“What are you going to do with that?” I asked, pointing to the large zapallo squash she had stashed behind her sales counter.
Usually when I meet country folks in their merchant stall or on their farm, I’m a little star struck. I am in awe of people that work from sun up to sun down, every single day. They don’t make big money, wear expensive shoes (farm mud ruins Blahniks LIKE THAT [*snap*]) or drive glamorous cars, but every day they get up and do the same thing over again. They believe in the land, in the weather, and their power to dominate both in order to support their family. I love that.
But awesome people like this can be a coy, and many times refuse to let you take their picture. That’s fine. Instead, I ask about their donkey, their goat, or maybe their squash, and if they will let me take a picture of that. They always say yes, proud of their animal or vegetable. And every single time, they will be smiling. Click.
We had stepped into her chicheria to buy chicha, the Peruvian fermented corn beer that she stored in a huge clay urn. I could tell she was wary of tourists looking for the charming photo op, so I bought a small bottle of chicha, and started talking to her about her squash. I asked how she was going to cook it, and she said she was going to make torrejas with it, and serve it with stew, probably alpaca. Wow.
I had never heard of savory torrejas before. In fact, I had just written a blog post about sweet torrejas, what we would call French Toast here in the US. Making savory torrejas was a revelation, but it made sense. There are both sweet and savory empanadas, pies, fritters, and breads in the world. Why shouldn’t there be savory French Toast?
Further into our journey in Peru, we joined a family in the highland village of Huilac for a pachamanca. One of our tour members is a vegetarian, so behind the scenes, the head chef of the event created a dish suitable for her diet. When I asked what it was in the pan, the response was that it was a spinach torreja. Again, a savory French Toast made of spinach.
Low moisture squash like zapallo can be stored at room temperature for several months. Before refrigerators, food that could be grown or prepared for future use was vital for the survival of a family, the development of a community and a culture. Because squash are native to the New World, grilling a savory wedge of zapallo is one of the oldest dishes in Latin America.
I am guessing that in Peru the term torreja is used to identify something that is patty-like, dipped in egg, and fried in a pan. And neither of these savory torrejas that I saw during my Peruvian visit were made of wheat bread, an item that was brought to the New World by the Spanish after the arrival of Columbus. The Spanish also brought the word torreja, which means “to toast.” Possibly the native Incas were fire-toasting vegetable cakes long before the Spanish arrived, but simply adopted the Spanish word in later generations. Making veggie burger-esque torrejas seemed to be second nature.
The woman showed me her son’s small crop of mote corn that was growing behind their store front, saying that it was specifically for making chicha. The kernels were wide and awkward like mule teeth, and a pile of mote was drying in the sun next to the new crop that was still growing on the stalk. She also said their family had been making and selling chicha for generations, as her mother had taught her the craft. A friend later told me that the woman’s son is an expert on the Peruvian varieties of corn. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there on the day I visited. So, it looks like I will have to go back to Peru sometime soon, in order to continue my research.
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