Today adobo, tomorrow the world: The best adobo in Arequipa, Peru
A town in which the traditional Sunday brunch is a bowl of spicy pork stew is a town I can get with. I just hope that the adobo in Arequipa, Peru is actually good. I don’t want to get with something if the gettin’ ain’t good.
The scene in Arequipa is promising. Arequipeño cuisine is based around spicy rocoto peppers. Spice is such a focus that the restaurants that serve generations-refined fare are called picanterías, which means spicy shop. There’s a strong local pride about the cuisine.
Adobo means something different in each place it appears. I’ve been to the Philippines and eaten bone-in chicken adobo cooked in vinegar and soy sauce, the glaze imbued with schmaltz. I’ve had Spanish and Puerto Rican adobos and even Goya Adobo powder, one of the wretched industrial seasonings of my suburban childhood.
Adobo arequipeño is something new. It’s pork, slow-simmered with chicha de jora (fresh corn beer), spicy rocoto pepper, smoky sweet aji panca, garlic, onions, oregano, cumin, and other spices. The picanterías keep their exact recipes close to the bosoms of the Arequipeño matrons that man the clay cauldrons in which the adobo is cooked.
Adobo arequipeño is known as a dish that can levanta muertos or wake the dead. It cooks overnight to be ready late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, just in time to perk up the partied heartied and hungover at a stop along their walk of shame.
Arequipeño Adobo, Take 1: Sabor Caymeño
Knowing that Todd and I only have one weekend in Arequipa to eat a traditional Sunday brunch of adobo, we’ve read and researched which picantería has the best adobo. All signs point to Sabor Caymeño, in the midst of the adobo-drenched Cayama neighborhood.
We settle in at the one empty table. Most everyone else at Sabor Caymeño is with a family or group of friends, tables covered with adobo bowls and other picantería specialties. The room is hazy with smoke from a hidden kitchen grill and rowdy with live musicians and shouting eaters. I expected a hungover crowd to be more light- and noise-sensitive.
Eventually one of the distracted waitresses delivers a bowl of adobo, filled to the brim with a pork chop submerged in a red puddle, translucent slices of onion, and a deflated whole rocoto pepper. A basket of crusty rolls of bread is the only accompaniment.
I shred off a mouthful of pork with my fork, meat strands soaked with stew juices, and chew.
I tear a hunk of roll, soak it in the porky broth, and nibble.
I spoon up some soup and sluuurrrp.
I’m not hungover, so perhaps I’m unable to appreciate the adobo’s renowned strength-giving qualities. Or perhaps I got a gringo bowl, with less spicy rococo fire?
I look up from the bowl of adobo and say to Todd, “This can’t be it. This is just okay. It’s not bad but, really, what’s the fuss? Not this.”
“Nmh, mf’s fhynm,” he mumble mouths, gnawing on around a dripping pork bone. (“No, it’s fine.”)
“Right, exactly. Fine. But fine isn’t fine. I want a better bowl. Let’s go get a different bowl. There’re lots of other places right here. We’re in adobo central.”
We finish the bowl of adobo (we’re no fools, fine pork is still dandy pork) and walk back into the sunshine bleached Plaza de Cayma.
Arequipeño Adobo, Take 2: Elsita’s
Squinting our way around the plaza, we pass several signs that say “Hoy Adobo” or today adobo. At Elsita’s, a steaming cauldron sits outside the doorway, waitresses frantically emptying its contents into single-serve bowls.
“Here,” I declare. “Elsita’s. I have a good feeling.”
We’re guided through rooms filled with packed tables, up a flight of stairs, and through more rooms. We pass few tables topped with anything besides bowls of adobo. Before our waiter can wander off we order a bowl.
Shred. Tear. Spoon.
“This. This is what I’d hoped for.”
The layered flavors are porky, spicy, and tart. The soup clings to the tongue, thickened with gelatin and fat. Yum.
This is adobo worth eating. Today and every day.
Now to have this any day I want, I just have to figure out how to recreate authentic arequipeño adobo at home. (Edit: I did! Here’s a recipe for traditional arequipeño adobo like I had in Peru.)
Where did you eat the best arequipeño adobo in Arequpa, Peru?