Cafe Society

Come to Papas

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By the time the chupe de camarones arrived, I was the only customer in the dining room -- one lonely guero at a table in the middle of the floor -- and most of the staff were gathered in the back eating dinner, watching soccer, occasionally watching me. It was uncomfortable, but not so much so that I lost my appetite. When she'd brought my Inca Kola, the waitress had asked if this was my first time at Los Cabos. I'd said yes and muttered something about wandering by, being curious, whatever. But now I knew that I'd come for the chupe, a huge bowl of Peruvian shrimp chowder in a thin milk broth slicked with red-pepper oil, rich with shelled shrimp and whole, head-on shrimp, all legs and feelers and sweet, delicate meat like baby lobsters, as well as rice, diced potatoes, streamers of egg white, slivered onion, dense garlic, smoky Hungarian paprika and some other stuff that I wouldn't have been able to identify even with a field guide to Peruvian fauna and access to a forensics lab. I ate everything: the green stuff that tasted like anise and oregano, the little legs that looked like they'd been pulled off something that ate Toledo in a monster movie. The chowder was amazing -- pure, totally alien, wonderfully delicious.

The only thing I didn't like about my meal was the syrupy Inca Kola. But for whatever reason, the waitress hadn't let me order beer. I think she said they were out, but who knows? Maybe she saw the look in my eye and knew that if I had three or four, I'd try to ride the llama. Riding the llama is not allowed at Los Cabos. There's a sign to that effect, which leads me to believe that it's been tried before.

On a return trip, I tried the aji de gallina (shredded chicken and potatoes in a delicious, sweet, curry-colored sauce thickened with parmesan cheese), the parihuela (Peruvian white wine and laurel bouillabaisse, heavy on the tentacles), the immigrant paella Valenciana and onion-dressed ceviche mixto, served with half a potato and swimming in a lime-and-cilantro broth fresh as a slap in the face. With every dish, I got another lesson in the culinary history of Peru.

I've cooked some weird menus in my time. Back in the days when I was just off the leash and flush with someone else's cash, I created nightmares of cross-cultural hilarity -- Viet-Mexican in New Mexico, Caribbean-French (not so weird these days) in New York, Irish farmhouse in central Florida (because there's nothing like eating boiled bacon and potatoes in the hundred-degree heat). But even at my strangest, even if I were drunk, high on crack, just back from two weeks in the Andes by way of China, tooled up on a full sheet of yellow sunshine blotter and suffering from malarial fevers, there's no way I could have created a board of fare half this peculiar.

It wasn't fusion: Fusion cuisine implies the purposeful mashing together of two disparate styles -- ingredients from one, technique from another, or the native preparations of two wholly separate food cultures placed in relief on the same plate. Rather, this was a cuisine of amalgamation, of synthesis and absorption so freaky it could only come from real situations, not the imagination of some chef. So I decided to hit the history books.

I learned that Peru is a lot like Belgium or the Caribbean islands in their layered history of invasion and assimilation, a lot like Vietnam in its penchant for borrowing from the cultures that have occupied it. Spanish conquistadors who came with their tomatoes and saffron and paella pans shaped early Peruvian cuisine -- their own having already been shaped by Arab and Moorish flavors. Explorers brought spices from India. Italian cartographers and sailors saw potatoes there for the first time, as well as aji chiles and corn. They took this bounty back to their home country, leaving behind the notion of pasta along with garlic and oregano. Because of the slave trade, Peruvian cookery took on aspects of African tastes and historic Creole -- which used to mean white Europeans born in the Indies, Central or South America, not guys like Emeril, who were born in New Jersey and moved to New Orleans. (I also discovered that they eat guinea pigs in the highlands of Peru, and was a little pissed that there were none offered on Los Cabos's menu. I've never tried guinea pig.)

In more recent times -- say, the last several hundred years -- successive waves of Chinese and Japanese immigrants further influenced Peruvian cooking, which explained (at least somewhat) Los Cabos's giant plates of arroz chaufa -- fried rice with chicken, beef or seafood, studded with scallions, clove and onion -- and the lomo saltado, essentially a beef stir-fry with onions, bell peppers and whole quarters of juicy concasse tomatoes served over rice. It was also served over french fries, and I have no idea where that came from. Nor have I figured out that Greek feta thing -- but since feta iwas originally a goat's-milk cheese and Peru has a lot of goats, maybe the creamed feta was just standing in for some sort of unrecognizable Peruvian goat cheese. Had anyone ever thought of milking a llama?

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan