Inca contraband

One of the biggest surprises during a trip to Peru several months ago was the breadth of its cuisine including one of its signature dishes, broiled guinea pig. We both tried it. It doesn’t taste like chicken.

Actually I don’t recall what it tastes like. It’s one of those dishes you order on a dare–“I’m here, might as well try it”–but then when it lands in front of you, you squint as you put it in your mouth, try to swallow as quickly as possible without choking, wash it down with water, beer or whatever is handy, and end up not remembering what you ate. Except that you ate guinea pig and you can brag about it to your friends back home or put it in your blog.

One small consolation was that the chef had already cut up the little critter into anatomically unrecognizable pieces. The authentic presentation, which we saw at another restaurant, was a small rodent-like animal on its back, gutted, its four little feet plaintively pointing up in the air. Eat me, I dare you, you omnivorous monster.

The poor guinea pigs aside, “cuys” they are called, Peruvian cuisine turned out to be terrifically complex and unique, and one of its ubiquitous ingredients was corn, dozens of varieties of it in just as many colors, and which appear  everywhere, from appetizers to desserts and drinks.

One of the typical features of Inca archaeological sites are farming terraces girding the mountain peaks like stone collars which, before the Spaniards showed up and ruined everything, were serviced by intricate irrigation systems. If Machu Picchu is an awesome sight today, it must have twice as much so when it was inhabited, its terraces teeming with tens of thousands of corn plants swaying in the cool mountain breezes.

Supposedly thousands of varieties of corn once existed in Peru but today only about 55 types are seriously cultivated and consumed.

One of them is some sort of purple corn, almost black, that we found at a display in a restaurant in Cusco. I asked for an ear, put it in my pocket and then packed it deep inside the luggage, far from the sniffing mutts employed by Mexican customs inspectors. The ear of corn made it through and sat on the kitchen window sill for months. Then on another lark, like eating guinea pigs, we planted some of the kernels, which look like raisins.

They germinated. Not every third or fourth one, but practically all of the seeds we planted, and this Inca contraband is growing merrily in our garden plot. I imagine that our high altitude, about 7,000 ft., may somehow resemble some of the Peruvian sites where it’s usually grown, though Peru is far closer to the equator, and I believe much wetter.

I’m not looking for recipes for Peruvian purple corn yet, though I remember a drink called “chiche morado” made with it that was very good, along with some sort of pudding-like dessert. But before then, these Peruvian interlopers have to survive the bugs, rabbits and what-have-you’s that vegetables have to endure around here.

If in fact we get some purple corn,  braised guinea pig may be a logical accompaniment. Or not, even cut up into little pieces.

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