Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101. We're back after an unannounced break last week due to my having fallen ill right when I was supposed to be composing the article, which takes quite a bit of doing. When last we met, we'd gone through some of the stews and main courses of Peruvian cuisine. This week we'll talk about why Peruvian chicken puts Costco to shame, what you eat when you're an Iowan farmer travelling in Peru, and finish up the overview with some sweet, sweet sweets.
There are many styles of rotisserie chicken out there, Armenian and Mexican and American, but the king of all rotisserie chickens is Peruvian. While there isn't much to making a roast chicken, the Peruvian marinade, which usually contains cumin, garlic and salt and often the black basil-like herb huacatay, lemon and chile peppers, somehow has a certain yo no sé qué (that's Spanish for je ne sais quoi). Add to this the fact that most Peruvian places usually serve their chicken atop thin shoestring fried potatoes and with a large, friendly bottle of ají sauce that can hold its own against Armenian garlic paste and it's easy to see why the single most familiar Peruvian food to the Southern California audience is rotisserie chicken.
Rotisserie chicken is sold in chicken restaurants as well as in some sit-down Peruvian places, so if you're looking for a place to try it, try a place that specializes in it. Inka Anaheim (400 S. Euclid, Anaheim) and Inka Chix (24000 Alicia, Mission Viejo) are popular destinations. Just outside OC in Gardena lies Pollo a la Brasa (16527 S. Vermont, Gardena), one of the better places in the region for it.
Lest you think Peruvians only eat rustic stews steeped in millennia of Andean tradition and seafood with lime juice and peppers, the steak-and-potatoes person has lots of company in Peru. Steak is called bistec, and while it's not as popular as it would be in Argentine, Brazilian or Paraguayan restaurants (let me know if you come across any Paraguayan food around here), Peruvian restaurants serve a variety of bisteques.
The most common is called bistec encebollado, which, if you know any Spanish, will immediately become familiar as steak smothered in onions.
Bistec a lo pobre, also called bistec montado, is a grilled steak topped with a fried egg and fried plantains. Anytime you see "a lo pobre" on a Peruvian menu, it means "poor style" and indicates that there's a fried egg somewhere in the dish. Eggs are the protein for people who can't afford to kill the chicken, hence "poor style".
Bistec apanado is breaded and deep-fried steak. As with anything deep-fried in Peruvian cuisine, it's usually accompanied with rice and sarza criolla (red onions, sliced thinly and marinated in lime juice and salt).
Bistec a lo macho is steak topped with seafood that has been tossed in very spicy rocoto chile sauce. The last time I saw someone order anything a lo macho, it was a twenty-something woman in La Furia Chalaca (a restaurant on Oakland's Broadway that may be the best Peruvian on the West Coast) who, upon seeing the snickers and sidelong glances of the waitstaff, proceeded to add aji sauce to the already-spicy food and stare them down as she consumed the entire thing. I wanted to applaud; they comped her dessert.
Peru has its flan (called crema volteada, upturned cream) and its rice pudding (called arroz con leche), but if you're looking for a custard-based dessert, skip the flan and go straight to leche asada, an unbelievably rich, dense pudding made of both sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk mixed with egg yolks and sugar. Portions of leche asada are, to American eyes used to Marie Callender's pie portions, tiny, but a little goes a very long way.
Peru is very close to the equator and thus their fruit selection is a lot more varied than ours in these relatively temperate climes. One of the glories of Peruvian fruit is the lúcuma, a fruit from a shrub that grows in the Andes above 7,500 feet. It's a roundish fruit with a large, avocado-like seed, and the flesh inside tastes like a cross between bananas and maple syrup. The only way you're likely to try lúcuma here is to buy frozen pulp or to buy ice cream. Helado de lúcuma is by far the most popular flavor in Peru, outselling chocolate and vanilla put together.
If you simmer purple corn, quince, apple and spices (including cloves) together until the corn bursts, then strain the mixture, you will have a surprisingly sweet, fruit punch-type drink known as chicha morada, which is available in almost every Peruvian restaurant. If you then cook chicha morada with potato or corn starch, pineapple and sometimes dried fruit, then let it cool, you will have a vibrantly purple pudding called mazamorra morada. The flavor is sweet-tart and the texture is more like loose jelly than like pudding or Jell-O™; this is the dessert for people who don't love things that are super-sweet.
Alfajores are a very popular dessert, consisting of two tender butter cookies pressed together around a filling of dulce de leche. (If you don't know dulce de leche, which is milk and sugar cooked low and slow until it turns brown, you are missing a huge chunk of culinary vocabulary--and the Häagen Dazs ice cream doesn't nearly do it justice.)
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Finally, arguably the signature dessert of Peru is picarones, doughnuts or fritters made of sweet potato and squash and covered in a syrup made from molasses solids. They're impossible to eat neatly, even with silverware, but the added earthy sweetness of the winter vegetables will forever mess with your perception of what a doughnut is. The best picarones are light and airy on the inside.
Next week, it's the most populous country in the world, with arguably the most ancient and well-developed cuisine in the world. To try and treat Chinese food in three weeks would be an Herculean task, but we will start with the highlights.