As opposed to fruits and vegetables that taste somewhat similar wherever you go (this is a pretty bold statement, so I will better say: in Australia or Peru, as my food comparison list describes), such as carrots, oranges and peas, I’ve found that corn causes a big tastebud shock in most Peruvian people living overseas.
According to the Perú Tourism Bureau, more than 55 varieties of corn are currently grown in our country (some of them are depicted in this blog’s heading photo). My guess is that a big chunk of those are grown/used in the highlands, but even as a capital city citizen I have been constantly exposed to at least 9 varieties during my life there:
- choclo, regular corn with tender white kernells that are not very sweet and bigger than the ones in Australian yellow corn, used in all kinds of salads, stews, soups, as a side, in tamales, etc.
- maíz morado (purple corn) used for chicha morada (a refreshing sweet drink) and mazamorra morada (purple pudding)
- mote, with huge white kernells, used mostly for soups and desserts
- mote seco, basically the same as above but sun dried, used in some tamales and humitas
- cancha, eaten toasted in oil and salted as a snack (great with beer!) or garnish for seafood dishes
- maíz gigante del Cuzco (giant corn from Cuzco), with bigger kernells than cancha and the same uses
- jora, special kind of maize that is fermented to produce a kind of booze called chicha de jora that can be drank (in the mountains kids are allowed to drink it, too) or used as a key ingredient for traditional dishes (some of my favourite!)
- canchita (pop corn)
- baby corn
In Sydney, if you go to a typical supermarket, you’ll find at most two kinds of corn: the sweet yellow one and baby corn. One day I went to Woolies and saw white corn, very similar to the one sold in Lima. Then I saw the label and it said “sweet corn”. If the yellow one is called just corn, I can’t imagine how sweet the other one is.
I cook a lot, but not many Peruvian dishes mainly because I cannot achieve the same taste with local ingredients. I’ve dared to use Aussie corn in a few dishes (tiradito, cebiche, solterito, arroz con pollo) and have noticed how can a single ingredient change a dish completely. Some months ago I had an eureka moment and realised that I could use baby corn instead. The bad news is that it’s expensive, so I don’t use it when it’s required in big quantities.
Which brings me to yesterday’s lunch. I thought I had had another eureka moment when a few weeks ago (or months, I don’t remember) I decided that the sweetness in yellow corn was not a problem for preparing pastel de choclo (corn pie), because sugar is added when prepared in Perú. I still added sugar, but half the amount called in the recipe. The minced beef filling has a sweet element, too: raisins. I tasted the corn mixture and the beef filling separately, adjusted salt and pepper levels and thought I had a winner. Then I baked it and, as usual, when putting the portions in containers for lunch, I tasted it. It was too damn sweet. But not only that, the texture wasn’t right. That’s because corn here is pure sweetness and water. I forgot to keep the nice rectangular shape of the pie while taking it off the container, hence the mess in the pic.
Alvaro suggested using baby corn next time, which would result in a super expensive take on a humble traditional Peruvian dish. No thanks. I’ll just wait ’till I get there, after all there are only 18 days left for my trip.
For today’s lunch I used the remaining stuffing in big chilies (a non-spicy version of Peruvian rocoto relleno, sans Paria cheese) and I confirmed that the problem with the corn pie had been the corn. The stuffing was great in the chili.
On the bright side, two days ago I went to Fiji Market, a place where I buy my frozen yuca (cassava) and green plantains whenever I need them for cooking Peruvian food. I was searching some ingredients we need for a Moroccan dinner in aisles I have never visited before (I usually get my cassava or platains and get the hell out of there before I get dizzy with the overwhelming scent of mixed spices), when suddenly I found the Latin American corner, a relatively small space with stuff mostly from Mexico (spicy sauces, cajeta, nopalitos, etc.), some Colombian/Venezuelan stuff and… cancha! It’s roasted here by a company called Quilla Foods, and I think the mote they use comes from Bolivia. It didn’t taste as good as the freshly roasted corn you get in good cebicherías, but I found out that they sell the unroasted one on their web page, so I’ll be ordering soon.