South American cuisine, specifically Peruvian cuisine, is on the rise in restaurants around the country. One of the hottest culinary trends in the past few years, the food of South America is at once approachable and familiar, yet with interesting twists that intrigue and tempt the palate.
We are all familiar with potatoes, being a staple in many diets. Potatoes find their origins in the Andean highlands and are one of the most widely used tubers in the region. It is estimated that there are over 5000 species of edible potatoes in Peru. Most of what we consume in the United States shares one common ancestor, Solanum tuberosum. It’s not so interesting that they have potatoes in Peru you say? Well, it’s really more about some of the ways that they are prepared. Chunos, or freeze-dried potatoes are made from potatoes that are allowed to dry out during the day. Here is a link to the entire process, which can take up to 50 days for quality chunos http://enperublog.com/2008/09/01/the-chuno-dehydrated-potato-of-the-andes/ .
This clip from Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern shows the process first hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHekHgFIKHM . To cook them, the freeze-dried chunos are typically sautéed in some type of fat, and left to hydrate in water overnight, prior to addition to a dish. One popular dish, called carapulcra, is made by combining chunos and pork into a stew.
Another interesting tuber common in Peru, and second in popularity to potatoes, is the olluco or ulloco. It is eaten for both its tuber and its greens. The tubers are said to stay crisp after cooking, unlike a potato. The green can be used in place of spinach in any dish. That is, of course, if you have access to olluco leaves. I was able to pick up a can of olluco tubers at my local Fiesta so I could try them out. Here is a picture of them:
They do bear a close resemblance to potatoes in appearance but are actually more closely related to the Madeira vine. They are typically eaten fried or boiled, with the tubers being julienned, then allowed to soak in water to remove the bitterness. The most common and oldest recipe for olluco is olluquito con carne, made with olluco and dried beef that has been cooked in sofrito.
To get an idea of what the olluco tastes like, I cooked some up using a traditional recipe (without the meat):
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
½ onion, fine dice
6 cloves of garlic, pasted
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp fresh oregano
2 Tbsp Aji Amarillo paste
1 Tbsp paprika
1 can olluco, julienned
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over med-high heat. Add the onions, garlic, cumin, oregano, Aji paste, and paprika. Cook until soft. Add julienned olluco and cook until all water evaporates (about 5 minutes).
Corn also grows in this region, several types of which are used to make a drink called chicha. Chicha de morada, a purple corn drink is an unfermented drink, traditionally flavored with clove, cinnamon and fruit juices. It is high in anti-oxidants and delicious to boot.
Chicha de jora (corn beer) is made from germinated corn that has been allowed to ferment. In the most remote regions, the chicha de jora starts with ground maize that has been ‘chewed’ by the chicha maker. Enzymes from this chewing break down starch into maltose.
Another interesting drink is called mocochinchi, which literally means “booger” in Spanish. It is made from dehydrated peaches that have been soaked and boiled with spices.
Still with me? Great! Then let’s look at some fruits of the highlands.
The Araza or Amazonian pear is an orange fleshy fruit that has few seeds and is very soft when ripe. It has the flavors of passion fruit with a pH similar to lemons. This fruit may never make it to the supermarket though: it only germinates in semi-rotted wood, making it difficult to grow commercially. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araza
Badea, a relative of passion fruit, is also called giant granadilla. It is similar in flavor to a passion fruit but sweeter and is commonly used to make beverages. The leaves also denote some medicinal purposes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badea
The lulo or little orange is related to the tomato and reportedly tastes like a cross between rhubarb and lime. This fruit is also difficult to cultivate, and the ripe fruit deteriorates quickly, much like its red juicy cousin. It will be a while before this fruit sees large scale production. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanum_quitoense
Lastly, we cannot leave out the herb Huacatay; referred to as Mexican marigold, it plays a major role in the flavor of Peruvian cuisine. Also called black mint, it is rumored to taste like a cross between mint and bubblegum and is a key ingredient in pachamanca (a traditional dish of meats cooked in an in-ground BBQ pit).