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Variations on Pesto in Cuzco

Popping up on menu after menu in Cuzco, pesto hits the senses with intensity. At the same time, it can confuse. You expect one thing and something else is served. Here we explore what pesto seems to mean and why surprising variants appear.

Pesto has already taken the English speaking world by such storm that it almost always needs modifiers now, such as basil pesto, or arrugula pesto, or some such.

The dish has gone through what ecologists call “adaptive radiation”. As the sauce of pounded basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and olive oil became popular in the last couple of decades, the ingredients have changed to include many other products from other green herbs to red peppers and more.

At the same time a code has been developed for pesto of basil. One might not notice this without some exploration into food history.


John Mariani, in his How Italian Food Conquered the World, p. 24, notes that this pungent and yet divine dish only appeared relatively recently. He claims it was first mentioned in a cookbook in 1863 in the Vera Cucina Geneovese (True Genovese Cooking.)

Pesto is after all from Liguria whose capital and main port is Genoa.

From colonial times through the twentieth century Italians have immigrated to Peru where they have made themselves felt in many ways, from the panetón inevitably served on Christmas Eve to the red or green tallarines that are staples of Creole cuisine.

These Genoese immigrants probably brought versions of pesto with them. And, it is likely that, though a somewhat standardized notion made its way into cookbooks there was more variety among ordinary Ligurians.

Rissoto al Pesto
Rissoto al Pesto notes the following.

In Recipes From Paradise, the definitive text on the cuisine of the [Ligurian] region, Fred Plotkin includes more than a dozen pesto recipes, all of which call for basil, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and, with the exception of only a few recipes, garlic. Ingredients are always similar, but they’re called for in various proportions, making some sauces stronger or sweeter than others. Some use a combination of Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses; others use only one. Some add butter to the pesto for added creaminess. Ligurian cooks have also been known to occasionally incorporate cooked potato into the sauce. At times, they combine pesto with tomatoes, creating what Plotkin calls Pesto Corto, or add a light, fresh cheese, like ricotta or prescineua, a cultured cheese similar to yogurt or crème fraîche.

The famous Peruvian tallarines verdes, or green fettuccine, is generally made from spinach. Sometimes it includes basil and sometimes not. Sometimes it has nuts, generally pecans, and sometime it includes milk or fresh cheese. Furthermore, this sauce is cooked and served hot.

Pesto Romano
Pesto Romano

As a result, many of the pestos served in Cuzco are hybrids. They generally have not stemmed from the massive growth of different kinds of pesto in the recent versions of the sauce.

Instead, they stem from the many variations of the tallarines verdes as it has adapted and recently encountered the more modern and codified version  of pesto consisting of basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

As a result, ordering pesto in Cuzco is a culinary adventure. You never know exactly what you are going to get, other than it will be green and served on fettuccine, what in Spanish are called tallarines.

In any case, pith helmet firmly on your head, and bull whip at your waist, enjoy the variety and adventure. Not only is it tasty, it is fun.

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