Traditional Food

Picarones: Flirtatious and Finger-licking Delight

How many foods do you eat where afterwards you just have to lick your fingers? Well, add picarones to your list.

A popular Peruvian fritter the picarón takes its name, it is argued, from still having zing from its hot-oil bath when you lift it with your fingers to your mouth. It is supposed to zap your fingers with just a bit of sharp heat before the syrup cools the fritter down.

In a online survey of favorite deserts in Peru carried out by the important Peruvian daily El Comercio on March 30, 2011, picarones carried the day when they won 25% of the votes in a very crowded field. The second place went to rice pudding (arroz con leche) with only 16% of the total votes cast.

Picarones are also popular in Cuzco. In last year’s gastronomic festival Mucho Gusto Peru, carried out in Cuzco’s Beer Garden, 3000 portions of picarones were served. They carried the day, according to news reports, and represented almost ten percent of the total number of plates sold.

A fried dough, in the family of doughnuts, beignets, and New Mexican sopaipillas, picarones descend from a common Spanish desert that itself probably originated with the Arabs. Called buñuelos, they were a seasoned dough, deep fried, and sweetened with syrup, a word that also originates in Arabic. In one form or another, these Arabo-hispanic sweets spread throughout the new world following the Spanish invasion.

In Perú the buñuelo claimed new ingredients to become today’s picarón. While the original is made with a dough based on wheat flour, other ingredients can also be added such as fruit to make a richer dough. In Peru indigenous ingredients were used in the dough such as the squash and sweet potato that are common in the picarones of today in Lima.

A common story on the internet claims that these ingredients were substituted in colonial times because of the expense of wheat flour, but they probably were part of the ordinary experimentation with different ingredients to make a variety of buñuelos. But at some time the name changed and picarón, originally an adjective became a noun and was adopted; the buñuelo took on a much more colorful and attractive identity.

Picarones Ruinas, Cuzco
Picarones Ruinas, Cuzco

The picarónes are common street food. And, they pick up a common part of street culture, the verbal play of ordinary speech.

The word picarón is commonly used today in Peru to refer to a flirt. People say “¡Qué picarón eres!” to someone who speaks flirtatiously and teasingly.

Instead of being prepared in kitchens and brought to the table as a finished product, well dressed on plates, picarones are fried in hot oil in plazas and street corners or in the doorways of restaurants. This is deliberate. The smell of the cooking fritters attracts people and tempts them to buy the fritters and enjoy their sweetness.

Furthermore a good picarón is crisp on the outside from its quick frying but soft, doughy, and light on the inside. In this it is also relies on a different meaning of picarón. The word refers as well to a tease; it appears all tough and macho but inside is soft and delicate.

In Cuzco, picarones are common street food. Some call them “the sweet of Cuzco”. They appear and disappear on the clock of street life.

In the afternoons, as dusk approaches with its chill, picarón vendors set up their burners and pots in Cuzco. They are especially known to be on the edges of the city, although established picarón shops exist in the colonial heart of town.

On the edges of town the fritters are sold by older women called mamachas. Enclosing the Spanish idea of mother and the Quechua term for lady along with the suffix of endearment “-cha,” this term shows an important aspect of Cuzco life. Here people address each other with family terms. Men are called “papá,” father, as a kind of warm form of address, and women are called “mamá,” mother, while young men address each other as “tío,” which not only is the Cuzco form of “dude,” it literally means “uncle” and has a very long and complex history in the Andes.

Mamacha is the warm and loving term of address used for the Virgin of Belén, Cuzco’s patroness who peers out from the Cathedral onto the main square every time the massive doors are opened. But in the case of the women selling picarones, mamacha refers to them being ordinary people, or women who have few resources and hence resort to preparing and selling street food. The common image of a mamacha is also someone who wears the white, stove-top  hat historically  typical of market and valley women.

The women set up shop in ares that have an view and which have lots of traffic and, beginning around four in the afternoon, offer hot circles of sweet dough, with a delicate anise and, sometimes, cinnamon taste, lightly covered with fresh, molasses syrup. People will see them cooking and the food will reach out, tempt them, and pull them in where they sit on benches and eat. Others will take picarones home to share with their family.

But the best known picaronería, or place where picarones are made and sold, is on Calle Ruinas on the Corner of Tullumayo in the heart of old Cuzco. It was the one invited to the festival Mucho Gusto Peru, and is justifiably honored.

Making Picarones, Cuzco
Making Picarones, Cuzco

In afternoons a burner and vat of very hot oil is set up in the doorway both to let passersby know there are picarones and to tempt them with the flirtatious and teasing odor. It is called Picarones Ruinas.

There are no barkers and the shop’s large and colorful sign is inside on the back wall. The frying picarones are all that is needed street-side to keep the shop’s workers busy and its tables full.

While recipes from Lima, such as this one in English, involve yeast, wheat flour, and mashed, cooked sweet potato and squash, the people of Picarones Ruinas insist their picarones are different. They say they are made from sweet potato flour, anise-flavored water, butter, eggs, and sugar. And the syrup is made from chancaca, a concentrated form of light molasses. I specifically asked about wheat flour and rising agents and they insisted not.

The dough, once out of the mixer, rests in prepared balls on a large tray. When a client asks for a plate of picarones — because although you can buy them individually if you insist, they are sold on plates holding three for about a US dollar — the lady working there wets her fingers, scoops up a ball and skillfully stretches it into a large round with a perfectly formed hole in the center. The dough is soft and pliable, but to make the form quickly and elegantly requires considerable skill and practice. It is not easy for the neophyte or faint hearted.

The dough round is dropped in the hot oil and with a metal skewer it is spun around and turned until it cooks to a beautiful mild, honey brown, not unlike the color supposedly characteristic of beautiful women. Then out of the oil it is pulled and dropped to drain for a bit while another round is stretched and cooked. When all three are ready, in an astoundingly brief period for a food that is cooked one by one and not mass prepared in advance, the picarones are covered with the syrup, simply called miel, and given to the customers.

They disappear quickly. The first bite amazes with its complex and layered sweetness from the sweet potato, the anis-seed flavored water, and the unbelievably good flavor of the syrup. They also delight in the crispy and hot exterior and the soft fluffy interior. before you know it they are gone and you lick your fingers for the last tastes of the syrup that has clung to them.

Chicha Morada
Chicha Morada

While in many places it is customary to eat fried dough with a particular drink — in nearby Bolivia, for example, their wonderful buñuelos are eaten most often at dawn with a hot glass of api, a hot, thick and fruity, purple corn beverage, here there is no code. Sometimes you drink nothing. The picarones are enough to protect you from the impending chill of night. Other times you might choose, like in Picarones Ruinas, a glass of chicha morada. Also made from purple corn, fruit, and spices, chicha morada is a classical soft drink of the Andes. Here it is fresh made and comes with a tell tale froth that had to be hand spun.

Picarones are a treat you owe yourself. So, in an afternoon in Cuzco, stop by Picarones Ruinas and let yourself be flirted with, delightfully teased, and tempted by the complex and delicious, foreign and yet indigenous desert that will make you want to return to this city of the Incas for more.

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