This year’s Folklife Festival was constrained in both space and scope. Squeezed onto the Mall between 3rd and 4th Streets, it focused on only one subject: Peru. But, just as a magnifying glass may concentrate attention on a small but significant area, Peru generated enough energy to reward an excursion down there.
Since I, too, was constrained this year by the calendar, I only managed to visit for one afternoon (and the last day’s afternoon at that), but found that there was still plenty of enthusiasm to educate a curious reporter in the food ways of Peru.
The entrance to the Festival featured the completed rope bridge which had been constructed during the event. To the right of it, a corridor fenced off from the main grounds housed a row of food vendors and a seating area.
Pisco! At fairly reasonable prices, to boot. Also, gelato, and sandwiches by the Peruvian Brothers food truck, among other food stalls.
But I decided to wait for later to indulge – I wanted to visit the El Fogon Kitchen, where the food program was being presented. On the way, I passed visitors advertising their connection to Peru with Western fashion, and dancers in colorful costumes.
A colorful sunburst arch led to the main program area.
And speaking of constraints, there were no presenters imported this year as chefs. All those cooking from Peru had come as dancers, musicians, or other artists. There were also some chefs from the Washington area doing demos. The first chef at El Fogon I saw was one of the latter: Jose Victorio Alarcon, executive chef at Puerto 511 Cocina Peruana in Baltimore.
As he prepared Ceviche, he explained that this dish has evolved over time in Peru, with the influence of Japanese preparation techniques and ingredients. Now, the fish is barely “cooked” by the lime juice – marinated only for a brief time, and served nearly raw, in contrast to the longer soak time in other South American countries.
Just before serving, he added a little coconut milk. It helps to smooth out the balance of salty and sour flavors in the liquid, called “leche del tigre” (tiger’s milk). The dish was garnished with quick-fried potato bundles.
After the demo, many in the audience got closer to the chef and the dish. Some even took selfies.
The next demo was handled by the three Catacora sisters from Tradiciones Carumeñas, a singing and dancing troupe from Carumas. They cooked Chupe de Chochoca, a thick cornmeal soup made with mutton and both fresh and dehydrated potatoes.
They were dressed in their dancing costumes, providing a wonderful visual lagniappe to the demo.
Dried potatoes (chuño) are made by being frozen overnight, soaked, having the water squeezed out by foot, and then dried. They will last for years.
While they cooked, the sisters told us about food-related folklore. In Carumas, one must never hand another person a bunch of scallions, because those two people will then become enemies. Their interpreter volunteered that she has seen them picking weeds along the Mall. Yes, they use plantains to treat injuries, and another common plant for “swelling in the kidneys and cleaning the liver.”
I was given a tour of the prep kitchen by Rosa Maria La Madrid, the Peru Program Presenter. She is from Lima, and worked to contact participants for the Festival, collect the recipes, and prepare them for presentation. Were there problems finding the right ingredients this year? No, she found many of them fresh or frozen at Todos, a Latin supermarket in Virginia.
Also, she worked out substitutions for native fish and vegetables. Acorn squash worked well for another squash; trout filled in for a more authentic fish.
But some things they were able to bring in – the wide bamboo tube Rosa is holding in the picture above, for instance. These are used to steam fish in the pachamanca, the fire pit filled with hot stones just outside the tent.
Another thing they cooked in that pachamanca was cuy, but the demo was earlier in the day and I missed it, so sampling guinea pig remains on my bucket list! Maybe I can find some at Todos?
For consolation, I repaired to the Peruvian Brothers to eat a pork sandwich. While I was enjoying it, the rumor of avocados wafted through the crowd. Sure enough, there were many leftover fruits donated by AvocadosfromPeru, and, as a prize for being there at the end of the Festival, we got to take home one each. Lucky us!