That good ‘ol nothern flavor.
The north of Peru breaks into various parts. Going north from Lima, the major cities you’ll hit are Trujillo, Chiclayo, Piura, and Tumbes, the last one sharing a border with Ecuador. Chiclayo though, holds the crown in culinary and historic culture. What was once the central hub of the Moche civilazation has become infamous for it’s specific flavor and heavy use of chicha (corn beer), cilantro, loche (a relative to the squash), and all sorts of marine life. Not to mention their infamous desserts such as the King Kong
The area of Lambayeque is mainly dry, arid land that receives very little rainfall. Ancient pottery coupled with murals on “huakas” or archaeological sites, note the important relationship the ancestors of the region had with, no t only their gods, but with agriculture and fishing, which can be reflected in their cuisine.
The loche is perhaps the most famous example of this entanglement with agriculture & their culinary arts. Its bumpy, hard rind protects a bright orange flesh with light tendrils marking their path. In food it partakes a light, earthy note that, together with cilantro and perhaps the smoke flavor of a wood fire makes for an excellent rice or stew dish. Here in the north they like heavy flavors. Famous for their “arroz con pato” and “seco de cabrito” which are translated to rice w/ duck & dry of mutton, accordingly. This dishes, though however more bland they sound, atone for their featureless publicity with bright, green colors and intense flavors. Arroz con pato is a dish where the duck is traditionally cooked within the rice that is flavored with cilantro, chicha, dark beer, loche, yellow aji, garlic, among other things; while the mutton seco is braised in a similar seasoning and served alongside white rice and a bean of some sort, be it sarandaja (traditional bean of the region) or garbanzos.
But of course they need to have a pairing, and in this part of the world there isn’t wine, or beer. Chicha de jora (jora maize beer) is what reigns supreme here. Sweetened with honey or molasses typically, its flavors are very diverse as are their ingredients. Chicha can be made from fruit, a variety of maizes, nuts such as almonds or peanuts, anything really, the only limit is your imagination. Traditionally, gourd cups called “potos” would be hollowed and later intricately decorated to drink chicha out of (but you always leave a little to spill on the floor for the pachamama.)
When it comes to seafood, there’s nothing that beats the variety of creatures eaten here. You can find, almost everywhere, shark or “tollo” ceviche, along with small vongoles, sarandaja, onion, and a DELICIOUS corn fritter to dip into the lemon juice that ties the whole thing together. Apart from shark, of course, there is the more popular flounder ceviche, and another fish popular for ceviche is grouper (particularly the stomach) but not just fresh fish, dried guitarfish known as chiringuito is also a popular dish or topping for ceviches. Although fish isn’t the only thing they make ceviche out of, when at the beach doing my beach things, sunbathing swimming etc etc, I would observe children collecting sand crabs in bottles for their grandmothers to extract the meat, place in a bowl and season with salt, white pepper and lemon juice, leave it aside for about 10 minutes and then, well, sand crab ceviche (definitely trying this one out!). Apart from the traditional ceviche you’d also find, tollo a la panca or shark cooked in a yellow aji paste and steamed over corn husks, breaded and fried tollo, & sudado, fish cooked in a broth of chicha, fumet, onions, tomatoes and aji later served with the broth and boiled yucca. The most popular marine dish, and perhaps the cheapest is “tortilla de raya” or stingray omelet. Stingray omelet consists of dried, salted stingray with a little egg and tons of green onion, typically served for breakfast or lunch and a plate of it with rice and sarandajas will cost about s/. 4-5 or about $1.50.
Different baked or fried “goodies”, as my grandma would call them, are abundant. They have a cachanga vendor in every corner that sells their delicious long, oval-shaped, fried dough “goodies” stuffed with paria cheese from the neighboring Cajamarca district. Next to them you’ll see a stand selling your typical churros, and next to them, a churro more similar to the cachangas but stuffed with manjar blanco or dulce de leche, which in the north also has it’s special, less potent yet unique variation. Their baked goods went from empty empanada shells (ew wtf who does this) to a sweet yam paste and sponge cake sandwiches called “trancas” which the only way I can describe them is –moans in pleasurable belch- Sweetened with molasses, cooked with a hearty amount of cloves & cinnamon that the gingerbread man would be jealous of, pressed between 2 vanilla sponge cakes and just made you feel like the world wasn’t that bad. Something I always eat here but I knew was from Chiclayo, is called the King Kong. I didn’t manage to bring any back from fear it would get squashed, but it’s still worth mention. A dessert that has it’s origins in monasteries during the early 1900’s, it’s etymology has it’s roots in the classic movie “King Kong” due to the height of the dessert, when during it’s creation was said to go from the floor to you knee. Now-a-days a layered cookie cake with up to 3 layers of filling, traditionally manjar blanco, fig and pineapple conserve, but it’s open for interpretation as well.
Overall, Chiclayo was definitely something different; the beaches were long, the lagoons were abundant, the cheese was delicious, the food was cheap, the sweets were out of this world and the sweet toasted barley drink, I learned, cures upset stomachs almost instantly. I’ve been living in Peru for so long I kinda already knew what I was heading into, albeit there were a ton of surprises. I guess you could sum it up as “the same thing just completely different.” If you had a double take, I think you know where you have to be.