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Open Air Markets and Other Choice Dining Experiences

September 10th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

It was during our ten-hour tour of the Sacred Valley that I finally dove into the culture of what I’ll call “Peruvian micro restaurants”.  By this I am referring to the common setup of a (typically older) Peruvian woman having a picnic table at which they’re putting on lunch for whomever should come by and take a seat on the bench.  It’s just a step or two up from street side food vendors in terms of formality.  These women make a rice, potatoes, meat, salad, and soup in bulk and will serve you up a plate and hand you a set of silverware, often within 30 seconds of you sitting down1.  The cost is between 3 and 5 soles, or under $2.

After experiencing and delighting in this a few times, the model of the conventional restaurant is starting to look like a little, well, oddly inefficient and isolating.  At the picnic table the food you get is really delicious (these women know what they’re doing in Peruvian cuisine: it’s like your mom feeding you a nice home cooked meal, as opposed to having your order slapped together by some line cook who may or may not hate his job), the portions are ample, it’s super cheap, it’s super fast, and you get to meet and mingle with others in shared table/come and go atmosphere.  The obvious cons: you don’t get to pick what’s being served today, any more than you could order something different from your mom when she lays out dinner for the family2, and you don’t quite have the privacy and ability to exclusively choose the company at your table.  Health and sanitation concerns are also present, for just as your mom doesn’t need to take laborious measures to meet OSHA and FDA requirements, well, neither do these Peruvian ladies3.

So indeed, conventional restaurants have their place: when you have a particular taste, have a date or other social purpose, or are the type to keep a bottle of Purell at your desk and don’t trust anything with less than a 4-star government sanitation rating.  It’s just that after experiencing this way of going out for a good meal I’m a bit crestfallen that this model, with its massive efficiency and down-to-earth charm, is so thoroughly absent in the US.

While in the Sacred Valley visiting the sites of Incan ruins we stopped in a colonial church dating back to the Spanish conquest.  This church, with its centuries-old blend of ornate and dank, gave me the creeps about this particular slice of Christian history.  Topping off the feeling was learning that devotees had adorned statues of the virgin Mary and Jesus with real human hair, and that even one of the statues of Jesus back in Cusco has some human teeth in it, taken no less from the mummies of pre-Conquistador Incan rulers.  Our tour guide implied that this was a way of honoring the native Incans by including them in the artwork of the new religion, but I like to think that, coming from a conquering people recently descended from the Spanish Inquisition, the gesture was at least in part to remind the natives who’s boss.

See Tracy’s blog for full pictorial coverage of our visit to the Sacred Valley.

Ten days ago we did a cooking class taught by Erick, a local chef who owns several restaurants in town.  As part of the experience he took us to a market and told us about various plants, fruits, and other products were available that might be otherwise invisible to our gringo eyes.  The class was great and we made some fantastic dishes, but what I find most worth telling about is my learning of coca leaves4.  Erick mentioned some of the history and cultural importance of chewing coca leaves, and the beneficial effects on digestion, nutrient absorption, and metabolism.  “It was a tragedy when someone worked out how to make cocaine from the leaves, because then the world went crazy about this very important and beneficial crop.”  I was intrigued by the benefits and asked if I might get a few to try.

And this was when it started to feel like I was making a drug deal.  “Sure, there’s a woman who sells them at the end of the market over here.”  We walked.  “How much would you like?  Half a pound?”  Um, sure, I guess?  The woman filled a bag chock full of leaves, big enough to barely fit in the pocket of my hoodie.  2.5 soles, or $1 for what looked like a ridiculously huge stash.  Then she broke me off a piece from what looked like a stick of gray chalk.  Erick narrated like a pusher explaining to a first timer: “You take a little bite off of that, the calcium carbonate allows the oil of the coca leaves to better absorb.”  How many leaves should I, um, chew?  “Take 3 at a time, chem them but don’t swallow, and then spit them out and take 3 more.  Do this for like an hour.”  I was assured they were completely safe and non-addictive.  Oh, and that I had best not take any back to the US, as customs might not be too keen.

I tried chewing a round of 3 finally a week later.  For me it was a mild stimulant, and gave me mouth a sensation like when novocaine wears off.  Other than a that and a few cups of coca tea, my stash languished on the counter of our apartment kitchen.  I found the whole experience was a very visceral glimpse of how arbitrary drug criminalization seems.  Here my bag was a cheap commodity, a commonly enjoyed and completely accepted substance.  To fly back to the states (or many other countries) with my one dollar purchase in tow might well get me in a heap of trouble.

Speaking of substance use, the other day at a cafe I met a fellow who just returned from five months in the jungle, having just undergone an extensive vision quest under a naturalist shaman.  When we met he was six hours away from his bus back to Lima, en route to pick up life again back in the US.  On ascertaining what an interesting fellow I was talking to, plus his current condition of just killing time, I believe my exact words were “Well fuckin’ A, why don’t you come over and have dinner with my wife and I?”  Talk about a great dinner guest. He told of many ceremonies involving Ayauaska (a plant with hallucinogenic properties), and the resultant insights, visions, and vomitings he underwent.  From my western vantage point I find this a fascinating branch of medicinal wisdom and practice.  It is not clear if such an adventure will present itself on a sufficiently silver plate to entice me to experience it firsthand, but if nothing else the practice of inviting a stranger to dinner is most welcome, and suggests a skill well worth cultivating.

I did have one memorable moment of experiencing more traditional medicine just yesterday, however.  The Healing House was having a “Dia del Bienestar”, or “Day of Wellbeing”: a smorgasbord of hour long classes including yoga, tai chi, reiki, and a fire ceremony meditation.  I partook of four of them throughout the day: tai chi, Pranayama, Ayurveda, and the meditation.  At the Ayurveda class I acquiesced in the opportunity to have my nostrils violated.  They had this little pipe where the short end is shaped to fit up a nostril and filled with a brown powder of ginger and various Indian spices.  The practitioner rests the butt of the pipe on your forehead and chants a brief blessing5.  Then the pipe is moved down, and the short end positioned in your nostril.  Then he or she blows.  In this moment, even though they’ll assure you there is not, you would swear there was cayenne pepper in the mix.  This, they say, clears out the sinuses, cleanses the frontal lobes, and awakens the mind and spirit.  Check, check, and check.  (Well, probably on the frontal lobe cleansing.)  They advise you to wait two or three minutes before you (mercifully) blow your nose.

After the fire ceremony Tracy and I got dinner at a restaurant.  I’d been meaning to try cuy, a.k.a. oven roasted guinea pig, for a while now: it’s on all the menus of fancy restaurants around Cusco, and at 50 soles is about double the cost of most nice entrees.  I wanted to like it so much, but alas I would not recommend eating guinea pig: they bring it out to you whole (for a photo op), and then cut it into six pieces.  I found it to be not very meaty, and not very tasty.  Couple that with very poor sides and it turns out my last dinner in Cusco was the very opposite of everything great about the micro restaurants.

This morning we moved out of our apartment, all our possessions in tow.  Despite last night’s cuy fiasco I’m leaving Cusco on terrifically good terms.  Now as I write this we are on a train to Aguas Calientes, the city that, I suspect, exists only to serve as a base camp for visitors of Machu Picchu.  The slow train through the valley is gorgeous, and we are excited to see what’s next.


  1. Actually if there’s soup they’ll serve you soup first, and, like a fine meal broken into courses, have your main dish in front of you when you’re a few spoonfuls shy of finishing.
  2. Although the workaround for that is simply to go to the next table: in markets you can usually find at least 5 such establishments to frequent, all cooking up their own thing.
  3. This is the reason I took so long to try a sit at such establishments: after our first week illness I was a bit gun shy about anything which might require a strong stomach.
  4. Mostly because Tracy already has great coverage of the event.
  5. This part is kinda like when Tyler Durden kisses Ed Norton’s hand before giving him a chemical burn in Fight Club.
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