When I was little, my best friend was a girl from Peru called Pamela, whose family had come over to live in the UK. Until meeting her I knew nothing about Peru, apart from that Paddington Bear came from its deepest, darkest parts and, as such, assumed that they probably all ate a lot of marmalade sandwiches.
From the moment Pamela arrived in Kent, we were inseparable and spent every afternoon after school at each other’s houses. I tasted flavours I’d never tasted before while sitting at her parents’ table, but being 7 years old, I never thought to ask what any of those new flavours actually were. I do remember limes featuring heavily though.
A year later, Pamela and her family moved back to Lima. I was left heartbroken. It was my first taste of grief and I was completely inconsolable. I had never felt such a strong connection with someone outside my own family before, despite the fact that, for the first few months of our friendship at least, we couldn’t even speak the same language.
Fast-forward 15 years . . . I opened my Hotmail one day (remember the days when everyone was on Hotmail?) and there, in my inbox, was a message from Pamela. She had tracked me down and we began chatting on MSN messenger (remember the days when everyone was on MSN Messenger?). She wrote “Ja ja ja!” I wrote “Ha ha ha!” We got on famously and had so much to talk about, so much of each other’s lives to catch up on.
A year on, I was standing in Lima airport, breathing in the warm air and waiting to be greeted by my old friend. I had travelled over from London and was going to be spending a couple of nights at her family home, before heading on to Cusco to meet friends. I hadn’t been that nervous about meeting her again face to face. We’d shared current pictures and I knew what she looked like, but after I’d been waiting for half an hour, a little bit of anxiety started to creep in. An hour and a half after that, I was still standing in the middle of Lima airport, desperately scanning faces. Maybe she was there, but couldn’t see me. Damn my phone for being so useless that it wouldn’t turn on. I didn’t have her number anyway, or her address, just an email address that I had no way of accessing. The cold sweat of panic pricked my skin. I felt sick. I didn’t know where to go or who to ask. I’d have to find a hotel and wait it out for a few days. I could do that. Then I’d be meeting my old uni pals in Cusco anyway and they would definitely turn up to meet me. Wouldn’t they? Oh God! I wanted to go home.
During a final sweep of the airport before giving up and booking into a hotel, I felt a hand on my shoulder, “Bictoria! Bictoria!” I’d forgotten she pronounced my name with a “B”. “I’m so sorry I’m so late!” I’m not sure I’ve ever been more relieved to see someone. “You must be tired. Please, come”.
She whisked me into a car and took me to her house and after coffee and a shower, we went out to the upmarket Miraflores, to sample her favourite Peruvian dish.
Lima was beautiful, bustling and chaotic. It was hot and it was larger than life and I was extremely ready for dinner. “You have to try anticuchos!” declared Pamela. “Anti-what?” I replied.
Underneath each dish on the menu was a very literal English translation. In the case of this particular dish, that translation read as, “Anticuchos: The heart of the cow”. Now, I’d eaten hearts before, lamb and chicken hearts, maybe the odd duck’s, but I had never knowingly eaten the heart of the cow and I must confess it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
My assumptions of tough meat with an unpleasantly strong, livery taste were completely unfounded. The ox heart was soft, yieldingly tender and, although full-bodied on the meatiness front, had only a subtle offal flavour. The anticuchos were lightly spiced and served with a fragrant yellow pepper sauce. On top of that, they were absolutely huge. That’s the thing about ox hearts, there’s absolutely no missing them. They’re less “fist wrapped in blood” and more over-pumped rugby ball when it comes to size. An ox heart weighs in at an average of 3 kilos. The one I picked up from Moen’s was bigger than my head.
I wanted to recreate the dish, but I couldn’t be bothered dealing with ventricles and whatnots. If you can’t either, simply ask your butcher to cut off any nasty bits (including any hard fat around it, which looks a bit like a brain) and cube it. It still weighed just shy of 2 kilos after that.
It’s been over 10 years since I went to Peru, but the taste of this dish still managed to transport me straight back there. In Lima, the heart was served pink but, being 6 months pregnant, I had to cook mine for a little longer. Even so, the meat was still succulent and delicious. The yellow pepper sauce I served alongside the kebabs was a big hit and so simple to make.
Just as I’d remembered, this classic Peruvian dish is a total pleasure to eat. What’s more, the heart of the cow is an extremely economical choice, coming in at only £7.50 per kilo from a posh London butcher’s. It will transport you to Peru and make you desperate to plan a trip to South America as soon as you possibly can.
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