Mar 282014


Today is the birthday (1936) of Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, essayist, college professor, and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas Llosa is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and essayists, and one of the leading writers of his generation. Some critics consider him to have had a larger international impact and worldwide audience than any other writer of the wave of Latin American literature that began in the mid-20th century (known as the Latin American Boom), with authors such as Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.. Upon announcing the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy said it had been given to Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Vargas Llosa is currently a visiting professor at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.

Vargas Llosa rose to fame in the 1960s with novels such as The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros, literally The City and the Dogs, 1963/1966), The Green House (La casa verde, 1965/1968), and the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (Conversación en la catedral, 1969/1975). He writes prolifically across an array of literary genres, including literary criticism and journalism. His novels include comedies, murder mysteries, historical novels, and political thrillers. Several, such as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973/1978) and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977/1982), have been adapted as feature films.

Many of Vargas Llosa’s works are influenced by his perception of Peruvian society and his own experiences as a native Peruvian. Increasingly, however, he has expanded his range, and tackled themes that arise from other parts of the world. In his essays, Vargas Llosa has criticized nationalism in different parts of the world, among others, in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Another change over the course of his career has been a shift from a style and approach associated with a rather conventional and serious literary modernism, to a more playful postmodernism.

I could give you a load of erudite drivel about Vargas Llosa, but I am not going to.  Go and read his novels.  Instead I am going to give you a few quotes that I find inspiring followed by a couple of favorite Peruvian recipes.  I’m very fond of Peru and Peruvian cooking.  This first quote is my absolute favorite.  Some of the quotes are in translation and some in Spanish.  No apologies. The ones in Spanish are untranslatable.

There is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.

Las mentiras machacadas día y noche se vuelven verdades.

In my case, literature is a kind of revenge. It’s something that gives me what real life can’t give me – all the adventures, all the suffering. All the experiences I can only live in the imagination, literature completes.

Memory is a snare, pure and simple; it alters, it subtly rearranges the past to fit the present.

Writers are the exorcists of their own demons.

No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing.

Es más fácil imaginar la muerte de una persona que la de cien o mil…Multiplicado, el sufrimiento se vuelve abstracto. No es fácil conmoverse por cosas abstractas.

Cuando creí que iba a perder la razón ante tanto sufrimiento. Así descubrí que un ser humano no puede vivir sin creer.

The secret to happiness, at least to peace of mind, is knowing how to separate sex from love. And, if possible, eliminating romantic love from your life, which is the love that makes you suffer. That way, I assure you, you live with greater tranquility and enjoy things more.


The potato is perhaps the most significant cultigen to come out of Peru.  There are now over 1,000 varieties worldwide although very few make it to market.  Potato production was vital to the development and expansion of the Inca empire.  Then, as now, different varieties of potato are grown at different altitudes in the Andes, but all find their way to markets in the main cities.

Causa limeña is a beloved cold potato entree that´s unlike any other dish in the culinary world. The yellow potato and yellow chili pepper mash is assembled in layers, together with chicken, seafood, corn, avocado, olives, and whatever the imagination allows.




6 yellow potatoes (floury texture)
4 piquillo peppers, blended
¼ cup vegetable oil
juice of 3 limes
2 chicken breasts
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ celery stick, chopped
1 scallion, finely chopped
1 red onion finely sliced
1 piquillo pepper
1 ají amarillo, (optional)
2 limes
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves
salt and pepper
8 quail eggs, hard boiled (or 2 quartered hen’s eggs)
1 avocado
6 black olives, sliced


Scrub potatoes and put in pan; cover with cold water. Put pan over medium high heat. Bring water to a boil, and cook for 20 minutes or until soft, but not mushy. Drain and peel the potatoes while hot, and mash or pass through a potato ricer immediately. The mashed potato should be very fine, without lumps.

Put potatoes in bowl, and add the blended piquillo peppers, vegetable oil, lime juice and salt. Mix well. Keep tasting and adding more of any of the above ingredients to taste. Cover with a kitchen towel, and reserve.

Cook chicken breasts in chicken stock, salt and pepper, over medium heat until cooked through . Cool in stock, and finely chop (or shred). In bowl, combine chicken with mayonnaise, celery, scallion, salt, and pepper.

Lightly oil a large container (you can use a tube pan or a loaf pan) or small pastry rings. Line base with a layer of mashed potato. Cover that layer with chicken salad, and add another layer of potatoes on top. You can prepare this dish up to this point and keep refrigerated to serve later.


Cau cau is a tripe and potatoes dish I love.  It’s really pretty basic – potatoes, tripe, and onions.  What makes it special is the spice palillo, which gives a special savor and brilliant yellow color to the dish. Turmeric makes a fair substitute (or annatto or saffron).  I decided to give you the recipe in Spanish for the hell of it. That’s how I received it. It’s not hard to translate.

Cau Cau


½ kilo de mondongo
4 cucharadas de aceite
1 cebolla grande finamente picada
2 ajos molidos
2 cucharadas de ají amarillo
1 ½ kilo de papa cocida y cortada en cuadraditos
½ cucharada de palillo en polvo  (o cúrcuma)
2 cucharadas de leche
sal, pimienta y comino al gusto
hierbabuena picada al gusto


Cocinar en agua el mondongo, con la leche y ramita de hierbabuena, hasta que este blando. Cortar en     cuadraditos.

Freír con aceite caliente la cebolla, los ajos, el ají, el palillo, la sal, la pimienta y el comino. Agregar el mondongo y las papas cocidas. Dejar cocer unos minutos.

Servir enseguida y si desea puede espolvorear hierbabuena.

Jul 242013


Today is the anniversary of the day in 1911 that a local farmer’s son took Hiram Bingham to the ruins of Machu Picchu, eventually launching a massive project to free the city from the dense jungle that had overgrown it, and turning it into one of the most visited historic sites in the world.

Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended O’ahu College, now known as Punahou School, in Hawai’i from 1882 to 1892. He went to the United States in his teens in order to complete his education, entering Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1894. He obtained a B.A. degree from Yale University in 1898, a degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1900, and a Ph. D. degree from Harvard University in 1905.  He taught history and politics at Harvard and then served as preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. In 1907, Yale University appointed Bingham as a lecturer in South American history.

Bingham was not a trained archaeologist. Yet, it was during Bingham’s time as a lecturer that he discovered the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu. In 1908, he had served as delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress at Santiago, Chile. On his way home via Peru, a local prefect convinced him to visit the pre-Columbian city of Choquequirao. Bingham published an account of this trip in Across South America; an account of a journey from Buenos Aires to Lima by way of Potosí, with notes on Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru (1911).

Bingham was thrilled by the prospect of unexplored Inca cities, and in 1911 returned to the Andes with the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911. On July 24, 1911, Pablito Alvarez, son of a local Quechua farmer, led Bingham to Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten by everybody except the small number of people living in the immediate valley (possibly including two local missionaries named Thomas Payne and Stuart McNairn whose descendants claim that they had already climbed to the ruins in 1906). Also the Cusco explorers Enrique Palma, Gabino Sanchez, and Agustín Lizarraga are said to have arrived at the site in 1901. Pablito and his father knew of the city because for years they had made periodic trips to the site to take artifacts to sell. So it is not quite fair to say that Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu.  The significance of his trip there was that Bingham was the first outsider to consider reclaiming the site from the dense jungle that overgrew it.

machu2  machu1

Machu Picchu is one of the greatest archeological sites of all time because the Spanish conquistadores did not know of its existence. So what is there to this day represents an Inca city in completely unspoilt condition.  When Bingham arrived he found that a few of the buildings had collapsed but most were still standing. The roofs, made of timber and grass were gone, of course, but in general the city was exactly as it was when it was abandoned by the Inca.  Bingham photographed the site extensively and returned in later years with specialists to begin the restoration process, with funding and supervision from Yale University and the National Geographic Society.  Restoration still continues, and some archeologists believe there is more to be discovered buried in the vicinity. Unfortunately the crews took a large number of artifacts back with them to Yale, and currently the Peruvian government is negotiating for their return.


Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. The construction appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The latter had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city.

Machu Picchu is situated above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.

The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides.

055  065
The site is roughly divided into an agricultural sector and an urban center, the latter divided into the upper town and the lower town. The temples are part of the upper town, the warehouses, the lower. The architecture is adapted to the natural form of the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. The various kanchas or compounds are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. The extensive terraces have sophisticated channeling systems to provide irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.
Located in the religious zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity. The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses. The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the Amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the Ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.


The Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”) is believed to have been designed as an astronomical clock or calendar by the Incas. The sculpture carved out from the rock bottom of the sun temple is interpreted as “Water mirrors for observing the sky.”  The Intihuatana stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. These stones are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. At midday on November 11 and January 30 the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. On June 21 the stone is casting the longest shadow on its southern side, and on December 21 a much shorter one on his northern side.
The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.

080  082

Some Inca buildings were constructed using mortar, but by Inca standards this was quick, shoddy construction, and was not used in the building of important structures. Peru is a highly seismic land, and mortar-free construction was more earthquake-resistant than using mortar. The stones of the dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing.

Inca walls had numerous design details that helped protect them against collapsing in an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and “L”-shaped blocks often were used to tie outside corners of the structure together. These walls do not rise straight from bottom to top, but are offset slightly from row to row.

The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after the stones were placed, the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.

I was in Machu Picchu for my birthday in 2012 and had a celebratory meal in the neighboring town of Aguas Calientes. However, this was alpaca steak, so giving a recipe is not likely to be very helpful.  But, I stayed in Cusco, the Inca capital, for a week, where I sampled many wonderful Peruvian specialties including the national dish, ceviche, at a famous cevichería, serving 25 styles of ceviche and nothing else.  The one pictured is ceviche erótico, raw shellfish marinated in lime juice and squid ink.

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

There is an ongoing debate as to the origins of ceviche. Some claim the idea of “cooking” raw fish by marinating it in citric juices was introduced by the Spanish, others believe it was first created in Polynesian islands (where it is still popular). But archeological evidence seems to support the hypothesis that it was first created in coastal Peru prior to the arrival of the Spanish.  The recipe, as such, is very simple.  Cut very fresh firm fish into bite sized chunks and marinate it for several hours, or overnight in lime juice with onions and hot peppers.  It is usually served with corn, whole or on the kernel, and slices of sweet potato.  Both vegetables are eaten cold. It is also customary to have a small glass of leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), the leftover milky marinade, along with the ceviche.  Ceviche is considered in Peru as primarily a lunch dish.

Classic Peruvian Ceviche


1 pound white saltwater fish (albacore, sole, snapper, halibut etc)
1 cup lime juice  (lemon or sour orange will work)
1 tbsp salt
1 rocoto chile (chile manzano in Mexican markets) or 1 habañero
1 medium onion, sliced very thinly
4 tbsp chopped cilantro


Cut the fish into small pieces, 1 inch squares is best.

Salt the fish, then  put it into a zip top bag along with the citrus juice sliced onions and the chile chopped fine. Zip the top leaving a small hole, and squeeze all the air out.  Then close it completely. You can marinate the fish in a non-reactive bowl with a lid, but I find the zip top bag method preferable because all the fish is evenly coated with marinade.

Chill this in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. I usually do it overnight.

To serve, place the fish on a plate and top with the onions and chiles, and garnish with fresh cilantro.  Serve with cold corn and sliced sweet potato (as pictured).

Serves 4

As a variant you can use shellfish mixed in or on their own.  Best for this are clams, scallops, and squid (with tentacles). You can use crab or lobster too, but they need to be precooked.

Jun 072013
Paul Gauguin in 1891

Paul Gauguin in 1891

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on this date in 1848, to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the proto-socialist leader and feminist Flora Tristan, whose father was part of an influential Peruvian family. In 1850 the family left Paris for Peru, but Clovis died on the voyage, leaving eighteen-month-old Paul, his mother, and sister, to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art. It was in Lima that Gauguin encountered his first art. His mother admired Pre-Columbian pottery, collecting Inca pots that were at the time dismissed as barbaric by artists. Such memories later triggered an interest in Primitivism in his art.

At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orléans to live with his grandfather. The Gauguins came originally from the area and were market gardeners and greengrocers: gauguin means ‘walnut-grower.’ His father had broken with family tradition to become a journalist in Paris. Although Gauguin learnt French his preferred language remained the Peruvian dialect of Spanish all of his life.  Gauguin apparently excelled in school, but hated the boarding school he was sent to, and so left at age seventeen. He worked as a pilot’s assistant for three years in the merchant marine, and then served in the French navy for two. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. He became a successful Parisian businessman and remained one for eleven years. At this time he began painting, being inspired by his many friends and acquaintances who were painters, most notably Camille Pissarro, who was also his teacher.

In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad and they had five children.  In 1884 the family moved to Copenhagen where Gauguin tried his hand as a tarpaulin salesman.  Given that he could not speak Danish and there was not a huge market for French tarpaulins in Denmark, his endeavors failed, and his wife became the breadwinner whilst he took up painting full time. In 1885 he left the family (on his family’s insistence), and moved back to Paris.   In 1887 he sailed for Panama where he worked as a laborer on the canal before being laid off after only 15 days.  From there he moved to Martinique where he painted tropical scenes he hoped would sell in Paris (they did not).

In 1888 he was back in France where he spent a famously tormented three months with Vincent van Gogh (kudos to anyone who can pronounce his last name correctly — a source of constant irritation to Vincent). Both shared bouts of depression, suicidal tendencies, and an inability to sell their paintings.  It was in December of that year that van Gogh, during an illness, threatened Gauguin with a razor and then fled to a brothel where he cut the lower lobe of his ear off and gave it to a prostitute for safe keeping wrapped in his handkerchief (there are multiple versions of this story). Hint: if you are depressed, broke, and suicidal, making art that no one understands, try not to hang out with like people. Gauguin took the hint and left soon after.

In 1891, Gauguin sailed to French Polynesia to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” He wrote a book there titled Noa Noa describing his experiences in Tahiti (although some modern critics believe it was largely fantasy).  He returned to France in 1893, but then left for Polynesia again in 1895, dying on Atuona in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 at age 54 of the combined effects of alcoholism, morphine use, and syphilis. No one is really sure how many children he left behind in Polynesia.

In the popular mind Gauguin is perpetually associated with his paintings of Tahitian women, but he experimented with many styles such as Cloisonnism, Primitivism, and Synthetism, influencing a generation of Post-Impressionists to come.  Most of his paintings are in museums, so one rarely comes up for sale. The last auction at which one of his paintings came on the block had a pre-sale estimate of $15.6 million, but ended up being sold privately.  It always irks me more than a little that he (and his erstwhile friend van Gogh) died in poverty, whilst now the über-rich battle over the spoils.

Today’s recipe combines elements from two aspects of Gauguin’s life: Peru and Tahiti.  It is a ceviche given a Tahitian twist. Ceviche is a dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice, now popular throughout Latin America and Polynesia, whose origin point is disputed.  However, it most likely originated in Peru where nowadays the varieties are seemingly endless.  I was once in a restaurant in Cusco with 58 versions on the menu.  This dish gets its Tahitian twist from the coconut milk in the marinade, and also from the fact that it is marinated very briefly so that the fish does not have a chance to “cook” in the citrus juice. Make sure the ingredients are well chilled before assembling the dish.

E’ia Ota (Tahitian Ceviche)


1 ½ lb (.7 kilos) sashimi quality tuna or firm white fish cut in ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes.
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes
1 tomato, seeded and diced
3 scallions, chopped (plus 1 for garnish)
½ cup (118 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice strained of pulp
¼ cup (59 ml) coconut milk
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper


Toss together in a non-reactive bowl the fish, cucumber, tomato, scallions, lime juice, and coconut milk with a large pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Drain off the excess fluid.  This can be served in small glasses with the ceviche. In Peru it is known as leche de tigre.

Serve in chilled bowls or large shells garnished with scallion.

Serves 4 to 6