Is there a better way to introduce yourself to a new culture than by getting into the kitchen? I had the opportunity to sample the flavors of Peru during a cooking class in Cusco. Combined with a market tour, travelers will find a genuine way to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this destination’s culinary goodness.
No matter the location, I love wandering markets wherever my travels take me. Having the chance to visit one with a local chef takes the encounter up a notch. The language barrier is removed and you can ask questions. They have incredible knowledge of ingredients and, of course, there will be samples. As part of my trip with AdventureSmith Explorations touring the Sacred Valley, the company arranged a cooking class in Cusco for my girlfriend Patti and me.
A Visit to San Pedro Market to Gather Ingredients for a Cooking Class in Cusco
We met chef Xavier at the appointed location and headed to the San Pedro Market. It is an authentic shopping area for locals as well as tourists, where we would buy ingredients for our class and lunch.
A perfect example of that insider knowledge popped up about 30 seconds into the tour. When I came through the famous mercado on my own a few days earlier, I thought I was looking at butter. Au contraire, this was cheese, beautifully stamped and molded cheese and more cheese. Artfully patterned and yes, I did get to taste the velvety, smooth goodness contained within.
Then here was the quinoa. As a pesco-vegetarian, I am always looking for alternative sources of protein. Quinoa is one of my go to ingredients. I love the mild, nutty flavor, which can stand up as a base for other components. In addition, it works for the gluten-free members of my circle.
This ancient grain is a staple of the Peruvian diet. It has been cultivated by the indigenous people for thousands of years. I had heard the outsourced demand for the product had made it too expensive for most locals to afford. With a little research, I discovered that was not the case at all. Quite the contrary. When the price of quinoa rose, it was good for farmers and Peruvians in general. That was confirmed when I spoke with vendors in the marketplace and others along my Sacred Valley route.
Although we cook quinoa like a grain, it is actually more closely related to spinach and beets. This ancient grain is classified as seeds. There were at least seven or eight varieties for sale that I never knew existed.
After collecting some of the ingredients on the list, it was time to cook. We headed back to the gorgeous rooftop kitchen and donned aprons. The picture windows looked out over the Unesco World Heritage city of Cusco. The kitchen itself was a marvel in stainless steel and modern equipment.
Making a 5-Ingredient Pisco Sour
First up was a recipe for the ubiquitous Pisco sour, the national drink of Peru. Pisco is a clear brandy made from muscat grapes. Spanish settlers developed the drink in the 16th century. Today, there is still much debate about whether that took place in Chile or Peru.
The cocktail has just five ingredients (pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and a dash of bitters). It came together after what seemed like an eternity of muscle-building shake, shake, shakes. Biceps burning, we were rewarded with a well-deserved, high altitude toast overlooking the beautiful colonial rooftops of Cusco. While we enjoyed the vista, chef Xavier cut fresh herbs from the garden to use in our next dish.
Taste the Nikkei-A Fusion of Japanese and Peruvian Cultures
Peru’s cooking traditions appear to be a melting pot of cultures. When two cooking styles merge together and both are known for using the best of native ingredients, the results have intoxicating potential. Peru has the second largest Japanese population in South America. Japanese came to Peru in the 19th century looking for work as migrants and servants. When their obligations were finished, many stayed. Rather than returning back to Japan, they found work in the small restaurants frequented by the local population. Introducing their techniques and tradition to the kitchens, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion was born. The end result in later years was called Nikkei cuisine.
The second dish we created in our cooking class in Cusco demonstrated this type of cooking: Trout and Red Quinoa Tiradito. Depending on how you marinate the trout, the dish was either sushi like, or more of a ceviché, slightly cooked by the acid in the marinade. Tiradato is a Peruvian-style sushi. Nobu Matsuhisa, the restaurateur and celebrity guru of sushi, is largely credited with coining the term when he lived in Peru in his twenties. The dish combined a bold lemony citrus flavor with melt in your mouth fresh trout and an accent of quinoa.
Making a Delightful Red Quinoa Risotto
Finally, the menu featured Red Quinoa Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Blue Cheese, ingredients prominently on display at San Pedro market. This is a dish I will definitely move into my vegetarian rotation at home. It would make a beautiful side dish with a mixed grill for carnivores as well. The blue cheese had just the right amount of sharpness to lift the recipe to a rich and earthy gourmet delight.
I was impressed by the fact that chef Xavier chose dishes for our cooking class that anyone could make in their own kitchen. Ingredients are readily available. Incorporating new flavors from my travels transports me back to wonderful memories of a destination. Friends and family enjoy the process and vicariously take a trip with their taste buds. Recipes as souvenirs allow us all to travel globally and taste locally with flavors from around the world.
AdventureSmith Explorations has several tour options available for exploring both The Sacred Valley and Peru’s Amazon. Their on the ground network is excellent for adding additional tour days according to interest such as this culinary experience.
Disclosure: The author was hosted by AdventureSmith Explorations for her travel in Peru.