by Rachel Sasser
Cusqueña beers and black olives in Cusco
My father doesn’t get out much. As in, not only does he not leave the United States very often, but he rarely even leaves North Carolina.
So I was excited when he came to visit while I was traveling through Peru. I planned a multitude of eye-opening activities for him, both adventurous and culinary, from eating tons of ceviche in Lima to pisco tasting in Ica. He handled it all like a champ. But there was one meal that we’ll be telling people about for years to come. Well, he’ll be telling it. I’ll be laughing.
Upon our arrival in Cusco, we began our three days of meandering around the city in an attempt to acclimate for our upcoming Inca Trail trek. There’s nothing I love more than a good bustling local market, so for lunch one afternoon, I dragged my dad along to visit the Mercado Central de San Pedro in the center of town.
One part tourist photography mecca, two parts local grocery supplier, this giant market houses everything from homemade bread, butter, and cheese to whole roasted guinea pigs and frozen fish. There’s even the occasional shaman’s table full of roots, offerings, and baby llama fetuses. San Pedro also provides a one stop shop for fresh fruit smoothies, casual beers, and an array of quick lunch options which can be hurriedly eaten at communal benches and tables at the back of the market.
Local women passed by us with colorful Andean dresses, braided hair, and babies swaddled in blankets on their backs while carrying sacks of groceries larger than themselves. Dad loved the place! And I avidly photographed small piles of dried, sparkly fish eggs while trying to stay out of the way of those folks actually buying the freshly butchered meat and sorting through mounds of produce.
We roamed around the market until dad started to complain, rather incessantly, that he was hungry. We grabbed a couple of room temperature Cusqueña beers and a small plastic bag of black olives to snack on while we decided what we’d have for lunch. Having only made our way through half of the market, we hadn’t even reached the popular eating area where multi-course menus of ceviches and lomo saltados hung on dry erase boards for one to two dollars.
My dad, however, became impatient. A seemingly out of place stall serving a thick brown soup caught his eye and he had to have it. It must have been the strategically placed bowls of fish that drew him to the nearly toothless woman’s station. Her multicolored, hand-painted sign promised that this concoction could cure everything from headaches to asthma to impotence.
But it didn’t smell good. And it looked even worse. As dad ordered, I asked repeatedly if he was sure this was what he wanted, but the woman just grinned and ladled a large portion of the muddy stew over a bowl of fish. To me, the soup seemed to contain a few too many unopened mussels and other unidentified mounds of meat. She offered us some fried corn kernels or “canchitas” to add a little texture, but even my dad with his cast iron stomach could barely finish enough to make the soup level noticeably drop. The woman just laughed as he struggled through several bites, finally admitting defeat as he pushed the bowl toward her saying, “Lo siento, no más.”
Then, after he’d finished, she looked at me and winked, calling out, “Senorita!” I lifted my head just in time to see her pulling a live frog, still kicking, out of a bucket of murky water sitting beside the pot of steaming soup. My dad jumped up, shuddered and shook his head with a loud “Gah!” and as we walked away and waved goodbye, the woman howled with laughter.
Hilarious as this fiasco was in itself, I later took a food tour of Cusco which happened to pass through the market. It was then I learned from the local guide that this particular soup was full of “very powerful, very magical stuff.” I also learned it was full of dried bull penis.
For the record, the market is also home to much more normal, tasty, local foods. Just moments after my dad ate the frog, fish, and bull penis stew, I had a delicious lunch of noodle soup followed by fresh lomo saltado with seared beef, tomatoes, and just-fried potato wedges for five Peruvian soles… while dad just watched, still in shock. He wouldn’t be hungry for the next two days.