A quick and inexpensive meal? It sounds like time for fast food. MacDonalds, KFC, and Bembos are found, now, on Cuzco’s main Plaza. For Cuzqueños however they are not cheap, though for tourists they may be given the difference in wages. So, for the people of Cuzco as well as an increasing number of tourists this means a visit to the market.
Long time travelers and locals know that in almost any town from Mexico’s northern border to the southernmost tip of South America one can always find reasonable food in the markets where there is always a section of sellers of pre-made food and food made in the moment. Cuzco is no exception.
Its San Pedro market, across from the Machu Picchu train station, dedicates maybe a quarter of its space under the tall and long roof, to cooked food. At meal times it fills with diners sitting side by side on benches and eating.
Many of the vendors have been there for decades and have perfected their recipes to both meet the tastes of a demanding public and keep costs down The food is not what you would find in fine restaurants with trained chefs. But it is solid and meets a popular aesthetic. After all the vendors depend on selling quantities of food at low prices.
In the San Pedro market, there is a section devoted to ceviche, as well as a section that specializes in lunches and suppers. Every stand offers a different menú, meaning a fixed price and fixed sequence meal of soup, main course, and desert, accompanied by a refresco, a generally fruit based drink.
The women and their families rise early to cook the soups and main courses early and to have them ready in large aluminum pots where they can quickly raise it to serving temperature and dish it up. One barely states the choice of menú and a large bowl of soup is handed to them.
It takes careful calculation of costs and volume for the comideras, the vendors of food to make a living. If they make too much or their customers don’t come they lose their capital and have to struggle forward again with the help of friends and family. Nevertheless, the recipes and stalls are often passed down from mother to daughter because they are considered fairly profitable.
Priced around 2$US the lunches and suppers (menús) draw crowds, not only locals but many tourists, especially backpackers looking to travel cheaply. But it is worth visiting the market for a meal, even when price is not an issue.
As Rick Bayless or Diane Kennedy will attest, the markets in Mexico are great places to try local foods and get a sense for technique, seasoning, and aesthetics that form the soul of a community. Other than eating in a range of people’s homes, it is only in these popular restaurants–the original fast food places–where outsiders can gain access to this knowledge and style.
Besides the menús, that change daily, each stall also offers a variety of what are called “extras”, single dishes (without soup, drink, or desert) that cost close to double the menú and combine fresh preparation and pre-preparation to keep costs down and get the dish to customer as quickly as possible.
Another good reason to try eating in the markets is that the food is driven by seasonality, by what is available and what is related to the cultural understanding of how sequences of dishes should relate to time. Special dishes tied to certain festivities or the chnge of seasons make their appearance in the market where people can try them, when they almost never appear in the restaurants of Cuzco’s tourist core.
If one wants, one can sit on the communal bench and keep to themselves, but people talk to each other. You can easily join in and shatter the wall that often separates travelers from locals. These are not people interested in providing you a service, but people who like you are there to eat. You are made equal by that common need to eat. There is no better way to enter Cuzco society than to sit in the market and talk, while sipping soup. People are open and curious about each other and perhaps something about the food, or just the sharing, makes it so. You won’t get this at MacDonalds.