Dining challenges in Cusco, Peru
When visiting many of the Peruvian highlights, you need to take altitude into account. Yes, altitude can make you sick (and even kill you), but you can take steps to minimize those effects. Altitude also affects eating. It suppresses your appetite but, more importantly, because it is more difficult to cook at altitude, it can be harder for the traveller to find good food.
Did you know that water in Cusco doesn’t boil at 100 C, but at 88 degrees (191 F)?! Baking is also significantly affected by altitude (well, technically it is the air pressure, but let’s keep things simple). So in places like Cusco, cooking times and even ingredient proportions need to be changed. This will make you even more impressed when you find good food in the Andes!
Your first meal in Cusco
If you’ve followed my advice in “How to see Peru without getting altitude sickness”, you’ll arrive in Cusco after acclimating in the Sacred Valley. You shouldn’t be feeling sick, but you will be feeling tired, and your digestion won’t be working as well as it does at sea level. However, your body does need some easy-to-digest nourishment.
A big meal is not the way to go. Your body is focussing its energies on breathing and distributing the limited oxygen in your blood. Sleeping tonight will be a bit of a challenge as it is, let’s not add a heavy meal in to it too!
Instead, you’ll feel good if you have a nice bowl of Japanese soup. Bojosan Japanese Udon Bar is the place to go. Open for both lunch and dinner, the menu is delightfully simple (easy on your altitude-affected brain!). There are seven types of udon to choose from, as well as Japanese tea, beer and sake.
An expert Japanese udon chef (from the owner’s favourite Japanese restaurant, Kunitoraya, which happens to be in Paris) was flown in to design the menu. The aim was to be as authentic as possible. But the altitude posed some unexpected challenges. His recipes, which work so well in Paris and in Japan where they originate, had to be completely redesigned. The effort was worth it. His handmade noodles have the perfect texture. The broths, flavoured with bonito and dashi, have the delicateness that make Japanese food so perfect.
I ordered the Bojo-San (partially because it, like the restaurant, is named after the owner’s beloved black lab). Chicken-based, I felt like it was nourishing every part of me. I also stuck my spoon into my companion’s beef-based curry udon (often — thank you CB!). Both delicious, and I wish I’d discovered this lovely little eatery earlier in my visit to Cusco.
While Lima is the hot spot for Peruvian cuisine, you should taste local food in Cusco too. Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse is my first choice of where to eat it.
Uchu specializes in classic Peruvian dishes, but adds a contemporary flair. Their speciality is not to be missed: steak that you cook at the table on a 500 C stone! It will be difficult to decide between the beef or alpaca tenderloin, lamb ribs, chicken, mahi mahi and shrimp. Luckily you can choose a combination!
As I write this, I’m craving Uchu’s leche de tigre de maracuya. Leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk”) is the name for the white liquid that forms when you “cook” raw fish in lime juice for ceviché. This one has maracuya — the ultra-flavourful passionfruit — and shrimp to go with the traditional lime- and fish-juice dotted with chili peppers.
You should also look around the Mercado Central de San Pedro, Cusco’s central market. Popular with both local people and tourists, you can buy snacks and souvenirs here. To replenish your energies (and stay hydrated — important at altitude!), order a freshly blended juice in the juice aisle — you can choose whatever fruits you’d like in it. Have soup with the locals at one of the counters at the back, someone will help you order if you’re not sure of your Spanish. There are pastries, breads, cheeses, and fresh fruits to tempt you; spices, chocolate and olive-wood kitchen utensils to bring home; and, should you wish a challenge, guinea pig (it tastes like chicken) and the smiling snouts of a range of beasts.
When you need a break from Peruvian fare
Peruvian food is delicious, but it has some familiar themes, of which one can grow a little tired. And because of the altitude challenges in Cusco, there are few restaurants which do well beyond simple grilled meats and various forms of ceviché.
When you’re feeling a bit better altitude-wise and have your appetite back, reserve a table at Le Soleil.
Le Soleil is the sole restaurant in Peru which uses only French techniques. The menu and service are also authentically French (in the perfect attention to detail way; not in the rude-to-tourists-in-Paris way). While 80% of the ingredients are locally Peruvian (and with the quality of produce and seafood in particular, how could you not?), speciality items like foie gras and truffles are imported from France. Le Soleil pays great attention to quality, for example, the chef spends two hours per day scouring the local markets. He must — the restaurant refuses to have a freezer!
My advice for once you’re feeling acclimated in Cusco: spend the day working up an appetite by exploring the ruins above Cusco (the standard ticketed sites, yes, but also the ancient labyrinth at Rocas Lancacuyo, a few hundred meters up road 28G from the ticket-required ruins of Quenco). Then order Le Soleil’s degustation menu — with wine pairings, natch. I sampled a number of items during my November 2014 visit and was particularly impressed with the warm octopus salad and the gnocchi. Oh, and let me rhapsodize about the tomatoes! They were the second best I’ve ever tasted (the first was in the height of tomato season in the south of France, an unfair comparison).
When you remember the challenges of the altitude, you’ll be even more impressed with Le Soleil. Your delicious crème brûlée dessert? It takes four hours to cook in Cusco, and only two in Paris!
Enjoy Cusco! And don’t forget acclimate slowly so that you can enjoy the city’s best restaurants.