Looking for traditional food in Cusco, Peru? Try Cuy!
Cuy is a local specialty of the highland regions in South America, especially Ecuador and Peru. You can find it served in a variety of ways, often wood-fired or roasted, though people complain that it can be dry and a lot of work for such a small amount of meat. A friend tried it in a stew (pipian de cuy), which would mean it’s less dry but you also get less of the taste of the cuy itself and more of the stew ingredients. When I’ve talked to friends in both Peru and Ecuador, it’s not often on the top of their “must eat” lists, so it can a bit of a gringo thing to do, made popular by the likes of Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern.
If you’re not an adventurous eater, the presentation can be daunting as well – the cuy usually comes served whole, with head (including teeth!) and sometimes little claws in tact. I never got around to trying cuy in Ecuador so when we got a recommendation for a place to try it in Cusco, I knew I had to go for it and fortunately a couple of guys from my hostel were game to come along as well. Perfecto!
Cuy can also be a bit pricey, with restaurants in the tourist areas often charging 50-70 soles or so for a plate. You can sometimes find it cheaper on the streets outside of a mercado or at a pincanteria, but they will usually be smaller and very tough. In Quito, I’d seen a woman selling them on the street for only $5 for a half. In Cusco, we opted to go to a restaurant more popular with local families called Quinta Eulalia, where cuy chactado (deep fried guinea pig) with roasted potato and a rocoto relleno (stuffed spicy pepper) will set you back 45 soles.
The restaurant was just a short walk from Plaza de Armas on Calle Choquechaca. To find it, head in the direction of Sacsayhuman and look for the blue balconies on the right side of the street. The restaurant takes up two floors – the second floor surrounds a nice outdoor courtyard and the top floor is a bit more enclosed, which is good if the weather is colder! Quinta Eulalia has been in business more than half a century, and when we arrived around 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, the place was packed with locals. A trio of musicians made their way through the restaurant, giving things a festive feel. We waited about 15 minutes for a table to free up, watching the huge entree portions of lechon and roast lamb coming out of the kitchen – giving us time to decide on our ordering strategy.
It might seem odd that, although it’s been a good 15 years since I’d seen her last, Coral looked exactly the same as she stepped out of the helicopter and ducked across the helipad. Come to think of it, she pretty much looked the same as I remembered her from elementary school days, going on adventures up in Piiholo or hanging out in Pukalani. Suddenly, I was giddy with happiness at seeing my old friend and simultaneously fighting the urge to pinch myself as the helicopter blades swooped overhead.
“Who does this?” I thought.
I’ve had my share of visits to wine country regions in California and abroad in New Zealand. I’ve been on self-guided tastings by car, with friends in a stretch Hummer limo, and even once by bicycle. But wine tasting by helicopter? This was something new for me. And an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, of course.
If you’re ever lucky enough to have the time and ability to invest the money in getting a group together for a few hours of wine tasting in Oregon’s wine region – home to some of the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever had – I highly recommend Precision Helicopters. It may seem like a luxury only available to the rich and famous. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying it’s not cheap, but if nothing else, it’s a once in a lifetime indulgence that truly made the most of the precious few hours we had, covering a wide range of geography without the hassle of fighting traffic in and out of Portland. Instead, we were whisked away and treated to a bird’s eye view of the surrounding towns and landscape, and in a mere 10-15 minutes, we’d arrived at our first tasting room.
Wine Tasting in Oregon
Penner Ash has a beautiful tasting room and we were able to try a Viogner and a Reisling before moving into their popular Pinots. Afterwards, we sat outside to enjoy the view over Chehalem Valley. I love the thought of being able to come here to have a picnic or to enjoy wine by the glass or by the bottle, which is one of the tasting options available, weather permitting.
As we climbed back into the helicopter, I got my first taste of what it must feel like to be a celebrity. As the helicopter blades whirred to a steady hum overhead, I looked out and noticed some of the winery staff standing outside with cell phone cameras in hand, filming our lift off. I hate to disappoint them if they were expecting someone famous, so I we all put on our shades and gave a little wave. Ha!
September was truly a month of gluttony for me. Knowing that I’d be on the road for months with a mostly street food diet to stretch my budget over the course of my trip, I wanted to be sure leave on a high note. I created a “Honolulu bucket list” of sorts – places I’d never gotten around to dining and things I’d always meant to experience, like riding around Oahu via The Bus, trying to omakase menu at Sushi Sasabune, watching the sunset from Kaena Point or having a picnic lunch on the lawn at Iolani Palace. Thanks to my amazing friends, I made it to most of them.
Of course, I also went out with my foodie friends to my favorite spots more than a few times, trying to soak it all in. Now, almost two months into my trip, I miss the familiar flavors, even as I’m experiencing new ones daily. I can’t help but crave dry mein from Sam Sato’s, a good cocktail from the Manifest, just about anything on the menu at town or The Pig & The Lady, not to mention poke, sashimi, ramen, pho…
So I suppose it was perfect that one of my “last hurrah” food events in Honolulu was Hawaiian Airlines presents: Corks & Forks at the 2014 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. I’d attended last year’s festival as a guest at the Under A Modern Moon: Morimoto & Friends event and loved it. As it was my first time attending, I quickly joined up with a little group of social media acquaintances and food lovers – Dawn & Derek Paiva and Martha Cheng. It was only fitting that for the 2014 event, we once again worked on our strategy to secure a table as a “home base” while we took turns making the rounds, photographing chefs and their dishes and scouting out the best plates to bring back to the table. I have to say, it’s pretty much the perfect way to attack an event like this. Dawn quickly scored us a table right in front of one of the cocktail stations and I was free to roam.
I have to admit that I was not expecting much of the food scene in Cancun. My only other trip to Mexico was last year when I’d won a stay in Cabo San Lucas at a resort that – while not an all-inclusive – was one of those “party party” hotels right on the playa.
On that trip, the mediocre food and ridiculously inflated prices caused us to search elsewhere when we were craving something a bit more traditional. With a little research, asking around and luck, we were rewarded with a great little spot service fresh ceviche and ice cold cerveza that we stumbled upon, a mere ten minute walk from the sprawling resorts on the beach.
So when I heard that the 2014 TBEX North America conference was being held in Cancun, I mentally braced myself for the same disappointment with the resort food. Kim and I elected to take advantage of the discounted rate to stay at the official conference hotel, the Moon Palace Resort & Spa, where we’d be close by the TBEX sessions. It would be my first time staying at an all-inclusive and I wasn’t sold on the idea that this was a good thing. Watery margaritas and tepid buffets came to mind instantly, but I was hopeful that we’d make the best of things.
How wrong I was!
Not only did we get a chance to enjoy many of the dining options offered by the resort, but we made use of the in room mini-bar and even tried out the 24 hour room service. Having the conference sessions right on the (huge) resort grounds meant that we even had the choice of occasionally skipping out on the TBEX-provided lunches in order to try more of the Moon Palace dining options.
Besides the options we had at Moon Palace, I was lucky enough to score a spot in the post-TBEX Culinary FAM trip, where I had the chance to dine at some of the best restaurants on the Riviera Maya. I was impressed by the blending of modern/contemporary techniques with traditional recipes and ingredients.
Deconstructed fajitas. A “pinata” filled with guacamole. Foie gras posing as roasted baby corn. A beautiful seascape where the “starfish” draped over the reef are meant to be eaten. An edible garden as dessert. An invisible margarita.
Such are the descriptions we were given during our extended tasting menu at Benazuza, and each time I felt myself breaking into a wide grin before considering the beautiful presentation in front of me. If the dishes sound off the wall, that’s because they’re designed to engage all of your senses and go beyond even that – to envoke a sense of playfulness, of whimsy and delight. It was truly a meal unlike any I’ve ever had.
Like many foodies that I know, I was shattered when the fabled restaurant El Bulli in Spain closed its doors in 2011. Chef Ferran Adria is known as the founding father of molecular gastronomy (or as he preferred to call his style of cooking, “deconstructivism”) and it was with a heavy heart that I took El Bulli off of my culinary bucket list – a destination restaurant worth traveling for.
Fast forward to the day that I received my itinerary for the Culinary FAM trip that I’d signed up for and been accepted to (yippee!) for after the TBEX conference in Cancun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and as I scanned down to the names of the restaurants we’d be visiting, I began plugged them into Google and almost fell out of my chair!
Benazuza, the fine dining enclave in our host hotel, the Oasis Sens, was listed under the direction of Spanish Chef Rafael Zafra, who happened to be a disciple of the legendary Ferran Adria and had worked with him at El Bulli. My molecular gastronomy dreams had come true! It was likely the closest that I’d ever get to experiencing El Bulli in person, and Chef Zafra had an impressive resume all his own, including two Michelin stars. I couldn’t wait!
Breakfast at Benazuza
As we checked in to the hotel I realized that, although most of our itinerary was accounted for, we had one meal that hadn’t already been scheduled – breakfast on our second morning. We were slotted to dine at Benazuza that evening, but without hesitation I quickly booked myself for the breakfast tasting menu there that same day. As soon as I got back to the group to tell them of my plan for double Benazuza exposure, they quickly followed suit and signed up as well – these were obviously my kind of people!
So, the morning after our luxurious dinner at Ramona four of us stumbled downstairs to Benazuza, which was empty save for two other tables. We busied ourselves with reading the faux newspaper articles (many of which connected Chef Zafra with El Bulli and touted his other two Michelin stars) and taking in the ambiance of the restaurant, bathed in the warm morning light reflecting off the ocean on the horizon.
When booking, we were advised to allow three hours (!!) for breakfast, and our tasting took just about that entire time. While it may seem a bit overkill going through multiple courses for your first meal of the day, with the relaxed pace of the meal and detailed instructions from the servers, I found myself happily appreciating each bite as they came.
We began with a cafe de olla and a trio of fresh juices served in glass shot glasses – fresh orange, watermelon with hibiscus, and grapefruit/guanabana with rosemary, which was my favorite.
Next, a basket of toasts with a variety of spreads – marmalade combos like mango with a spicy chipotle chile for heat, strawberry marmalade with a hint of tequila, cream cheese with jalapeno and butters savory (truffled) and sweet (vanilla) to round things out. Then came a few other sweet courses: perfect little brochettes of melon layered with honey the consistency of jello, yogurt with strawberries, and white chocolate foam with chocolate puffed rice cereal sprinkled atop.
The savories are always my favorite and I loved the playful way they used Mexican flavors, like a foam made of potatoes with warm seasoned beans below. My absolute favorite bite of the morning was the small dish of an earthy “cuitlacoche” (which is actually a fungus that grows on corn, sometimes known as Mexican truffle) sprinkled around a perfectly poached egg then draped with a rich, creamy sabayon.
As the servers brought out the final course, a basket of house-made baked items and a luxurious cup of hot chocolate, I looked around and saw that everyone else looked the same way that I felt – ready for a nap! If this was our warm up for the evening, then we were definitely in for a treat.
Dinner at Benazuza
Dinner was, of course, an entirely different experience from the very moment that we took our seats around the bar. Take, for example, the presentation of the “invisible margarita”:
You can’t help but laugh, right? We all waited for the punch line – it turns out that the “cocktail” was in the straw that was later placed into each glass. Likewise, we each got a piece of sugarcane to chew with the liquor infused into it and later a shot molded into a sphere served in a clam shell with a slice of lime. It set the tone for the evening, capturing our attention, yet reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously.
As we moved to a private dining room in the back, I truly wanted to pinch myself in anticipation for the rest of the meal. Service was attentive and each dish was explained in detail as it wasn’t always apparent how a dish needed to be eaten – how exactly does one eat a “pinata”? (Answer: crack open the outer shell to reveal a mound of delicious guacamole inside, which can be scoooped out with the pieces of the shell!)
One of our first courses had a liquid nitrogen component, with the white smoke spreading out over the table – in the dark room it almost felt like we were spectators of a magic show. (I suppose, in a way, we were.)
Small bites and snacks came out one or two at a time, including edible starfish crackers, popcorn, and playful takes on mexican street food, like foie gras shaped to look like roasted baby corn (which totally threw me off, in a good way, texure-wise) and REAL baby corn served with a vanilla butter. We had a beautiful “deconstructed” fajita, where each veggie component was cooked and served on a wooden dish as a separate, colorful line, which we then tucked into warm, mini tortillas.
The cuitlacoche dish from breakfast reappeared (yippee!) and then a few savory “entree” type dishes like a mole (done in a light and dark style) before we headed into the desserts.
The desserts were gorgeous, of course, and fun! One was presented to us as a big white sphere, one for every 3-4 of us at the table. We all looked around, puzzled, until mini baseball bats were then placed on the table. One of the girls took a whack! at the sphere and we all laughed as the inside was revealed. Another pinata!
The final dessert was made to look like a garden, with beautiful flowers, cherries, carrots and of course, dirt. None of it was what it seemed and we all enjoyed trying to guess what flavor would greet us before we popped the components into our mouths. At this point, Chef Zafra came out to chat with us for a few minutes and I felt sad that the experience was coming to a close. But I suppose after 26 courses (-ish? I lost track!) it was time to call it a night.
>> For more photos and video of our experience at Benazuza, click here.
Disclosure: My stay at the Oasis Sens and meals at Benazuza were sponsored by the Cancun CVB as part of our culinary-themed press trip. I was not otherwise compensated for this post and the opinions are, of course, my own.