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Monday, October 5, 2009

Cusco Cooks For Us!

I think growing up in tiny Singapore makes us creatures of habit.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I spent every single weekend at Parkway Parade taking dance and music classes, shopping and eating.

When my brother grew teeth and developed a taste for Japanese cuisine, specifically teriyaki beef, we narrowed our eating habits even further to dine at only his favourite restaurant at our beloved shopping mall. For years. Until the restaurant closed down.

When east coast living became more popular and Parkway Parade grew till it almost burst at the seams, my family escaped to their next favourite haunt - Changi Airport. And we are still spending almost weekend at the airport digging into dim sum, Chinese food or yes, teriyaki beef.

Before arriving in Cusco, we hadn't exactly been charmed by Peru's local cuisine. In fact, the most popular dish on the menu was lomo saltado or stir-fried beef strips. Uh huh, exactly what you get in sze char stalls back home. The next most popular choice of meals for the locals? Chaufa or tallerin - Chinese food. Huaraz with Ching was a dietary improvement - we discovered aji de gallina - chicken strips doused in a bright yellow creamy sauce. But the girl kept going on and on about foreign-sounding Peruvian dishes that she had sampled in Cusco, like quinoa (keen-wah) soup, alpaca steak and a bruise-coloured drink made of purple corn!

So when we chanced upon the menu of a tiny restaurant in Cusco's San Blas neighbourhood that advertised a set meal for 10 soles with Ching's highly-recommended sopa de quinoa, we hopped right in and stayed in there - for the next 4 days. For lunch and dinner.

It wasn't just the food at T'oqokachi that we liked. Nor the reasonably-priced set menus for 10 soles (US$3.30) or 15 soles (US$5). We loved the smallness of the place - only 7 to 8 tiny tables which were only fully occupied on one occasion, a low sloping roof clothed in earthy-coloured tapestry, bathed in soft glowing light, and run by a small team of 2 chefs and 1 waiter/host/cashier.

View of San Blas' narrow cobblestone streets from our table

Be it day or night, a warm orange-y glow lights up the cosy interior

Our first visit to T'oqokachi at night - we thought that the lights were dimmed every night for couples to enjoy romantic candlelight dinners together...

... when suddenly, the lights came on halfway through the evening. We realised that we had walked in right in the middle of an electric blackout!

Now, while we were all set to try all the local dishes on the menu, T'oqokachi churned out some really good "international cuisine" (read: western food) We couldn't resist ordering a few dishes like:

Ooey gooey wood-fired pizza baked right before our eyes...

Melt-off-the-block wood-fired pizza with spicy sausage

Espaguetti Saltado de Pollo or "Spaghetti Jumped Of Chicken". Huh? Yeah. The dish kept reminding me of "Buddha Jump Over The Wall" somehow. After repeated visits and staring at the strange English translation on the menu, I realised that saltado came from the verb saltar, meaning "to jump" - and that's how the motion of stir-frying is described in Spanish! Literally to make pieces of meat jump around in a pan!

Espaguetti Jumped of Chicken - which, by the way, was VERY tasty

I particularly liked the Espaguetti al Pesto, literally "Spaghetti To The Pesto". So when the Magician on Sesame Street exclaims "Ala peanut butter jelly sandwiches!", does it translate to "To the peanut butter jelly sandwiches"?

Grilled trucha (trout) with my favourite green spaghetti in the background

The quality of local specialties served up at T'oqokachi pleased our tastebuds greatly.

Starting with our all-time favourite starter - quinoa de sopa! It's the best soup I've ever had - after home-brewed Cantonese soups and my dad's made-from-scratch Cream of Mushroom. I loved the chewy-crunchy quinoa grains, rightly called the grain of the gods cos its chockablock with energy-giving nutrition. After a few meals at T'oqokachi, we were such familiar faces there that when we shyly asked for "mas quinoa, por favor?", the cooks kindly obliged!

Golden grains fit for the gods

Throughout our stay in Cusco, we only ventured away from T'oqokachi for 1 meal - and quickly reverted to our favourite haunt thereafter. While the food at Sumaq Something (I can't remember the second half of the restaurant's name) wasn't bad, it took thrice as long to arrive at table. The only items worth mentioning were the Pisco Sours and alpaca steak (see later) and the sopa de criolla.

Sopa de criolla - reminds one of Maggie mee topped with a cracked egg, no?

Ceviche is a must-try in Peru and it's the closest that one can get to fresh sushi. Usually, either the pinkish flesh of trout or white meaty chunks of kingfish are used. The raw fish is marinated in lemon juice, which slowly "cooks" the meat till it turns half-opaque. It reminded me of yu sheng, in a raw-fish-being-tossed sorta way.

Ceviche de trucha

Served with toasted corn kernels - popcorn that somehow didn't pop! Also very 'heaty' - I suspect that this was what gave me my first sore throat in years, right before the scheduled Grand Opening Of The Bak Kwa on 27 September, 7am

Classic drinks to have in Cusco, which were included in the set menu:

Coca tea to combat altitude sickness

Chica morada - an Ribena-like drink, but stronger, made of purple maize. I took heart that this was unfermented chica, which is traditionally fermented by spittle. Women sit around the pot spitting and stirring, stirring and spitting.

Pisco Sours, the equivalent of the Singapore Sling. Made from pisco brandy, lemon juice, sugar and egg white. I think pisco tastes similar to tequila.

Back home in Singapore, I'm a pretty safe eater. I even avoid dishes that most Chinese Singaporeans would consider pretty normal - like kuey chap, pig's organ soup, any liver dishes, etc. But once overseas, I make it a point to sample all local cuisine - be it ostrich, alligator, kangaroo or even bugs. In the Andean region, the thing to eat is alpaca - after you pose for photos with it, ride it and wear sweaters made of its fleece. Alpaca meat is supposedly a healthier option to beef as it is very low in cholesterol.

To me, it didn't taste too different from beef, but it was nice to know that I was eating healthy.

Alpaca steaks with black pepper and mushroom sauces at Sumaq Something

Alpaca steak in rosemary sauce at T'oqokachi

The other strange food item to sample in Cusco is cuy - or guinea pig.

The 'before' picture

I wasn't exactly expecting a beautifully-presented gourmet dish but I wasn't prepared for my dinner to look totally revolting.

Roasted. Carved. Presented on a plate. (Note: this is not the same guinea pig as pictured above)

The little oven-roasted rodent carcass made a very dreadful dinner indeed. It tasted as awful as it looked. Gamey, smelly, meatless and tough. Basically a whole skeleton of tiny bones (and teeth!) held together by rubbery skin.

The paw that waved goodbye to this cruel world right before it fell still

Thankfully, the cuy was served with a side of chiles relleno or peppers stuffed with minced meat (not guinea pig meat) and coated with melted cheese. I ordinarily hate peppers and capsicums, but I badly needed something to wash down every bite of cuy.

Compared to cuy, these peppers tasted pretty darn good

Other than the guinea pig (or rat, I wouldn't have known the difference, really) we liked T'oqokachi so much that guess where we brought Elaine and Rhys when they arrived in Cusco? We had initially planned to meet and dine near the Plaza de Armas or main square, but in a bid to brush off the endless stream of vendors touting souvenirs of woolen hats, folkloric music CDs and a-dime-a-dozen painting replicas, we retreated into the hills of San Blas and sought refuge in the quiet haven of T'oqokachi.

The pair had just completed a majorly tough overnight trek of the Colca Canyon and were also starving from a 9-hour bus ride from Puno. But the self-proclamed "very hungry" couple only managed to make it through half their generously-portioned set dinners before retiring for the night.

No, we didn't feed them any guinea pigs

Sadly, no other dishes matched T'oqokachi in terms of price and quality once we left Cusco, with the exception of Ukuku's alpaca steak in red wine sauce and mashed apples in Puno (thanks Elaine & Rhys for the recommendation!) We even polished off our remaining 5 packets of instant noodles over our last 2 days in Peru, which we hadn't touched since Lima.

Let's hope that we find something to crow about now that we're in Chile!


Tracy Su said...

Nice looking food! Yeah, would be nicer if the guinea pig didn't look quite so piggy in style of suckling piggy...and those little feet are really quite disturbing!

Yi Lin said...

I think suckling pig looks tonnes better! It's either fried or roasted cuy, but yeah, maybe Popcorn Cuy or Cuy Nuggets may have tasted (and looked) more acceptable.

And yeah, the food was good. I miss quinoa soup already!

Lint said...

WHAT THE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (the only response to the guinea pig dish)

Dannie said...

Lint: No lah... you could have also said "ee-yerrrr" or "yuck", but I guess WHAT THE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! works too! :)

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