The best food in the world comes from countries that have a history of struggle. Think about it. The French Revolution altered the course of modern history when a massive popular uprising overthrew the unfit monarchy that left the country bankrupt. It was a period of time when heads were literally rolling and violence rampant. Chefs and cooks who suddenly found themselves unemployed because their aristocratic lords had been killed or had fled the country began to cook in the city’s eateries, and like that, Paris became the culinary center of the world within years.
Peru is no stranger to revolution or violence. To be honest we’ve had a good share of it. More than I care to mention really. And the most misunderstood culinary child of that time has definitely got to be the anticucho. Now, before anything else, let’s get this out of the way: an anticucho can come in different types, but the most common one is definitely the one made from hearts. That’s right, we are using cow hearts for this baby.
Usually, when foreigners hear this, they have a couple of reactions. Some cannot stand the idea of eating a cow heart, let alone offal (entrails). We’ll get to that in a second. Others think that Peruvians are the evilest beings on earth for doing this. Did you hear that we also eat guinea pigs? And a few will look at you, smiling nervously, nibble on the meat a bit and say that it’s good with a sigh of desperation. Mostly, because some Peruvian friend paid for it and enjoys watching their helpless reaction. Me of course.
But I am strictly speaking here to the converts. To those who have found salvation in a Lima corner where there were no fast food places in sight and the only one to come rescue them was a sole lady with a grill, going at it so hard, even George Foreman would think twice about approaching her. My congregation.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin. For those of you that don’t know, anticuchos are basically meat on a stick. We’ve been eating this since the beginning of our species. So, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?
While the origins of this dish can be traced back to pre-Columbian traditions, the modern presentation which you find all over Peru was popularized during Colonial times. Back then, slaves were brought from Africa to work in the Peruvian Viceroyalty were given the guts, offal, and entrails of animals—which the Spanish didn’t eat—as their only source of sustenance. And their spirit was not crushed and they managed to deliver what is quite truly a delicacy.
Nowadays, any self-respecting anticuchería will not only serve the heart, but also: choncoli or chitterlings (small, boiled and fried, pig intestines), molleja or gizzards (bird belly), and rachi or cow belly. Delicious? Check! Finger lickin’ good? Check! Better than those little nugget things they tell you are made from “actual chicken” at KFC, but we both know are not? Check!
Usually, you’ll find these anticucho stands at night. During the October celebrations of the “Christ of Miracles”, Lima’s and one of the world’s largest processions it is very typical to see thousands of people enjoying this dish on the streets, huddle in corners or sitting on plastic stools. The servings are usually accompanied with sliced, boiled and grilled potatoes, and sometimes corn.
This dish is part of Peruvian culture, but most importantly, it is part of the great heritage that the Afro-Peruvian population have contributed to our culture. A population that is generally erroneously represented, and more often than not, made invisible by the media and government.
A lot of Peruvian food originates from historic periods of struggle, where people had to innovate with whatever ingredients they had at hand in order to survive. Sometimes you don’t get to choose whether you like to eat the crust on your bread or not. Sometimes you just gotta eat it or throw whatever you can on top of it to make it taste better. And sometimes, just the right stuff will make it delightful.