Peruvian and Cusqueñan taste where is captivates. It first conquers the eyes with its colors and then the nose with its smell. But its taste, with ketchup and mayonnaise, leaves few unconvinced. It is a paradigm of its own.