Disclosure: My cooking class was provided courtesy of Cusco Culinary, however I was not otherwise compensated for this post and all opinions are my own.
In Cusco, there is no shortage of touristic sights to keep you busy – in fact, most visitors to Cusco opt to purchase the Boleto Turistico which gives you access to 16 sites over a 10 day period, many of them including Inca or pre-Inca ruins. And then, of course, visitors to Cusco are usually using it as a stopping off point before a visit to Machu Picchu. I’ve actually heard more than one person say they were “ruined out”, that is to say that all of the sites were starting to blend together. A shame to feel this way, of course, but I could relate after a few days spent touring the city and nearby historic sites.
In search of something different, I began looking into food tours and cooking classes and came across fantastic reviews on Trip Advisor for Cusco Culinary, so I reached out to see if they’d let me drop in on a class to share the experience with you. Despite it being Christmas Eve, I got a response within a few hours that there was a spot open for the dinner class the following evening, which sounded like a perfect way to spend Christmas night!
I’ve taken cooking classes all over the world and I can honestly say this was one of the best. Peru has arguably the most popular cuisine in South America, and the people behind Cusco Culinary have really put thought into the experience so that you leave with a real appreciation for the food as well as the culture of the country. The price tag of $59.99 may seem a bit steep to some, but if you’re a food lover, I would strongly suggest you consider it as an option when you’re planning your budget for day trips, tours and things to do in Cusco.
Dinner Experience with Cusco Culinary
The cooking class with Cusco Culinary generally begins with a tour of Mercado San Pedro, but due to the holiday we skipped this and headed straight into the class itself. To begin, we were ushered into a room downstairs set up to give us a taste of life in the Andes. We began with a chilled glass of chicha morada (a drink made from purple corn and flavored with cloves, cinnamon and fruit) while our host, Sofia, described the various types of chicha and customs related to the beverage, including how it’s made, who’s doing the drinking and how to tell when a local chicheria has the mildly alcoholic version of the beverage available.
The rest of the room introduced other aspects of local life, including elements of an Andean kitchen – the stove and cooking utensils, various talismans placed around the home for good luck, and items found in the pantry. We got to see examples of various grains and flours, herbs, spices, dried peppers and potatoes of all shapes, sizes and colors. One that is important to Peruvian cooking is called chuño, which is a bit of an acquired taste and texture. It’s a potato preserved by a freeze-drying process, then ground into a flour or used in soups and sauces or sometimes just eaten with spicy aji sauce. With this method, indigenous people preserve the potatoes for years at a time!
Moving up to the second floor with a gleaming, modern kitchen, we gathered around the bar for an exotic fruit tasting, including some that even I hadn’t tasted yet in other regions of South America. We had lucuma (a milky fruit used in smoothies), tumbo (a long, thin type of passion fruit whose acidity was often used in ceviche before lime was brought to the region), aguaymanto (I believe this one is related to poha berries that we have in Hawaii, it’s slightly tart and rich in vitamin C), granadilla and cherimoya. The vibrantly colored prickly pear was our final taste. I’d seen them on many a street corner while walking around the city, so it was fun to get to taste them at their freshest.
Next, we put some of the fruit to good use as flavoring for the famous Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour. We first sampled three varieties of pisco and then we each were invited to customize our cocktail, either with the traditional recipe or by using ice cubes made of the the juice of tumbo (my choice) or the bright purple chicha morada. One of my classmates opted for a fruit flavored and non-alcoholic version, but I thoroughly enjoyed my passion fruit pisco sour, which I got to garnish with a small round of lime and an orange aguaymanto fruit.
At first I was a bit disappointed not to be making my favorite (and probably the most iconic) Peruvian dish, ceviche. But as we got into the actual ingredients that we would be using for the night’s menu, I enjoyed learning about dishes that I hadn’t had before. First, we made causita (or causa), which is made from a base of mashed yukon gold potatoes, flavored with yellow aji amarillo paste, lime and a bit of mayonnaise. The mixture is layered into a mold with slices of avocado and a chicken salad, then we were each given sliced peppers, olives and toasted black quinoa with a few sauces which we could use to garnish and plate up as we wished.
As we sat around the bar area, our chef and his assistant instructed us on how to prep the ingredients for lomo saltado (a type of beef stir fry) while Sofia translated for us and answered our questions about life in Peru and also in her native Argentina. I enjoyed the process of getting ready for the meal together before we headed into the kitchen to finish off our masterpieces. As the gas was lit at my station, I watched the flame flare and tried to shake my pan like a pro without burning the place down.
The chefs prepared what they called “quinotto”, which used quinoa in place of arborio rice for risotto. I’d never had cheese with quinoa and I was a bit dubious as to how it would work but it was a nice accompaniment to our lomo saltado, which I’d normally had with potatoes or rice or often, both!
After almost four delightful hours, we moved to the dining area where we could enjoy the dishes that we’d made along with wines and a (thankfully) light ice cream for dessert. None of us could finish even half of our food so we were able to take home the leftovers and received an email the following day with all of the recipes to recreate at home.
Bottom line: for the cost of the dinner experience, I think this class was a bargain for food lovers. You get the meal itself, with beverages, in addition to a market tour, fruit tasting, pisco tasting, and tons of information about both traditional and contemporary customs and daily life in Peru to put the cuisine into context. If you can schedule it towards the beginning of your trip, all the better to take advantage of Sofia’s recommendations for the rest of your time in Cusco. Buen provecho!
>> To view my photos from my cooking class and dinner experience, please visit my Cusco Culinary photo gallery.
>> For recommendations on things to do, see and EAT in Peru, visit my Peru Destination Page.