Food is a big issue for Peace Corps Volunteers, ranking right behind poop in the list of things we like to talk about. It’s what we miss most from the US (sorry family and friends), the first thing we hunt down in our capital cities, how we share our culture with our host families and communities, and what community members endlessly ask if we’ve accostumbrared to. So it’s high time the topic of food took center stage here, with some frequently asked (by me, mostly) questions!
Do you cook your own meals?
Yes, I make my own breakfast. This serves the dual purpose of allowing me to sneakily avoid any sort of alarming breakfast food (pig-skin soup, I mean you) and enabling me to ease gently into the day, as opposed to letting the day wind back and whack me repeatedly on the skull. My host family is many things, but they are not a pill that goes down smoothly first thing in the morning: imagine waking up, rolling over, and going directly to a three-ring circus. Located in a busy New Delhi market place. During rush hour. In a jungle full of monkeys. That oatmeal in bed—it’s a survival thing. I have been cooking (1 electric water heater + 1 kilo of oatmeal= as far as “cooking” goes for me) my own breakfast for going on 7 months now, and every single day it is devastating news to my host mom, who loves to feed me almost as much as she likes to cuddle me in her lap. I toyed with the idea of making my own lunch, but it’s just not worth the heartache.
Do you ever cook for your host family?
I sure do! I’ve cooked a few of my favorite foods (or sketchy renditions thereof) for special occasions: pizza for Soledad’s birthday last year, pancakes for my host mom’s birthday, a delicious apple cake (recipe courtesy of a text from Ali’s mom) for my birthday… there’re lots of birthdays in a household of roughly 12 people. I’ve also gotten my host family hooked on eggplant, which was a coup. I enjoy cooking for my host family, because Soli and Jose get a kick out of helping me crack eggs and crush crackers and mix things, and because my family actually really likes to try new things, and they praise me highly even if they hate it, and because it’s just fun to share. I also help out with normal cooking duties whenever I can: peeling potatoes, harvesting lemons, kneeling on a guinnea pig’s tiny skull. I’m just about in charge of the salad-making-duties at lunch-time, although my one attempt to vary the standard tomato-onion-lime juice salad was met with disapproval and me eating an entire bucket of salad alone. I’ve also discovered that although I can easily botch sauce or soups or salads with the limited ingredients, eyeballed measurements, and fire that campo cooking entails, every darn thing I pop in the adobe oven comes out a dream. It’s a limitedly useful gift of mine.
Biggest cooking success: eggplant parmesan-ish sandwiches.
Biggest cooking failure: banana-pepino smoothies. I should have known better.
Whenever my host mom isn’t around (like when they go on strange outings, or most recently, when my host brother Roger crashed the car, and spent three days in the hospital in Huaraz, and all hell broke loose), my host sister Virginia and I always cook together. The conversation always goes like this:
Virginia: “Karencitaaaaa ayudame a cocinar. Que vamos a hacer?” (Help me cook. What should we make?)
Me: “Que hay?” (What is there?)
So far we’ve made French fries, hash browns, latkes (which I found out also means vagina in Quechua. It’s like Eskimos and snow over here), mashed potatoes, browned potatoes, and potato soup. You know what they say: necessity is the mother of eating lots of potatoes.
Have you eaten guinnea pig? Do you like it?
I have eaten many a guinnea pig, though I guess “eating” is not really accurate. I have picked, torn, gnashed, and generally puzzled over how to eat a guinnea pig. A properly cooked guinnea pig is like fried bones with a fried carpet on top. If you can, through a combination of manual dexterity and ingenuity, manage to get a bite of guinnea pig meats, you’ll find it rather tasty, though. I have actually liked the combined two mouthfuls of the stuff I’ve had; it’s like a very soft, stringy, slimy chicken. Guinnea pigs are for special occasions, where there are lots of people watching you try to eat it, so saying no is not an option. Licking the delicious spicy sauce off and sneaking it to your host siblings, is an option, however. I do think that eating guinnea pigs is a great idea those Inca folks had: in a place where meat isn’t the cheapest food and malnutrition in kids under 5 is around 50%, guinnea pigs are easy to feed, easy to house, and of course easy to breed- and everyone can give their kids a little protein now and again. Nothing wrong with that, even if it’s mildly cute protein.
Are you still vegetarian?
No. Not one bit. I cheer as much as the next carnivore when its meat for dinner. I mostly maintained my vegetarianism during training in Lima, where my host mom was used to gringos and their weird dietary needs, but there was no way I was getting around eating meat with this host family without a doctor’s note. Probably even with a doctor’s note, I’d have to eat a little. The concept of vegetarianism itself isn’t very clear here; my host sister still tells people I’m a vegetarian, even as I am disemboweling a chicken inches away. My host mom firmly believes that those who don’t eat, die, and she’s probably right when it comes to protein. Maybe I wouldn’t die, but I surely would get rickets or scurvy or whatever it is you get when you only eat potatoes. My host family eats meat or fish or any protein really (lentils and eggs are just as rare) once or sometimes twice a week, so it’s definitely a treat to be savored, and savor it I do. I’ve eaten chicken, chicken feet, sheep, cow, sheep’s head soup (which is actually delicious), pig, guinnea pig, guinnea pig liver, rabbit, duck, sheep’s blood, and turkey. I’ve stuffed, though not eaten, pig’s blood sausages (Best. Birthday. Ever!). Will I go back to my veggy ways back in the states? Probably. Will I miss being hand-fed pig meat dipped in grease by my host mom? Definitely.
Enough with the potato-bashing. What’s Peruvian food really like?
You’re right, I’m sorry. Peruvian food, really, is delicious. Delicious things include aji, the spicy sauce that accompanies everything, and that my family makes by mashing yellow aji peppers, garlic, and salt together between two stones. Other yummy things my family makes are creamy sauces like huancaina and ocopa, which are so tasty they cover up the guilty taste in my mouth from the fact that they are made with government-hand-out milk meant for the baby. One of the most delicious is something I was recently up to my elbows in: pollada. A pollada is like a bake-sale in that its mostly used for fundraising, and not like a bake sale in that it is a huge plate of delicious chicken, served with mote, which is rehydrated dried corn (softened and puff-ened by boiling it with ashes), and coleslaw, which is tasty. The best part of pollada is the chicken juice, which from my spying seems to include aji, soy sauce, garlic, vinegar, and mSG crystals. I want to open a polladeria in the states. A pollada food truck, maybe? Other yummy Peruvian foods, that don’t get made too much in my house, include ceviche (I absolutely cannot eat enough ceviche. It’s not possible.), lomo saltado (beef, tomatoes, onions, and French fries sautéed together. Sounds weird huh?), aji de gallina (creamy, crackery sauce with chicken), and tacu tacu (like a fried patty of burrito insides). Peruvian food, truly, is delicious, and don’t listen to those potato-bashers.
What about snacks?
What about them! Snacks make the world go round for a Peace Corps Volunteer. I can absolutely stuff myself with lunch and be a starvin marvin in about 15 minutes, due to the magic of carbohydrates and metabolism and having a tiny bird stomach and whatever. I’m more of a grazer anyway, so its lucky for me that Peru has an array of incredible snacks available to the hungry gringa. One of the best, for almost every reason, is chocho, whose English name, Alpine Lupin, makes it sound more like a disease, and less like the delicious little bean it is. Chocho is more or less flavorless until tossed with tomatoes, onions, and parsley, dowsed in lime juice, salt, cumin, and parsley and served in a plastic baggy with cancha, toasted dried corn kernels. Chocho is sold outside just about every school and inside every shop. My favorite is what I call party chocho (parties are the places to find the best snacks, in the greatest quantities, which is mostly why I go to them), which is served with a chunk of sweet potato, seaweed (radioactive seaweed from the Rio Santa!) and a scoop of fish juice and fishy bits on top.
Reason #562 that I love Peru: Where else would they ask if you wanted a scoop of fish juice? It’s exactly what I want!
Ice cream and popsicles of every variety are also sold everywhere. I like it best when it is spooned into a Technicolor cone for me by my favorite toothless two-hundred-year old ice cream lady, Teresa. The ice cream folks also have marcianos, which are little plastic bag popsicles, akin to Otter Pops (and a teen-slang for condoms). Mostly marcianos are frozen juice or sometimes delicious fruit like lucuma, but sometimes they are three colors of frozen yogurt and that is when I eat 30 of them. Another excellent frozen treat are raspadillas, which are snow cones but way better. The raspadillero raspas the raspadilla off a huge block of ice with a little hand-held ice shaver that gathers the ice flakes into a little prism inside itself. The raspadillero opens the contraption, shoves the ice prism into a plastic cup, drizzles it with various colored syrups he has brewed up back at home and keeps in assorted recycled plastic bottles with holes punched in the lids, and then covers the whole thing with chicha morada, which is sweet purple corn juice. The raspadillero will tell you that the ice is from the nevados, the glacier-covered mountains all around, and while today you can clearly see the writing on the ice imprinted from the bucket he froze it in, this was probably true a couple years ago. It was also true when a team of PBS filmmakers making a documentary about climate change rolled into my town a couple weeks ago, and filmed the raspadilla-man making them a snow-cone with ice he actually did harvest from the nevados (coincidentally the nevado that Ali and I climbed!). I don’t know what point they were making, but I hope they didn’t eat any ice worms, or any of my frozen saliva that I added to the icepack, and maybe we’ll all be able to watch my site and the raspadillero in the documentary some day!
The snacks available in Huaraz are endless and incredible. You could graze your way straight across the tiny city, from pig sandwiches served straight off the pig, fried coconut bits, arroz con leche, coconut milk, and sugar cane juice, to churros stuffed with manjar blanco (caramel stuff), cachangas (elephant ears), avocado sandwiches, pineapple and watermelon slices, and borachitos (chocolate rum brownie bites). The one snack I haven’t had yet is a frog milkshake. We were this close, but then we saw the frogs hopping around by the blender and couldn’t do it.
Also besides potatoes, what does your host family cook?
Whatever’s around, mostly. Breakfast is usually bread and tea or “Quaker” – sweet, watery oatmeal, which is actually growing on me. Sometimes there’s avocados from the tree, which have been “sleeping” in blankets for a week or so to ripen. Delicious. Lunch is usually a whopping portion of noodles, lentils, rice, potatoes, or peas, sometimes with salad or tuna, and just about always with potatoes. On special tasty days we get chicken, and on even specialer tasty days, fried fish from the fish car! Desert sometimes happens, in the form of masamorras, which can be anything from warm jello, to a sludge of water, flour, and sugar, to the worst masamorra of all, toquosh (fermented corn or potatoes. It has a lot of penicillin, apparently, but it smells like a farm). Dinner is usually leftovers, noodle and potato soup, bread, or tea, or all of the above. When there’s no bread in the stores, we make cachangas or eat machka, which is like eating matzoh meal out of the box—except sometimes mixed with pig lard. I like most of my host family’s meals, though that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes supplement dinner with an extra serving of oatmeal in my room (especially last week, when dinner was popcorn).
So there you have it: I think about food a lot.