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Posts Tagged ‘Off the eaten path’

Machu Picchu as seen from Huayna Picchu

The ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, located high up in the Andes Mountains, has long been on my list of “must see” places on the planet, and I was finally able to fulfill this dream this past March, climbing both Machu Picchu and the lesser known Huayna Picchu (the rounded peak in the background of many classic Machu Picchu shots). But no matter how many photos you have seen of this popular site, it cannot compare to the experience of actually being there, surrounded by cloud covered peaks; breathing in the thin, crisp air; and being awestruck at the huge scale of the ruins and what it must have taken to build them in such a challenging location.

Of course, one of the main attractions of any trip abroad for me, is the food. Having never visited Peru before, I had no idea what to expect other than great ceviche and, of course, cuy or guinea pig. Arriving early in the morning in Lima, one of the first bites I had, however, was the familiar empanada–ground meat wrapped up in a pastry. So many cultures worldwide have something similar: In Jamaica and Sri Lanka, they call them “patties,” in Brasil, salgados.  In Peru, empanadas are as ubiquitous as Manhattan’s dirty water hot dogs, stuffed with all kinds of fillings from ham & cheese, to beef, chicken, as well as an amazing sweet variety made with guava and cheese.

empanadas

a flaky pastry surrounds a moist, meaty filling--who doesn't like that?

the ultimate street food

Judging by the hotels in which I stayed, breakfast is not much of a meal in Peru. The most you’ll get is a white roll with butter and jam and maybe some fruit along with a concentrated coffee liquid to which you add hot milk. To see what average Peruvians start the day of with, however, I took a look at what’s cooking on the streets. Outside one of Lima’s old school mercados (markets), where you can by all manner of fresh meats and produce, I followed the noise of frying and the aroma of meat and eggs, to discover what’s really for breakfast here.

can't beat the streets...

...for a classic fry up!

Speaking of the mercado, it’s a great place to get a “lay of the land” and see which foods are available in a country as well as which foods people like to eat. In Peru, where the mighty Amazon begins, there are no shortage of exotic eats, many  of which I am still trying to at least put a name to.

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The meat section reminds me of a typical market in Sri Lanka (or any developing nation for that matter), where huge sides of beef hang on hooks sans refrigeration. As people waste  no part of the animal, plenty of offal (the nasty bits) is available as well, to be made into traditional dishes like cau-cau, or cow’s stomach (which I did not have the pleasure of trying this time around) .

In Lima, ceviche is king, and I tried all manner of this seafood-cooked-in-citrus specialty, from the 5 soles plate at the mercado to the more high-end offering at La Rosa Nautica Restaurant (see earlier blog post). What I love about ceviche here is that they serve it with so many sides–a boiled sweet potato, toasted corn kernals, rice, and even fried calamari–which make it a full meal, while also providing a textural counterpoint for the tender chunks of fish and seafood. I also love the marinating liquid–leche de tigre (milk of the tiger)–made of lime juice, cilantro, red onions, and salt.

my first ceviche: can't even see the fish swimming in the "leche de tigre" and topped with fried calamari and a chunk of sweet potato

freshwater ceviche

But while seafood is primarily the province of coastal areas, a plate of lomo saltado stands as more a contender for the national dish. A simple stir fry of (usually) beef with onions tomatoes and peas served with rice and french fries, lomo is a gut-buster that is guaranteed to keep you going all day (that is, if you are not inclined to take a nap after eating it).

lomo saltado

Of course, if beef is not your thing, there’s plenty of pork and chicken to go around, and for those on the more adventurous side, alpaca (a relative of the llama) provides a great lean alternative. With a taste akin to beef, alpaca, prized for its soft fur, which is used to make everything from sweaters to rugs, also makes a mean steak.

an alpaca

grilled alpaca

Another quintessentially Peruvian favorite is, of course, guinea pig or cuy. Though Americans might balk at the idea of eating an animal that many consider a household pet like dogs and cats, Peruvians also keep these animals as pets, yet relish their taste, regardless. No self-respecting gastronaut, could bypass such an opportunity, so I seized the cuy with both hands at a restaurant catering to locals in Cusco, the former Inca capital. Located almost 12,000 feet above sea level, Cusco has a decidedly rootsier feel compared to more cosmopolitan Lima. It’s also difficult to breathe here, and handful of coca leaves placed between the cheek and gums and alternately chewed and sucked on greatly helps deal with it. It doesn’t seem to bother the locals, however, mostly quechua-speaking Indians, who appear out of a different era.

cuy...or guinea pig to you

a typical resident of Cusco

The grilled guinea pig was served whole (or actually vivisected from head to tail) along with some pasta, sauteed vegetables, and a couple of large Andean potatoes. The crispy skin, much like chicken skin, was delicious and comprised most of the edible material here as this small animal does not have that much meat (and a lot of bones). In fact, what little flesh there was tasted a lot like chicken except for the ‘head cheese’ up in the well-baked cranial cavity which had its own unique flavor. I thought nothing of polishing off the little critter except when I stared at its tiny, rat-like claws, which elicited unwelcome visions of the New York subway. At 20 soles (about $7.50), cuy was also no bargain in comparison to other local food, so I didn’t have it again on the trip. However, I did see a much cheaper version of cuy at a street fair Cusco, served with bread, cheese, and topped with a kind of seaweed of all things, but having just polished off a hefty portion of lomo saltado, my appetite was satiated for the rest of the day.

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specialty of the house at Juchunyuan

Colombo has no shortage of Chinese restaurants, most of which serve food with its own particular character, shaped, of course, by local tastes (meaning, it’s much spicier than the run of the mill storefront Chinese in New York or any western city for that matter).  It’s also probably nothing like the ‘authentic’ Chinese food you get in China. That’s why Juchunyuan is such a find: It’s a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Colombo that obviously caters to a largely Chinese clientele looking for a true taste of home.

You could call this well-worn establishment a hole-in-the-wall because it’s off the eaten path, but a clean one at that exuding an odd charm. Though not heavy on ambience, the downstairs dining room, with its 4 semi-private booths, is at least spotless and cooled by AC. While upstairs offers additional seating, both times I have been there it was empty (which might have something to do with the waitresses not wanting to carry the large chafing dishes of hot soup up the stairs).

the upstairs dining room

Besides the paucity of décor, the first thing you notice upon sitting down is the gas burner built right into the center of your table, definitely an omen of good things to come. Also of interest is the single-page, double-sided menu that flashes Chinese characters at you (another good sign), but fret not as closer examination reveals tiny English subtitles written beneath. And anyway, didn’t you always want to know how to write “pig’s heart” or “sheep’s stomach” in Mandarin?

Once again, don’t be intimidated by the menu, because at least one of the waitresses speaks passable English and she will help you out with ordering.

“So how do we do this?” I shamelessly blurted. I might be a gastronaut, but never professed to being a know-it-all.

Our helpful waitress, Lena, directed our attention to the other side of the menu, which lists the different kinds of soup available. They’ve got fish, chicken, “pig bone” and even duck with beer among the offerings. You can order it spicy or not. We settled on the “three sort sea food with short rib soup,” extra spicy, of course.

Soup's On!

Soup is not only the starter here, but the star, as well as the medium in which you will cook your meal. That’s right; if you thought the chef was going to do all the work, guess again. This is, after all, not just any restaurant, but  a “Resraurant” as the sign proclaims.

Sign by Scooby Doo

The flip side of the menu features a dizzying array of ingredients. In addition to the afore-mentioned offal, they also have more normal stuff like prawns, cuttlefish, beef, mutton, and vegetables such as mushrooms, kelp, cabbage and kan kun.

“What’s good, today?” I asked Lena. She recommended the prawn wonton.

“We’ll have an order of those.”

I also got up to peek at the table next door, filled with a group of Japanese men happily swilling cold beers with their hot soup, and decided on getting some prawns, white cabbage, kan kun, and noodles.

“That should be enough for now.” I said, thinking about the “three sort seafood and short rib” that came with the soup.

Lena disappeared and reemerged with our utensils, an array of tools fit for us budding soup chefs, which included a tiny soup bowl and porcelain soup spoon, two metal serving spoons, one with holes; a fork; and a set of chopsticks. She flitted back and forth behind the scenes, returning with a delectable assortment of condiments—fresh chopped garlic and cilantro, peanut sauce, soy sauce, and a thick chili oil.

condiments and raw ingredients for the soup

“Wow! This is getting more interesting by the minute,” I said to my cousin Cane, who had turned me onto this place, though he had only eaten some fried rice on his initial visit. Cane was visibly excited because like most Sri Lankans, this was an entirely new dining experience for him.

Lena appeared next with a large stainless steel bowl of soup, whose broth was practically bright red from the preponderance of chilies. It’s good to see that extra spicy meant exactly that. She rested it on the gas burner in the center of the table, and turned on the flame. Then the stuff we ordered started appearing on the table in quick succession, raw, of course.  Our mouths sufficiently watering by now, we wasted no time, sliding a couple jumbo prawns (with head and tail intact) into the mix along with whole leaves of white cabbage, some freshly made prawn wontons, and kan kun  (stems and all).

Cousin Cane ready to get into some soup

While this stuff quickly cooked in the bubbling cauldron, it was time to assemble our bowls of soup. First in went the pre-cooked rice noodles, over which I ladled several spoonfuls of the spicy broth. Next I added a bit of all of the condiments, and finally some of the now cooked vegetables, wontons and a rosy red prawn. I gave it a little stir and sipped a spoonful of the broth.

“Wow! Flavor” I said as both mine and Cane’s eyes seemed to light up at the same time.

YUM!!!

The broth alone was something worth writing home about with its three kinds of seafood and pork ribs. We found out after the meal that the seafood in question was actually dried squid, oysters, and mussels, which had been imported from China, according to Lena. As far as I knew, you couldn’t get this kind of stuff in Colombo.

The "three sort seafood" flavoring the broth -- dried oysters, squid, and mussels

More raw ingredients went into the broth and fished out cooked into our bowls. After much slurping and chewing it seemed like we actually made a small dent in the huge chafing dish of soup. But this was clearly a meal fit for a minimum of four people.

So we went away happy and satisfied with our taste buds thoroughly titillated, and resolved to bring the rest of Cane’s family to help us conquer the next bowl of soup (and next time we did go for the pig’s heart and cow’s stomach).  Juchunyuan proved itself a marvelous and surprising find in the middle of Colombo, and if you ever find yourself with curry-fatigue, it’s got just the tonic for you.

 

Juchunyuan Restaurant

450 B Charles Drive (off Duplication Road)

Colombo 3

011-402-1246

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One of the new Sri Lankan food trucks selling lunch packets

Lunch being the main meal in Lanka, I noticed that there’s a ton of places to get a quick, midday rice and curry—from street side stands and trucks that sell 100 rupee rice packets to the informal, sit-down restaurants that cater to the office crowd.  While most rice packets are perfectly fine, they have usually been sitting around since morning and because they are already boxed, you really don’t know what you’re getting until you open it up. That’s why I prefer to go to a place like Gamay Kade. Though you pay a little more (240 for the basic rice and curry meal with 4 vegetables and a meat dish), you get a load of different dishes to choose from, all piping hot and fresh in the traditional clay chattys in which they were cooked. This is Sri Lanka’s version of fast food, served in a clean setting, under spinning ceiling fans, and on real plates.

My plate at Gamay Kade: fish, prawns, dahl, mallun, beets & mango curry

a side of fried fish

Arjuna's plate: fish, prawns, dahl, jackfruit, mango, mallun

I checked out the Gamay Kade (which roughly translates to ‘village diner’) on Union Street in Colombo with my friend Arjuna,  a  Sri Lankan filmmaker, and went away quite satisfied.  Not only were there about 15 different curries from which to choose, but they also served Chinese food, buriyani, and Malay specialties such as Nasi Goreng. After taking a peek at the sumptuous offerings before us, we told the cashier what we wanted, paid, and got a ticket, which we presented at the buffet line. Here, a lady served up a heaping mound of rice (red rice for me), as well as red fish curry, prawn curry, dahl with spinach, beetroot curry, mango curry, and mallun (sautéed greens). Arjuna got some jackfruit curry instead of the beets, and we also got a side order of fried fish. After washing up at the washing station, we dug in with our hands (the traditional way of eating rice and curry) thoroughly enjoying the feast before us.  The total food bill—a whopping 680 rupees (US $6.18 or $3.09 per person). It tasted as good as home made, and we did not go away hungry.

 

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