One item that is never missing from the table in Cuzco is rice. It is eaten every day in a great variety of foods, from soups to main dishes. It, along with potatoes, is the staple that makes food in Cuzco.
Although rice is most common in the city, its use is spreading to rural Cuzco, where people have to come up with cash to buy it, since rice is not grown in Cuzco’s communities. As a result, you only find it in neighborhood stores, supermarkets, and our public markets. Nevertheless, it comes in various brands and varieties.
Rice arrived in Peru shortly after the Spanish came. They in their turn had obtained it from the Arabs who got it from Persia. Although rice became a staple of coastal cuisine, it is not until recent times, with the massive expansion of industrial agriculture in Peru’s north and the jungle, that rice has become commonly available in highland cities like Cuzco and, as a result, found in lots of dishes.
Because of the role of industrial agriculture, almost all the rice consumed in Peru is similar, despite a variety of names. Unfortunately, the original, Spanish-Creole varieties seem to have been lost. Instead, as Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture observes:
The principle varieties of rice cultivated in the different rice-growing valleys are approximately 30, and the majority originated in the Program for Rice Research—Peru (PIA-Peru). These varieties come from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI-Philippines) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT-Colombia).
The principle varieties raised on the North Coast are Viflor, Inti, Sican, Costa Norte, Taymi, Oro, Santa Ana, San Antonio y NIR-I; On the South Coast Viflor, BG-90, San Antonio y NIR I; and in the upper jungle Alto Mayo, El Porvenir, Amazonas Huarangopampa, Utcubamba, Moro, Saavedra, San Antonio, Capirona y Yacumayo.
These are the technical names used by producers. When the rice comes to market it carries brand names related to the processing plant or combination of processing plants. Given this system, the kinds of rices and their flavors are very limited. People prefer ones that are graneado, give separate grains once cooked, and that respond well to the demands of Creole cooking, i.e. producing a fried rice (chaufa) or a fluffy rice with separate grains to accompany a main dish.
Among the most well known brands in Cuzco’s market, one that is most preferred is the Cholo. This rice comes from northern Peru and costs some 3 /S for a kilo, a bit more than a dollar a kilo. It comes well processed and does not need pre-cleaning before cooking. Its grains are large and stay whole.
Another popular brand is the Gallito, which runs 2.60 /S per kilo. Like the Cholo, this rice also does not need washing before cooking. It also does not need to be picked through to look for stones and impurities.
Other, different rices are the brown Costeño rice, which runs 2.9 /S for 750 grams; the Extra Rice; the Red Mill rice; and many more. These come from the North Coast areas of Piura mostly, although some were grown in the jungle and some are imported.
The people who buy have to have a good eye. They look at the grains, to judge their size (length) and their wholeness. They also accept recommendations from the vendors (caseras).
For example, a new rice, the Rompe Olla (or Pot Breaker) is a good rice people say. Its price is 3.50 /S, more than the others and comes from the north coast, although some people say it comes from Brazil. This rice is precooked, and has a different color. Many housewives like it because it cooks up easily into separate grains and stays whole.
But one of the vendors in the Wanchaq Market said that Rompe Olla rice does not have the flavor of other rices. At the time of eating it is rubbery or gummy. She also said that the rices that she sells the most are the Cholo, followed by the Gallito.
While in the open air markets rice comes in big bags from which the vendor scoops out the quantity you want, in the supermarkets it comes in plastic packaging with the weight stamped on the bag. These rices include the Costeño brown rice. The bags also carry instructions in how to cook the rice.
Nevertheless, Cuzco’s housewives generally know how to prepare rice. Even though they may rely on different techniques and other ingredients to give the rice a diversity of flavors. Some of the other ingredients we can mention are garlic, onion, raisins, allspice (pimienta llana) and many others.
The rice may be made up in a pot on the stove, a rice cooker, a pressure cooker, and many others.
Just thinking and writing about rice reminds me of all the many delicious foods that require rice. It is a product that accompanies the great majority of dishes and is indispensable for many.
For example, one of our favorite dishes is green rice with duck, or a rice with egg and fried plantains (Cuban-style rice), rice with lomo saltado, rice with an aji of lisas, rice with tarwi and mormontoy, rice with a knuckle scramble (revuelto de patitas) and many others. Even though the rice is in the dishes it is generally not included in their dish’s name.
We also love rice because you can make it up in quantity and the reheat it the next day to make a whole new range of dishes.
No one in Cuzco can deny having eaten rice. You can be sure that if you eat in Cuzco’s restaurants rice will probably be part of your meal.