POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2011:
Peruvian drinks, dishes and desserts leave a mouthwatering sensation
For birthdays of note, my wife and I have a tradition of going where the other one wants to go to make it particularly special for the honoree. We've been to Ireland, the mountains of Colorado, France and others. So, for my recent 60th I picked Machu Picchu in Peru. The trip itself was spectacular, especially the four day, 26-mile rough and tumble hike along the Inca trail to get to this incredible place. Short of basic training, probably the hardest thing I have ever done.
One of the unexpected side benefits of the trip was exposure to some really fantastic cuisine. Peru is blessed with diverse and varying geography -- everything from the highlands, to the jungle, to the coast -- and her cuisine takes as many twists and turns as the Madre de Dios River that runs through its lowlands.
A few nights ago we had the unexpected pleasure of spending the evening at a small restaurant called Mi Tierra, which roughly translates to "my land"; and were instantly transported back to a short time ago when we spent several weeks in Cuzco, Lima, Puerto Maldonado and a few other spots in this beautiful country.
The menu is large and varied, and though it is touted as South American cuisine, with dishes from Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, it was highly biased toward Peruvian specialties, to our great pleasure. And in addition it tends to lean toward the coastal classics, with many seafood based dishes.
We started off with one of the country's most popular beers, Cusquena, a tasty brew that is available all over South America.
That was followed by a pair of appetizers: the first, a dish called Papas al la Huancaina, is a simple, traditional dish of boiled sliced potatoes and eggs with black olives, topped with a creamy sauce of yellow peppers and cheese. Somehow, as simple as it is, it prompts an earthy feeling that you are somehow eating the way the Incas may have, some 500 years ago.
The second was a dish we had in Cuzco several times, and this was every bit as good. With a few minor changes it was pretty much the same. Entitled Causa de Limeña, it was a tasty tower of mashed yellow potatoes (Peru has over 2,000 varieties of potato) mixed with yellow peppers and a bit of saffron sandwiching a mixture of shredded fish, crab, vegetables and chicken -- all molded, layered and round, so you are presented with a four-inch high multi-layered dish that looks beautiful, and tastes good too! In Peru it was topped with smoked and braised guinea pig -- almost the national dish -- but here it was sans what we in the states seem to feel is a pet more than a protein. (Truth is it was quite good, and very abundant in the highlands of Peru.)
Dinner was a tough decision. A few items like Antichuchos, -- quite simply grilled meat on a stick -- are found throughout Peru and are typical street food. They use alpaca down there, but our server assured us this wasn't. Too bad, we found alpaca to be very tasty and even richer than beef, but I am sure the market in Tulsa would be somewhat limited.
So, not surprisingly we both ordered seafood dishes. Katie's dinner, a dish called Arroz con Mariscos was a huge plate of rice with aji Amarillo and aji panca, both Peruvian chilis, (one red, one yellow), choclo -- a large kernel corn -- green peas and seaweed, and studded with tons of shrimp, huge mussels, clams, calamari, white fish and vegetables. Did I mention it was enough for dinner and lunch the next day? Oh, and did I mention it was a whopping $8? Unbelievable bargain!
My choice, Sudado de Pescado ($10) was a delightful sea bass dish with onion slivers, yellow peppers, cilantro, tomatoes and cassava, a potato-like root vegetable that is grown and used all over South America and Asia. The entire combination is poached in an Incan beverage called chicha de jora, a fermented corn beverage.
I guess you could loosely call it corn beer, but when our guides gave us some to try while on the Incan trail I vowed to never let the nasty stuff pass my lips again (and so did everyone else in the group). So I was torn between my love of sea bass, and my revulsion of chicha de jora, with the former winning out, and was very pleasantly surprised by the result.
It was delectable. The fish was tender, flaky, and a bit sweet, and the poaching liquor was quite good. I found myself wishing for one of those big round loaves of bread so common on the streets of Cuzco that can be bought for next to nothing. As it was I slurped it down to the very last drop.
Katie and I both have a hard time resisting Tres Leche cake, and so in an effort to keep you the reader informed, we selflessly ordered one. Along with a slice of Flan, which is one of my yardsticks for judging the expertise of a cook or chef.
Flan is essentially a crème custard with a layer of caramel underneath that is baked and inverted so the brown layer of caramel ends up on top, and the excess drips down the sides. The real key to good custard is the mouth feel. That is to say that it must be baked at a very low temperature, in a water bath, for a long time. This allows the egg protein to coagulate without curdling, so the result is rich, sweet, creamy and smooth, not lumpy and "curdy" like your Saturday morning scrambled eggs.
You can have the best tasting custard in the world, but if it doesn't have the right texture, it is a dismal failure. Mi Tierra's was perfection. Absolute perfection. There is nothing more I can say.
A Tres Leches cake starts out as a light yellow or white cake, that is then smothered in a sauce of three types of milk product, hence the name. The milks are: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. This mixture is poured over the cake and then refrigerated at least overnight to allow the cake to soak it all up. The result is a custardy, rich and dense dessert that is spectacular when done right, and this was.
Mi Tierra started out as a small Peruvian grocery with a few tables, and grew into a full service restaurant not long ago when the owner was able to acquire the space next to it. And lucky for Tulsa she did. It is a great experience, with great food. And as a bonus the servers were very patient as I tried a lot of my butchered, rudimentary Spanish out on them. They were good natured and helpful, and we found it a very relaxed and enjoyable evening.
Prices are inexpensive to moderate with a few items over $10, but just a few, and for what you get, it's a true bargain. You don't want to miss this place.
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