Eating Vegetarian in Cuzco

Once upon a time, finding vegetarian food in Cuzco was as hard as keeping the Mississippi river with in its banks during a hundred year flood.  But now Cuzco has many good offerings.  Among others (see our search engine), it has restaurants, such as El Encuentro and Govinda’s, that specialize in vegetarian cuisine, as well as the up-scale Greens that focuses on organic offerings and whose menu is vegetarian friendly.

Of course, in the day things were different. Before the restaurant boom of the last decade, most food was rather basic. And, it fit more the dominant Peruvian folk standard for restaurants of meat and potatoes. This was before much fast food, and the new Peruvian standards that include expanded offerings of Chinese food and pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken).

There were vegetarian offerings in the markets and especially in home cooking that included dishes such as kapchi, solterito, and jaucha (made from broad beans and turnips). After all for most Peruvians meat was expensive and something to be eaten sparingly, as a result. But meat still ruled the conception of what feast food and what a restaurant was.

Then the Hare Krishnas came to town. At a time when many people in the United States and Europe feared the Hare Krishnas as a sect that would “brain wash” their children, take them away from middle class life, and put them, like the Moonies, in airports begging for donations in exchange for literature.

The Hare Krishna caused quite a stir in Cuzco with their colored robes and their afternoon worship which involved chanting and dancing in the main square. But, they opened Govinda’s, a restaurant that was strictly vegetarian on Espaderos Street, just off the plaza and between two intellectual and activist coffee houses, Café Extra and El Varayoq.

Though of these, only Cafe Extra remains on Espaderos (it originally was elsewhere) all three continue in Cuzco. Govinda’s, now on Saphi street, continues with its wide offerings of fixed menu lunches, as well as special plates. Instead of being the densely and complexly spiced food of India, these dishes blend Peruvian ingredients and a vegetarian sensibility for a public that is skeptical of spice.

If one wants the full spicing of South Indian food, then the restaurant for you is Maikhana on the corner of Avenida el Sol and the main square (on the second floor of the Galeria La Merced), this restaurant is owned and run by a couple from South Indian who have chosen to settle in Cuzco and run their restaurant. They offer a reasonably priced buffet with a range of curries, both vegetarian and other, that are tasty and well prepared.

The only disappointment here is the rice. Instead of the fragrant rice of the subcontinent–such as basmati–the restaurant relies on Peruvian rice which just lacks the flavor of basmati. It does not stand up well to the flavor of curry. But, to be fair, many other restaurants manage to pull more flavor from the rice. Maikhana needs to work on its rice.

El Encuentro is a small restaurant with a mission. It opened more than a decade ago and attempts to bring health consciousness to Cuzco’s restaurant market and its clients. This mission is prominently stated on its menu and advertising materials. But its food does not taste medicinal or missionary, but very good. Like Govinda, it offers a daily special of a fixed meal with at least two different main dish offerings, for a very reasonable price.

Salad Bar, El Encuentro
Salad Bar, El Encuentro

It also has a large menu of offerings from pastas to creole Peruvian cuisine made with vegetarian meat. Like many vegetarian attempts to mimic meat-driven cuisine, the dishes often feel like an imitation. But of far more importance they are tasty in their own right and worth eating on their own terms. El Encuentro also offers a small but well stocked salad bar to accompany both the main dishes and the fixed meals. It has justifiably become a fixture in the Cuzco restaurant scene.

The idea of vegetarian food as either good for you, or a political or religious statement, has been much of what has led to the development of vegetarianism in the West, since Francis Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. While these currents of political, religious, and health conscious vegetarianism have intertwined in the Global north to make for a powerful food movement that has spanned its own cultures, publications, and businesses, it has also grown among Latin Americans and Cuzqueños.

As a result, it is not surprising to be seated in Govinda’s or El Encuentro and find net to one a local Peruvian lawyer or other professional also enjoying vegetarian cuisine. Both places have been the cutting edge of vegetarianism in Cuzco at the same time they have been refuges for vegetarian tourists and other interested eaters.

Greens is of a different order. This is an up-scale, carefully designed, well appointed restaurant with carefully prepared food following international culinary school specifications, and owned by the celebrity chef Coque Ossio. As such is is part of a well thought out set of Cuzco restaurants that form a single enterprise, called Cusco Restaurants, that includes some of the finest restaurants in Cuzco (Limo, Inkanto, Pachapapa, MAP, and Inka Grill.)

Fresh Salad at Greens
Fresh Salad at Greens

Occupying the upper floor, above the popular Inkanto restaurant on Santa Catalina, just past the Portal de Belén on the main square, Greens is a beautifully appointed space with tables and bright colored art on one side and couches and over stuffed chairs and pictures of the Amazon on the other. In between is the entrance, with a table laden with traditional Peruvian ingredients indexing the mission of Novo-Andean cuisine to rehabilitate traditional Andean products.

The menu is carefully thought out to provide variety and quality of preparation, with attention to detail and presentation.

It begins with a range of salads with crisp greens and lettuce that has the bite of traditional, hand raised greens. It proceeds to a range of appetizers, with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings before continuing to a similar range of main dishes with a variety sides that one can choose from, as well as a small set of pasta dishes. But the deserts demand attention. Top of the list is a mango “ravioli” that was simply amazing. The careful attention to detail in the kitchen, along with reasonable prices, makes Green’s well worth a visit.

Mango Ravioli, Greens
Mango Ravioli, Greens

Cuzco may have had few vegetarian offerings in the past, but the city follows international trends closely and it now has a range of good vegetarian offerings, from sophisticated to down home, that will keep a range of vegetarians and their friends happy.

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