Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cuy (guinea pig)

Some regions are known for a particular dish and some dishes are known only to a particular region, lacking the global appeal to cross cultural and geographical borders. I make no mystery of my fascination with indulging in these isolated delicacies and one such oddity was repeatedly brought to my attention in our plans to visit Peru and hike to Machu Picchu: cuy, also known to local pet shops as guinea pig.


Long before you brought Mr. Tweetypoo home from Petsmart for a life of squeaking, eating, and crapping on the carpet, the Andean peoples were domesticating guinea pigs for the explicit purpose of eating them. Originally used in ceremonial meals, cuy was eventually adopted as an acceptable food for any occasion calling for the consumption of rodents. Peruvians we met expressed a great appreciation for guinea pig meat but it is a bit pricey and therefore not regularly consumed by the common populous. However, there are still an estimated 65 million guinea pigs being eaten each year and these can't all be attributed to tourists looking to spice up their lackluster lives by eating weird food, like I do regularly.

Eating a guinea pig was priority number two for the trip (priority number one was making it to Machu Picchu in one piece), so the night before we embarked upon our hike I visited a local establishment that specializes in all things cuy.

Most restaurants will actually require you to order cuy a day in advance and put down a deposit to prove your sincerity which is typically 10 soles out of the average 50 soles for the dish (with a 3:1 soles to dollar exchange rate). The most common and traditional preparation is called cuy al horno, meaning roasted guinea pig. Here's the shocker, it's brought to you whole. There's no denying the fact that you're eating a guinea pig when it is lying there complete with tooth and nail, near intact sans fur.

Lacking certain mental components that would cause a normal human being to become nauseated at the mere sight of this fetid feast, I was completely unfazed by the scene laid before me (I blame it, along with my many other deficiencies, upon the multiple instances of blunt force trauma to the head in my developing years). Still, I tried to be dignified about the whole process and attacked the rat thing with my knife and fork, much to the amusement of the staff. Thick skin and meager amounts of flesh made this tactic difficult.

"When dissecting animals, I usually use a scalpel," I remarked to the sole English speaking waitress.

"You're supposed to eat it with your hands," she said in a tone that sounded so genuinely nice that it couldn't have been anything but mockery.

But eating it with my hands didn't make the process any better because, to be completely honest, the taste of this creature was absolutely disgusting.

cuy face

Ever eaten rabbit? It's delicious and I hope to eat it again someday soon and include it in this self-indulgent set of literary and journalistic abominations. Ever eaten snails? I have and didn't particularly enjoy the experience due to the overbearing bitter component in the flavor. Well, take that bitter component and marinate an emaciated rabbit in it and you can begin to imagine the flavor of guinea pig. I'm ashamed to admit that for a few days following this adventure I became overwhelmingly nauseated at the mere mention of cuy, far more nauseated than I was during the actual consumption of the foul creature.

So I gave up, leaving most of the flesh untouched, and instead focused on the tasty stuffed peppers traditionally served as side items, without which I would have starved that night.

Far be it from me to dissuade anyone from sampling any delicacy (that doesn't have some horrid environmental consequence) so I leave it entirely up to you. Take a good look at that face and ask yourself if you can actually stomach eating something that both looks and tastes this bad.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pisco Sour

Pisco is a brandy-like liquor distilled from grapes that forms the base for the pisco sour cocktail, both of which are currently being fought over culturally and legally by Peru and Chile, each fervently claiming to be the birthplace of these drinks. Ignoring this near-hundred year struggle, I must apologize to the Chileans and limit my discussion to the Peruvian versions since it's all I've had the pleasure of trying but I welcome all Andean countries, or any nations of the world for that matter, to make travel arrangements for me to visit and sample the wonderful local victuals.

The pisco sour is to Cusco, a fascinating tourist destination in Peru and starting point of the Inca Trail, what the margarita is to Key West, a fascinating destination city in the US and starting point of the US1 highway, and can often be acquired as a free compliment to a meal at many of the local restaurants.

pisco sour

A mixed drink, you say, what's so strange about that? Well, here's a list of the typical ingredients:

* 2 fl oz (8 parts) Pisco
* 1 fl oz (4 parts) Lime juice
* 3/4 fl oz (3 part) Simple syrup
* 1 Egg white
* 1 dash Bitters

Egg whites, that's crazy! There was no doubt a look of sheer horror on my face when I saw my first pisco sour being prepared, especially when I was supposed to be avoiding any situations with a potential for causing diarrhea. My flirtation with and successful avoidance of gastrointestinal distress aside, the raw egg white whipped up into a foam within the cocktail was actually really good and the drink would have been incredibly boring without it.

pisco sour

In my limited sampling of this concoction I found that some places went a bit overboard with the syrup and it became far too sweet. The pisco itself, or at least the cheaper varieties, is said to taste like a weak (as in flavor) rum but it's difficult to isolate any flavor when your only exposure to it is in mixed form. Because of the lemon or lime juice used, the pisco sour is a bit reminiscent of a margarita in certain respects but the frothy egg whites give it more of a cappuccino-like texture.

I'm not a big fan of cocktails but this was interesting enough to call for repeat samplings and I owe that primarily to the egg whites and citrus juice. We even found some places gave the egg white treatment to lemonade which resulted in a wonderful and refreshing beverage. Definitely recommended for the adventurous lushes out there but don't blame me for any cases of diarrhea or salmonella infections.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Red Bananas

I really like bananas. Currently, due to the intersection of my love of their flavor and my constant hunger with their nutritional value, their bulk, and their low cost, I am consuming three bananas a day. Once I heard a rumor that eating more than two bananas a day could lead to an early death due to the high levels of potassium. Actually, I think I read it in a book or saw it in a movie but a quick search on the Google results in many pages in support of this idea that bananas are going to kill me.


I feel fine.

Regardless of whether or not bananas are going to cause me any sufficient damage, the sad fact is that the trees bearing these wonderful packages of plant matter are currently under threat from the horrid Fusarium oxysporum/Panama disease/Agent Green, a fungus that wiped out the Gros Michel cultivar of banana, predecessor to the current most popular variety, the Cavendish. The bananas you buy at the store are all the product of essentially the same organism. You may have noticed that the bananas you buy have no seeds as a wild specimen would have. This is because all Cavendish banana plants are reproduced by removing and planting offshoots from the main plant. Banana plantations are armies of clones producing sterile organs harvested for our consumption. As a result of this homogeneity, what ails one banana tree can lead to the destruction of them all and Fusarium oxysporum, to which Cavendish bananas had earlier been resistant to, seems poised to obliterate many of the commercial banana crops around the world.

So what do we do? Experimenting with the commercial viability of other banana cultivars is one good tactic and it may not be long before we start to see red bananas appearing in many of the major super markets. They're already infiltrating the smaller health food stores which is where I picked up my first sample.

Here's one major problem with introducing new bananas or different pigments: when are they ripe? The green, yellow, black phases we use to make judgement calls regarding the state of a banana don't work when the banana is red. Instead you have a red/pink, red/purple, black progression and the distinction between the under-ripe and ripe phases can be confusing.

So I bought my first red banana and rushed home, excited, for my first sampling. I took some pictures, did a bit of reading, and decided that it should be good to consume. I peeled back the skin a bit which showed some resistance. "It's just a different type of banana," I said to myself and then sunk my teeth into the flesh. Immediately all of the moisture was sucked out of my mouth and into the banana shaped block of wood. Not ripe, nowhere near it. Leaving it for a few days didn't rectify the problem and, heartbroken, I was forced to abandon the banana to the trash can.

red banana

Fast forward to a market in rural Pisac, Peru. We'd been told to be wary of eating local fruit unless you could peel it yourself. Even then, be careful we were warned. So I was wandering around, observing the wares and dodging chunks of flesh and bone flying forth from the butcher stalls, when I saw them: bananas rojas! My health store midget cost me about a dollar in the US; I scored this whopper for a mere 15 cents and I didn't even think to haggle.

The scent of the red banana is a bit more "tropical" than what we're used to with our yellow Cavendish cultivar. There is a hint of the acidity of citrus in the aroma and a floral component. The taste and texture are noticeably different but not drastic enough to jeopardize its commercial viability. The hint of citrus is present in the flavor whilst the typical "banana flavor" is less pungent but bold nonetheless. The texture is fluffier, a bit velvety, and a little drier which results in a slightly less filling snack. I've also noticed that they tend to be shorter than the Cavendish but are often a bit fatter when at full size.

red banana peeled

I've had subsequent success with buying from the health food store so just be sure to pick the darker, more purple banana if you're planning to give one a try or you'll get a mouthful of wood. While I would surely lament the passing of the yellow Cavendish banana if it ever came to a tragic end, I would be just as happy with the red banana and would love to see them both sold side-by-side in major supermarkets.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I've previously mentioned my disdain for the term "gamey" in describing the flavor of meats. It's not just that the word itself sounds somewhat infantile but that it's rather ill-defined and simply suggests boldness or pungency. So it's all I can do not to use this dreaded adjective in my following attempts to communicate the taste of alpaca meat.

alpaca meat

A good whiff of the steaming hunk of flesh gave me the impression that I was in for a salty beef or venison analogue but, while it was indeed rather salty, the characteristic flavor of the meat was wholly distinct from any other I have so far had the opportunity to savor. Pardon the negative connotation but the initial taste was something like a kick to the tongue by an incredibly agitated musk ox. Musk... musk... the sole word I was capable of producing in my mind whilst chewing that fist morsel. With an effect similar to a first encounter with wasabi sauce, the flavor hung in my nasal passages like a thick fog.

The texture was very similar to that of a thin, lean, tender steak and succulent in spite of the low fat content. The flavor, despite its incredible pungency, was pleasant but I imagine it could become overbearing if the portion was increased by much. If you're traveling in the Andes and aren't opposed to eating cute beasts with soft fur and grotesquely undershot jaws then definitely give it a try.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Coca Candy

Continuing my hazardous experimentation with substances in foreign countries, I moved from the coca tea to some harder stuff: coca candy.

coca candy bag

These little sweets actually taste pretty good. I doubt there's any more than a single coca leaf in each one meaning the natural presence of the illicit substance that shall not be named again is incredibly low. There's a slight flavor of vegetation but nothing like the pungent bouquet of the coca tea.

coca candy

The best things about these things were that, in the dry atmosphere of the Andes, popping one into your mouth stimulates a healthy production of saliva to help counteract the ever present thirst one suffers in such an arid climate.

coca candy unwrapped

I didn't feel any other effects upon consuming the candies so, again, I recommend opting for some chocolate covered espresso beans if you're looking for a buzz but the experience and unique flavor are well worth the meager dollar if you find yourself in the areas of South America where they are sold.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Coca Tea

It's true what they say... that hemp bearing 9 bar was a gateway drug, driving me further and further along a path of depravity, bringing me here to coca tea.

coca tea

Coca tea, or mate de coca, is an infusion enjoyed throughout South America, particularly in the Andes, and is made from the leaves of the dreaded coca plant from which one can extract cocaine if one is so inclined. But the cocaine is present only in very small amounts, approximately 0.2% of the weight... still, due to a zero tolerance policy at work, I ask you all to please refrain from telling my boss.

In late September we embarked upon a trip to Peru and were greeted with an unlimited supply of coca tea as soon as we reached the hotel in Cusco. It is a bold yellow in color, much like the Peruvian Inca Cola soft drink or urine after a vitamin B supplement, and best served warm like the latter. The pungent aroma gives hints of fresh cut grass, spinach, and boiled brussels sprouts. The taste doesn't differ much from the scent and can be simultaneously odd yet appealing.

coca tea dispenser

Purported to help with the effects of altitude sickness and to have a stimulant effect similar to coffee, coca tea is said to be the secret strength behind the incredibly impressive porters who lug tourists' heavy bags along the mountainous Inca trail for days on end.

I was ill-prepared to properly ascertain the effects at first. Sleep deprivation and the sudden arrival at high altitude rendered my mind a dizzy muddle and the tea didn't seem to aid in my alertness. Despite repeated experiments throughout our stay in Peru, I wasn't able to get any meaningful effects from the tea and gave up for the king of stimulant brews, coffee. I did notice that my eyes became drier and red and that my blood vessels felt constricted, which is a physiological mechanisms of the cocaine, but I had no numbness, no "energy" boost, nor anything else of the sort. Perhaps if I'd tried pouring the tea in through my nostrils...

coca tea cup

Being that the coca leaf is a big part of the native Andean culture, no visit to Peru would be complete without drinking of coca tea or chewing a quid of coca leaves, just don't try bring back over the borders. Even though the cocaine is present in very small amounts, your ass could still end up in jail. And why risk it when, as far as I'm concerned, you'd be much better off sipping a latte and chewing on some chocolate covered coffee beans?