All images by Andrew Abbott unless otherwise noted.
307 Somerville Ave
Somerville, MA 02143
This is the sister restaurant to the other Machu Picchu, which we’ve already posted about. In fact, it’s right across the street! This is much more of a sit down restaurant, and the price reflects it, but the food is definitely worth it. Everything we had is delicious.
So heading into another restaurant called Machu Picchu only steps from the restaurant of the same name we visited a few months back had me a bit confused. Was there some ancient rivalry between the two eatery brewing in Union square unbeknownst to me? A rivalry so old it could rival the rivalry of the Hatfields and McCoys! No, it’s just a sister restaurant plain and simple. They serve the food not served at the other joint with only a few overlapping offerings. I realized this as soon as they handed us the familiar leather bound menus imprinted with their logo. These menus had made an impression on me the first time we were at the other Machu Picchu so seeing them again instantly clued me into what the deal here was.
The Machu Picchu we went to before was a char-grilling joint where you can get your hands on some delicious chicken, beef, gizzards, or what have you while this one serves more traditional South American homestyle cuisine. The one thing they do have in common though is their delicious sauces served with pretty much anything you order. I don’t know what any of them were but they’re always bright in color and bold in flavor. Mostly they serve to spice up an already spicy dish. For example, at this restaurant instead of serving bread before the meal they brought out a bowl of toasted corn or cancha served with this delicious spicy sauce. The toasted corn by itself reminded me a lot of corn nuts or really dry unsweetened POPs, but when you get em all sauced up the combination of flavors takes something otherwise dry and bland and turns it into something flavorful and filling. They bring you just enough of the toasted corn to keep you occupied before your food arrives.
We ordered a lot of food for just the two of us, but we were both might hungry. We started with some of the tasty fried yuca or cassava. Again this is served with a very delectable sauce that accompanies the yuca very nicely. It works to both compliment and improve upon both the taste and texture of the yuca. It was so lightly fried that the yuca itself did not lose anything consistency wise. The sauce was a bright yellow color and could be mistaken for mustard but trust me it’s not anything like mustard. The edible part of the yuca, for those not familiar with it, is a root. I had heard of yuca and cassava before but wasn’t really sure what it was. It’s a good thing I had Ché there to fill me in. For me it was a lot like eating a potato. It was starchy and grainy but the consistency wasn’t distracting. The experience was a lot like eating one of the most satisfying french fries I’ve ever eaten. After years of near depressingly bad french fries in my college cafeteria this redeemed the french fry for me. I had almost made the jump to onion rings exclusively (not really though). So all you fans of really good fried potatoes out there should jump on the chance to try this fried yuca, for it is wicked tasty!
Next up we got our Carapulca. It had chuño, the ancient Incan freeze dried potatoes we were in search of. Though when it was brought to us we could barely tell what was potato and what was something else. It was a lot like a chicken stew with a lot of potato in it. Don’t get me wrong it was really delicious, but when your looking for unusual food such as freeze dried potatoes it’s always weird to find that its only a small part of a greater dish. We assumed it might be something like a stew served over one of these whole potatoes but the potato itself was very finely diced into the stew itself and kind of held it all together. For being in a stew the potatoes still held their firmness. Unlike when you stew regular potatoes they usually get all mushy. I think they use these freeze dried potatoes rather than any other kind in an effort to thicken the stew since they don’t go all soft. The serving of carapulca was very generous in fact there was plenty for both Ché and I to share. They even serve it with a side of rice. So if your a stew fan go for it and don’t forget to bring your appetite.
Lastly we finally got a traditional form of Peruvian mixed ceviche. I’ve encountered it at other places but I’ve never seen it anywhere else served in such a heaping helping. Served in a lettuce leaf over some chopped onion we got shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, clams, and some white fish. In ceviche the seafood is presented raw then marinated in citrus juice usually consisting of lemon and lime juices. The acids serve to cook the sea food until it is edible while still technically being raw. The combination of the cold seafood and the citrus juices presents you with an extremely fresh tasting dish. Obviously this is a dish for seafood lovers. This isn’t something you’d try if you were looking to get into eating seafood. I have friends who have a hard enough time with sushi. One look at this and they would probably walk out of the restaurant Again don’t get me wrong ceviche is amazingly delicious. They serve it here with some of their freakishly giant corn and wedges of both yam and potato. The plate is simply packed with many tasty options there to fill you up and totally satisfy your craving for super fresh seafood. There’s also the Leche de Tigre for those so inclined. If you love the fresh taste of the civiche so much you can order an entire glass of the lemon/lime fish/shellfish marinade juice to drink. Even if you don’t it’s just badass to tell someone your drinking tiger milk.
Americans don’t know how people ate two hundred years ago, not really. We can imagine it, prepare little historical reenactments, but, in this country, it’s usual a dim taste-alike to what actually was. Agro-business and meat preservation has changed food as radically as the invention of farming. Before these, food could not be molded into the usual forms of commodification. After, it became just another product, with people just as separated from the source of their food as they are from the source of the electricity running through their computers.
Ceviche, is not a food that can be branded. It must be fresh. For a self-serve food to be associated with a company, or at least appear in a supermarket, it must be able to sit inert for long periods of time. Meat products were the last hold-outs to this phenomenon. As Roger Horowitz describes it in Putting Meat on the American Table, the reason that meat presented such a problem was because of “the perishable nature of meat products and the dilemma of organizing mass production around an item that came in irregular sizes.” Horowitz goes on to describe how American industry rose to the challenge, first by packaging and branding easily cured pork products, such as bacon and ham. What followed was changing beef from sides to individual cuts, something allowed by packaging, and moving chicken from a small farmer’s product to a completely industrially owned monstrosity.
The United States became known to immigrants as that place where you could eat meat every day, something I’ve talked about in other posts. This has created an insatiable market for meat. Meat preservation has allowed for product to endlessly fall into this bottomless pit. Without it, meat would spoil too quickly to make sense as a shelf-ready product. After preservation, every other type of adulteration, from growth hormones, to antibiotics, to cow cannibalism, becomes not only possible but profitable. Of course, in doing so, meat processing gives no thought to the harmful environmental or personal effects.
This account does ignore one thing, being that people as individuals preserved their own meat for centuries before. Horowitz gives equal space to these processes. Where it differs is how meat and animals were used. Chickens used to be kept solely for eggs and cows for their milk. Pigs were kept mainly for meat, but they were the animals most suited to preservation. People mainly ate beef in the winter, and only on special occasions, and chicken in the spring, when the mostly useless young roosters would be slaughtered. Other animals, who were much hardier, such as goats and pigeons, shared table space with these now standard meats. The difference in these old forms of preservation and renewal is that they were sustainable. They were also closer to home, meaning the people who raised these animals knew exactly what was going into them.
Although it is tempting, we cannot view these changes as cultural and not systematic. There have been changes to the meat industry caused by public outcry, most famously, after Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle, and the various cancer causing additives and hormones attacked in the fifties and sixties. Still, despite the fears and knowledge of the dangers of meat, consumers demand more of it. The meat industry responds by shrugging its shoulders. They say “See, we’re only giving the public what they want.” However, the public only wants this meat because they have debased it to make it affordable. If they were required to make it more healthy, the public not only would need less, but want less of it. Similarly, if the meat industry had to stop abusing the people who worked for it, as described in grim detail in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the prices would go up, and people would once again eat less meat. This has nothing to do with a lack of education (something I discussed a couple of posts ago), but a lack of democracy. The public cannot stop the meat industry, so they do not, and continue to eat meat, because it is affordable and culturally valuable.
The chuño is the perfect example of how production itself is not responsible for abuses of power, but a system that would allow them to continue. The meal that we ate at Machu Picchu included carapulca, one of the most ancient dishes from Peru, whose substance mainly comes from these preserved potatoes. The history of the chuño has a sad history. A way of preserving potatoes to eat year round, it has existed as part of the Peruvian diet for centuries. However, when the Spanish arrived, as described by Elizabeth Johnston, the food was used by these conquerors as a form of starvation ration for the native people who worked their silver mines. Nothing about the fact that this food was democratically produced for centuries stopped the Spanish from using it to oppress the native population. Similarly, health can only be improved in the United States by a systematic change in how food and all culture is produced. Buying organic, buying free trade, or buying itself, cannot change that.