Scolded. I consider myself scolded. One of my closest friends, a dedicated food guru and creator of some of the greatest culinary delights I have ever had the pleasure to put to my lips, has lodged a complaint. “I like your blog and all,” went the tone of her email, “but what in God’s name are you eating? Tell us more about the food!” Her frustrated plea has been echoing in my ears for weeks and, as the end of this journey draws near, I sit to reflect on the fuel I have been providing this body of mine for the last two and a half months.
Let’s start at the beginning: Argentina and Chile, the former famed for some of the world’s greatest beef and both holding serious clout in the international wine industry. However, for me, this sizeable chunk of South America is entirely coated in a thick layer of white flour. The sheer abundance of empanadas, small pies stuffed with meat, chicken or cheese, dominates my memories – though the Chilean version can be four times the size of its palm-sized Argentinean counterpart. Sandwiches made with white rolls and stuffed with milanesas, a breaded, fried meat fillet, garnished with a generous oozing of mayonnaise, are ubiquitous, as are the European imports of pasta and pizza.
As for the beef: though I fear that the newly appointed Argentinean Pope will have me struck down from on high for saying this, South African beef gets my vote any day of the week over Argentina’s, whose cuts seem to include inches of fat. The wine, my novice taste buds grant, is splendid, and in less than a week I will be back in Argentina’s major wine-producing region, Mendoza, visiting a friend who has committed a month to learning more about the industry there.
But really, it’s about the flour. And the oil. On a backpacker budget, most of what you eat is white, fried, and goes straight to the hips.
Bolivia and Peru, however, have been different. The central markets, a focal point in every city and village, explode with colours fit to make Joseph’s techni-coloured dream coat turn a wilted green, with undecipherable sights demanding a closer look, and with smells that either cause a flooding of saliva or a revolted curling of the nose. Piles of fruit, delicately balanced; fresh vegetables, less neatly arranged; young men shouldering pigs, skinned and gutted but intact; the innards of any variety of animals on silver trays; live chickens clucking beneath racks of their recently deceased comrades; bags of rice piled so high that those at the bottom will certainly never be sold. And, interspersed, small stalls that offer to prepare the market’s goods for you while you wait: juice that includes nothing but the fruit you select – mango, banana, papaya, maracuya or passionfruit; fried meat creations, served with rice and red onion; and, in Peru, the glory of ceviche.
Ceviche, made with many kinds of raw fish marinated in lemon or lime and often served with lettuce, seasoned rice, sweet potato, chili sauce and salted, roasted corn kernels has been a highlight of my time in Peru, and eaten in abundance.
This is not to say that white flour is not a staple in Bolivia and Peru too. Pizzerias breed faster than the street dogs, and you are never far from a bakery or a sandwicheria. When you’re on the run, a combination of flour and oil is always close at hand. I have more than struggled to shake my Canadian curves.
Of course, the body’s reaction to all these influences is a daily surprise, and I have had several nasty turns of stomach. Accidentally drinking the water in Cusco had dire consequences – a lesson only learnt once.
This market life has led me to think much about how detached we – we, who do not live in the world’s tropics, we, who buy our food in enormous, flourescent-lit supermarkets – have become from the origins of our food. We accept that beef, chicken, pork comes on a polystyrene tray and wrapped in plastic. We expect an endless supply of all our fruit and vegetable requirements, and an almost endless variety. Anything can be imported. Cold storage is our friend. Here, even an upmarket restaurant will apologise that there is no asparagus today – because there wasn’t any at the market.
As I write this, lunchtime approaches. In my backpack sits an orange, two apples, an avocado (I think I have eaten avocado in all its creamy glory every day for the last two months), a tomato and two wholewheat rolls (wholewheat being relative to the white fluff I usually find). A picnic in the Plaza de Armas of the northern city of Huaraz beckons. For dinner: I think I’ll just potter to the market and see what I can find.