The Traveling Vegetarian

by Diana Waldron

Food is an integral part of life in South America.  Since the time of the Incas, it has been the focal point of Peruvian culture.  Natural and fresh meals take priority over convenient, unhealthy snacks. Care and attention are involved with the growth and harvest of crops: it is a community effort.  Many hands are needed for preparing the land in order to make it fertile and potent for growth.  Food is a fundamental connection Peruvians share with each other.  It is the bridge that connects every stranger, making them seem like friends who have been away for only a while.

Fresh eggs at a Peruvian market.
Fresh eggs at a Peruvian market. Photo by Diana Waldron

A popular dish in Cusco is cuy.  In the United States, it is known as the guinea pig.  An animal famous for its furriness.  In Peru, it is an animal famous for its flavor, eaten on special occasions—unless you’re a tourist.  You can visit farms and see cuy of all size and age.  They will be cute—until you remember in a few days they will be roasted and served whole.

The display of meat in and around Cusco might seem like anything but friendly to a vegetarian. When walking through the San Pedro Market, you will be overwhelmed by the sight and smell of animal carcasses decomposing as they hang in the aisle.  Snout of horse.  Tongue of cow.  Heart of pig. These are just a few of the parts that spill onto the floor as you walk by.  Luckily, there are just as many vegetables and fruits to complement the different body parts sold at the market.  You can indulge in freshly-squeezed juice without any extra additives—something that Starbucks seems to forget.

For the traveling vegetarian in Cusco, there is hope.  There are plenty of vegetarian restaurants. The Spoon Revolution is a movement started within different South American countries that offers discounts on delicious vegetarian and vegan food.  “Food passports” with smiling spoons on the cover are the stamp books to mark the discounts from all participating restaurants.  One restaurant you can visit is called Prasada. The hamburguesa de Israeli is a Prasada-favorite—a  moist lentil burger served on ciabatta pan with hummus and sesame seeds.  They have two locations relatively close to each other.  One is a small sitdown-style restaurant.  Another is an outpost in an open alleyway—a great place to be in the flow of traffic and meet hungry travelers who meet up to share a vegetarian meal, exchange a story, and then depart on their journey.  It is a magical place for deepening the community life of Cusco.

Presentation of food is an art.  Shaman is a vegan restaurant located quietly away from the main plaza.  As you walk in through the glass doors, you will see soothing images from ceiling to floor. Sunsets, lagoons, starscapes, moonlit gardens.  Not an inch of wall left uncovered.  One large wooden family table in the center pulls the room together.  A piece of Chilean Quartz rests stoically on the table as a permanent guest, reminding all of their interconnectedness with those who wander through.

The menu is a vegetarian’s oasis: new, unique concoctions of vegetables served with intention.  The Arroz Primavera—a mound of rice with raisins, sprouts, red peppers, and onions with avocado on the side— is clearly arranged on the plate with care.  Every piece.  The Green Salad consists of avocado, peas, carrots, onion, lemon, sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, peppers, and walnuts.  Both of these meals are incredibly fresh, reminding you that eating healthfully is enjoyable.

Peruvians never leave anything on their plates.  To leave something on your plate would be to disrespect what has been given to you—a disrespect to the earth and those who have worked to harvest it.  Chances are that anything you are eating was grown or raised very close by.  Finding fresh, vegetarian food here is not hard—just  avoid the meat section of the market, and stay far away from the guinea pig farms or you might want to unlatch the gate and set them all free.