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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Food, glorious food...

That evening in Lima, we went with friends to a dinner place called La Dama Juana that featured "native dances." I was expecting anything from educational to cheesy and got something not too terribly set in the middle. Alongside a buffet dinner, which was nice for us as foreigners to try out different cuisines without too much commitment, ten kinds of dances were showcased, on an elevated stage in the center of the diners, lights flashing and neon glowing like a club, contrasting with the traditional costumes and professional demeanor of the dancers. They demonstrated some 10 dances from different areas and times of Peru, dancing their hearts out for us as we wined and dined and imbibed Pisco Sours.

Some of the dances were beautiful, with stomping boots and flowing skirts, kerchiefs circled in the air, ladies swaying like butterflies, cowboys  clapping their hands, wearing enormous hats courting their Spanish ladies. During one of the dances they invited a few of the audience on stage to try their hand and one tall, gray-haired man danced beautifully with a senorita, showing true old school class.

Other dances were sexy, like the one with bared midriffs and flirty short skirts. To the back of those skirts was pinned a flag of paper that the male dancers tried to light on fire. A few waggles of her beautiful hips and the folds of her skirt extinguished the flames, and the candle as well. Audience members, young and old, were brought on stage to try their luck at the feat, with napkins also pinned to their behinds, and they all ran around with candles trying to set each others behinds aflame while protecting their own rear ends. Quite the game. Of course Royce was chosen to try his luck on stage and we laughed ourselves sick at his attempts...while having our glasses of water at the ready to put him out if the worst should happen.

Amateur firefighting, to be sure. One lady actually allowed herself to be set on fire -I don't think she thought they would actually DO it! -and then seemed blissfully unaware of what was happening to her hind end as she shook it back and forth in a thoroughly white girl version of the sultry waggle. She had her lit posterior first frantically blown upon and then finally slapped out when the flames looked to be about to spread out of control. She was wide-eyed but accepted a hug from the dancer who had both set her aflame and then put it out.

Latin American men and tourist women. It's the same story over and over again, I tell you.

The grand finale was a very, very loud and colorful demonstration of spectacular athleticism called danza de las tijeras, dance of the scissors, from the Andes. I felt rather badly for the fellow across the stage from us in the audience who looked like he had a bad case of food poisoning. Of course, he might have had far too many Pisco sours, but then I think he would have actually been on the floor as opposed to merely looking pained and sickly green.

On stage, all the male dancers held large metal scissors, about 10" long, which they clanged in rhythmic cacophony while harps and violins wailed. They took turns throwing themselves into impressive flips and headstands, which generally concluded each time with heavy and painful-sounding landings on the stage, often enough on their backs to make the audience wince. It made break dancing look like a cakewalk. Apparently in times past, the priests accused such dancers of having sold their souls to the devil in exchange for the ability to do such acts.

I can see why they might have thought that. Or maybe they said it out of jealousy. Who knows?

We applauded all the dancers loudly when the show concluded, and walked out of there more than half deaf and quite impressed.

The next day I had a cooking class to attend at a place called Sky Kitchen, I had talked my friend Dalia into meeting me there. She, in turn, had talked me into going paragliding off the cliffs with her, since no one else would. I decided that paragliding was a great idea, first to Mike's dismay and then to his growing frustration at my refusal to listen to any sort of reason.

paraglider soaring over the cliffs down to the Pacific, Lima.

"You're afraid of heights," he said, ticking the reasons off on his fingers, "paragliding is dangerous, and you have two young children. Not to mention that we're in freaking Peru and I doubt you want to spend time in a hospital here! GOD you're stubborn." 

This of course strengthened my resolve to do something that I wasn't at all sure I wanted to do and would probably scare me to death anyway. "I looked it up on tripadvisor.com," I told him, "it's tandem paragliding with a licensed  instructor, and it seems safe enough. Far better than parachuting or hang gliding." He, in total exasperation, and thinking it might change my mind, told me that if I was going to do this harebrained thing that I would have to write a letter explaining to the kids that if I died it was because I was being pigheaded.

So I wrote just such an email and sent it off to the kids, care of my Mother-in-law. Nyah, I told my spouse.

Or something equally mature.

I don't quite remember what he said at that point. No matter, he was off to work, too bad for him, and I was off being a spoiled something-or-another, on my way to learn how to cook Peruvian cuisine.

Paddington - from Deepest Darkest Peru.
Remember him? Please take care of this bear?
 I had had a hard time finding cooking classes in Lima, so it was really convenient that Sky Kitchen turned out to be within walking distance. Not only that, but I found it with time to spare, much to my personal gratification. The day was gray and drizzly, which someone had told Mike was the way of the Lima winter, "under the belly of the burro." Later,  we figured that same someone was probably telling the gringo a load of donkey poo (caca de burro mucho)  just to see if he would buy it, but it was still an apt description of the weather and a nice metaphor.

The sidewalks, polished smooth as they were, were slippery as all get-out and shopkeepers had placed newspapers in and outside of their entrances to catch the mud and wet. I pushed a buzzer and the gate to an apartment building swung open to my inquiry about the cooking class.

Upstairs were the teachers, Yurac and Christian. Yurac was the chef, a Peruvian who spoke Spanish and German. Christian was his partner, who spoke German and English. Got that?

It gets better. Dalia, my friend, is Mexican. So, when she arrived, all three languages got full usage. But more about that in a moment. First, as our hosts were good hosts, the coffee:

and looking out over the city from their balcony, where they grew herbs, a lovely spot. We would have dined but for the weather. On the roof of one home a few stories below below was a sad, sad dog. I had seen plenty of dogs on roofs...I suppose that's as good of a place to keep them as any...but this doberman was all alone among the trash and laundry lines. Poor dog. At least he had a doghouse.

Dalia and I were the only students this weekday and after we finished our coffee and donned lime green aprons, instruction began in the impeccably neat teaching area. All was carefully set out for us, a good portent as to how the class would go.

 Yurac, a compact, serious fellow with dark hair and eyes, in contrast to Christian's tall German slenderness, taught, telling Dalia what he was doing in Spanish, then Christian and Dalia both would tell me in English. If I had a question about how a recipe was going together, I would ask Christian in English, and he would ask Yurac in German. Yurac would answer in German and I would get my answer in English through Christian. Unless I understood the German. Which, sometimes, thanks to attendance, if not attentiveness, in High School German class, I did. Occasionally Dalia would ask a question in Spanish and then translate the answer to English for me.

It was enough to give a girl linguistic whiplash, but strangely enough, it worked well. We made three dishes.

First, Papa a la Huancaina, which is a dish of boiled potatoes, but yellowish Peruvian potatoes, which are starchier and drier than North American ones,  doused in a spicy aji amarillo sauce  ("yellow pepper"...which, in fact, started out orange but turned yellow in the sauce), combined with fresh local cheese and served with olives and boiled eggs and some of those tasteless giant corn kernels.  Corn aside, this was both incredibly delicious and incredibly filling...and we had two dishes to go.

proudly displaying our Papa a la Huancaina with Yurac

Second, ceviche. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru, or at least coastal Peru. Seafood marinated in lime juice, which, just as heat would, denatures the proteins and essentially "cooks" the meat. Now, I am not a raw fish eater, generally speaking, I eat neither seared tuna nor sushi. But take my word for it, ceviche ("seh-vee-chay") is delicious. The texture is delicate with lovely citrusy overtones. We carefully removed all the pin bones from some white fish, sliced them, learned how to correctly juice limes, added peppers and sliced onions and after just a few minutes the ceviche was ready for consumption. It was phenomenal.

I was feeling dangerously full and we'd really only sampled our dishes. Where was my stomach capacity? We soldiered on.

The last recipe we learned was for Ají de Gallina, a chicken stew in the yellow pepper sauce that had garlic and bread and walnuts blended in, along with rice served in a particular shape, thanks to this cleverly shaped wooden rice ladle which makes a perfect dome of rice with a dimple on top for sauce or a sprig of cilantro:

Immediately Dalia and I decided we had to have one of those. Are you surprised?

No, you are not.

More hard boiled eggs, sliced and served alongside completed the plate.

My stomach was protesting, but I sat down and ate gamely with the others, trying out a really interesting drink made from purple corn that was surprisingly refreshing. As I had only had juice for breakfast, I figured I was actually not full but nervous about going paragliding.

red onion and purple corn, Mercado Ricardo Palma
During the feast, Dalia quizzed our teachers as to where they shop for their foodstuffs. Mercado Ricardo Palma was the answer, the market Mike and I had "discovered" and shown to April and Royce, where I now promised to take Dalia.

We thanked our hosts profusely for the class, promising to recommend it to our friends (which we have, and I am,) and made our way back to the street. Dalia called the director of the paragliding company and was told that there would be no paragliding for the rest of the week unless the weather changed; they needed the warm updrafts to fly; cold drizzle wouldn't cut it.

Which meant I wouldn't have to either. I tried to tell myself I was sad about it, but really, I wasn't.

After all, instead of ticking off my husband and throwing myself to the winds, we went to Mercado Ricardo Palma where we picked up the rice ladles for practically nothing and to the Inka Market, a large grouping of little stores and  reputedly the place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs of all sorts. (See, I like some kinds of shopping!)

Dalia, assigned herself as my guide and keeper, reminded me to keep my purse close to my body, walking us quickly and authoritatively along the streets, and was more than willing  to help me dicker for gifts to bring home. Stuffed animals of softest alpaca fur, slippers lined with the same, sterling silver set lapis lazuli, textiles, a small watercolor of llamas...

Mercado de Inkas

Ironically, as it turned out, they gave me, as an American who could barely ask ¿Cuánto cuesta? "how much?" better prices than Dalia, a Spanish speaker. Go figure. She was more than slightly frustrated with this and when she finally protested in aggravation, the shop owner explained that Americans are used to shopping where the price is the price, but for Spanish speakers the price changes.  

I wondered if it was even worse for Spanish speakers with Mexican accents. Probably.

A full belly and full shopping bags? All in a day's work.


Lima cooking classes at Sky Kitchen contact information: http://www.wix.com/skykitchen/peru


  1. Now I want one of those rice ladles. And I wasn't even there!! Close call on the paragliding... :o

  2. I know! Aren't those ladles pretty...all smooth polished wood? Not that I've really used mine all that much, but that's beside the point, isn't it? :) As for the paragliding...amen, Paula. A-men.

  3. I, an English only speaker, live in Taiwan where I sometimes get to employ the world's best babysitter who happens to be from Peru. She speaks Spanish, English and Chinese. (maybe more.) Anyhow, she told me about ceviche and it sounded absolutely awful. But perhaps in Peru, along with the other wonderful sounding dishes, I would actually try it.

    1. My dear, you will simply have to try it sometime. It's the perfect summer meal.

    2. Next time I'm in Peru I'll try it! ;-)

    3. Hmmm...I have small children and a husband and am not fooled by your equivocation. :)