Monday, August 6, 2007

Food in Ayacucho

Traditional Breads

One of our favourite things to eat in Ayacucho, and one that the entire extended family looks forward to, is Ayacucho bread, specially chaplas. One of the best ways to get chaplas is to walk around the block from the house and get them hot out of the oven nextdoor to the old Cavero cinema. It is great fun to watch the bakers slide the breads in on long boards and flip them onto the hot brick floor of the wood-fired oven, and then scoop them out into large baskets.

Of course, chaplas aren't the only breads made in Ayacucho. Below, the large bread is a wawa. Wawa is an onomatopoeic word meaning "baby" or "child" in Quechua. Originally wawas were made for All Saints Day (Nov. 1st) as a "consolation" for those who had become pregnant nine months earlier during Carnaval. These days wawas are available year-round.

Clockwise from the wawa, three kinds of biscuits, and three sizes of chapla. The larger chapla is very lightly flavored with anise seeds.

Uman Caldo

Uman caldo is a traditional late-night pick me up, and more often, a morning hangover cure. It is made with sheep's heads (uma = 'head' in Quechua). If one comes early enough one can get the good bits, like tongue and cheeks. We arrived late so all we got were bottom jaws and the base of the skull. Not much meat on either of those parts.

This bowl was good, but there's a far better place in Lima, El Soperito in Lince, that serves great uman caldo and it's open 24 hours a day.

Traditional Foods at Urpicha

Urpicha is one of the best-regarded restaurants in Ayacucho, mostly for the quality of the food but also because it was one of the first to focus on offering traditional foods in a nice ambience. Before this, such foods were usually available only at home or in questionable roadside stands or picanterías.

Among the offerings at Urpicha are qapchi, which is fresh cheese mashed and mixed with green onions, rocoto peppers, and the herb huacatay.

Puka picante is a traditional dish of Ayacucho and neighboring departments. Puka = 'red' in Quechua, and picante = 'spicy' in Spanish. Urpicha's is pretty good (but not as good as my Aunt Betty's). Rather than make it with meat mixed in, as is the usual practice, they offer the choice of pork or guinea pig on top to be eaten separately or mixed with the sauce as one desires.

Puka with pork

Puka with guinea pig

Urpicha's signature dish is the homonymic urpicha. The urpicha is a selection of the restaurant's main dishes. At the top, Ayacucho-style guinea pig. Clockwise from there: kernels of mote corn; an onion, carrot, and beet salad usually served at Holy Week; puka with pork chicharrones; stewed beef; fried yellow potatoes; qapchi; and white rice in the center.

The urpicha is meant for one, but two could easily eat from it and be full. I couldn't eat all of mine, but my cousin José finished all of his - after eating half of Guille's guinea pig- and then helped finish my plate! Where does he put it all?

Pollo a la Brasa from Wallpa Sua

Right nextdoor to the house, on Av. Garcilaso de la Vega, is Wallpa Sua. The name is a taken from an insult toward people from Huamanga by those from nearby Huanta. The two towns have been friendly rivals for ages. During the war for independence, for example, Huamanga was independentist while Huantinos tended more toward the monarchy. In later times, a bishop was lynched in Huanta, earning them the sobriquet of mata obispos or 'bishop killers'.

Huantinos, in turn, call Huamanguinos wallpa suakuna or chicken thieves, because the name 'Huamanga' comed from the Quechua word waman, meaning 'hawk.'

The Wallpa Sua restaurant -which surely pays for all of its chickens- offer what is easily the best pollo a la brasa I have eaten anywhere in Peru. Every afternoon, around four o'clock, the neighborhood starts to fill with woodsmoke, as the restaurants staff prepares the fires in time for the wood to turn to white-hot embers by the dinner rush. Then, the scent of herbs and garlic fills the street as the basted and spitted chickens are added.

The chicken can be bought by the 1/4, 1/2, or whole, and comes with fries and a salad.

In adition, the restaurant serves other dishes such as anticuchos (marinate beef heart brochettes), qapchi, steaks, and soups. There is a bar and the walls are decorated with antiques, inclusing an old photo of a large formal gathering in which we discovered the presence of our grandfather Ramón.

Outside, in the patio, there is a firepit, which is a popular spot to sit and chat over drinks, as the kids discovered.

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