Why Peru Is, and Always Has Been, the Culinary Capital of South America
When I ask our host, general manager of Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, Angie Clavijo, what she likes to do when she’s at home in Lima, she casually responds: “I like to go out and eat.” In Peru, eating is a way of life. I came here to explore some of the country’s most popular regions – Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Lima. It didn’t start out as a food-lover’s trip, but it quickly became one. Good food isn’t new to Peru. In a country home to 3,000 different types of potatoes, where ceviche is the national dish and quinoa has long been a staple, it’s no surprise that food has always been the main ingredient in Peruvian culture.
I arrive in Aguas Calientas, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, and collapse into a chair in the hotel lobby before ordering a pisco sour — a zesty cocktail made from pisco (a liquor distilled from grapes), which Clavijo tells me is “the national drink of Peru.” It’s no small feat getting from New York City to Aguas Calientas, but we’ve made it and I think I deserve a drink — especially if it’s Peru’s national drink. We are staying at the luxury hotel that overlooks one of the mountains surrounding the world-renowned Incan citadel, Machu Picchu. As exhausted as I am and as much as I need a shower, the first thing I want to do is sink my teeth into some ceviche. Peru is renowned for its ceviche, and seeing as I’m already enjoying the national drink, I might as well go with the national dish, too.
Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel
Although Sumaq doesn’t market itself as a food-lover’s destination, it should. We settle for lunch at the hotel restaurant and order an array of dishes from the menu. We eat everything from classic ceviche – made with local salmon trout (also known as Rainbow trout) caught in Lake Titicaca, to pastel de choclo – a traditional corn pie filled with oxtail and paria cheese. Later, we are given a cooking demonstration where one of the chefs shows us how to make ceviche and one of the bartenders shows us how to make a pisco sour. Making ceviche isn’t hard, but there is a certain level of skill involved. The chef uses salt, chili, lemon, lime juice, lots of ice cubes and a celery paste, which she tells us is her family’s secret recipe. With most Peruvian recipes, the ingredients are never complicated – just really, really good.
The next morning is spent hiking around the beautiful Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Afterwards, we are treated to a pachamanca, a traditional Peruvian dish which is baked in the earth with hot stones. By the time we arrive, the food has been cooking for around three hours and is almost ready to be served. We watch as the chefs remove the earth, grass and stones to display an underground oven, where meat wrapped in banana leaves and several varieties of potato have been cooking. We are served a cup of chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer, which although rich and funky, is strangely moreish. We sit down to lunch where the potatoes and corn are served separately and the meat is served as a stew in a small clay pot. I count six different types of potato on my plate. To accompany it, we drink Cuzqueña, a local Cuzco beer – the perfect addition to a hearty meal, after a morning of hiking.
The next day we bid farewell to Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientas, and make our way by rail to the town of Ollyantantambo. From here we are driven to the Sacred Valley, or Valley of the Incas. Set at the foothills of the Andes, the valley is a strangely desolate place dotted with towns and Incan ruins. We stop in at Aranwa Hotel and wellness center, where we eat a lavish dinner featuring an assortment of traditional Peruvian dishes, in a seventeenth century courtyard. The hotel has its own garden where they grow all their own vegetables and herbs. The valley is incredibly fertile, “you drop something and it grows,” one of the gardeners tells me. Clearly, this is why the valley is so sacred.