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A Taste of Cuzco

The waitress arrived, carrying an assortment of dishes laden with color. What caught my eye was a shot glass of petrified amber, air bubbles frozen in the resin. It was honey, so thick that it took a second to tilt when I tipped it over the rest of the order. This honey found bananas sliced lengthwise, apple and pineapple cubes, soft papaya and kiwi. All this fruit I’d just splashed with yogurt. The fruit was, in fact, the center of a salad-y sandwich – yogurt and honey atop, granola below.

My fork found a banana. It felt so different from those in the states. The taste was sweeter, more like honey. And the honey was fruitier. Yogurt, meanwhile, was slowly mixing with the juices of the fruits and into the cereals below. The seeds and grains that made up the granola were light and loamy, not like most of the harder stuff I am used to. But more than texture, the taste was completely unexpected. It lifted out of my breakfast an aroma I had never associated with granola: a tantalizing smack of coffee!

Adding a Shot of Honey (Photo: Alonzo Riley)
Adding a Shot of Honey (Photo: Alonzo Riley)

The cultural depth of South America Peru has fascinated me for years, but I admit I have not looked forward to the food. I don’t know much about it. Not many people I know could tell you what Peruvian food might look like, never mind the taste. It does not have the widespread reputation of Indian, Thai, or Mexican. There is a small Peruvian restaurant nearby where I live. But both times I’ve sampled it I have left feeling I’d endured rather than been fulfilled by the food. What I’d had was a meal (the solitary vegetarian option) of thickly sliced potatoes covered with a salty “cheese” that reminded me of the sauce made famous by stove-top macaroni, although not quite so orange.

So what little I’ve heard has been this: Peruvian food consists of blandness, diarrhea, guinea pigs, meat in every meal and a general lack of color. These rumors did not excite the inner vegetarian, but I can easily get in the mindset where I eat to live rather than live to eat. However, there I was, in a Cuzco café (Cappuccino, right off the central plaza) invigorated by a procession of new sensations. How wrong was I!

A Complete Breakfast (Photo: Alonzo Riley)
A Complete Breakfast (Photo: Alonzo Riley)

Further explorations confirmed the absolute error of my misinformed attitude. The potatoes are fresher and come in many more varieties; you must try the fries. Tomatoes are sweeter. There is an appealing straddle between density and lightness in their soups. You can hop in for a refreshing, filling lunch that doesn’t weigh you down. Markets are so pungent you can almost taste the fruit. Compare this to the odorless-ness of the US megamarket, where smells are hidden and ripe fruit rushed to mega dumpsters hidden behind its back walls.

Ripeness in the States is fraught with danger. It is a state of perfection on a teetering slope towards infection. Unripe, ripe, or rotten is all so precariously close. Fruit display and selection is therefore a place of anxiety. No one can be trusted, and therefore food gets wrapped in magic plastic and misted regularly under the sounds of simulated thunder. This is pure absurdity under a mask of logic and reason.

Typical Fruit Vendor in a Cuzco Market (Photo: Alonzo Riley)
Typical Fruit Vendor in a Cuzco Market (Photo: Alonzo Riley)

Paul Cezanne, the famous French post-impressionist predicts that the “day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” The absurdity must not be exposed! No wonder there is such an uneasy fog placed around the foods of South America. A neurotic fear of unregulated freshness keeps the wax on the apples and the ethylene sprayers in the fruit trucks. Our taste-buds have resigned.

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