Queso helado? That’s cheese ice cream! Well, I never.

Wherein does my cheeselove come from? In the U.S. we practically worship amber waves of cheddar and mozzarella mountain majesties, so there’s that patriotic peer pressure. And, although I’ve lived for 15 years in San Francisco, veganism — locally, one of the most popular radical diets — holds as little appeal as, well, giving up cheese does. Therein: my lifelong cheeselove.

Yet, despite my cheeselove ways, queso helado Arequipeño hadn’t made it onto my list of must-try foods in Arequipa, Peru.

That’s right: Cheese ice cream. Ponder that culinary concept for just a minute.

Queso helado cheese ice cream, Arequipa, Peru photo

Cheese ice cream has me so confused and so happy.

In the shade of a tall archway in a white stone wall surrounding the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa’s Yanahuara neighborhood, a crowd just released from church gathers around a small cart. After the crowd clears, Todd and I wander over and see a half-depleted vat of golden-colored ice cream.

Queso helado cheese ice cream, Arequipa, Peru photo

Street food with a view.

The woman wielding the ice cream scoop tells us it’s queso helado, Arequipa’s special ice cream. It’s hot, it’s sunny, and — really who needs a reason? Queso helado means “cheese ice cream,” and cheese ice cream means “git in mah belly.”

When my camera comes out to take the obligatory travel food porn photos, a woman clothed head-to-toe in the bright yellow uniform of the Helados D’Onofrio ice cream megabrand runs over, grabbing the entrepreneurial queso helado vendor in a bear hug.

Vas a estar una estrella!” she exclaims to her now blushing friend. You’re gonna be a star!

I’d have thought these women would have been fierce competitors for the plaza’s ice cream business, but they’re clearly good friends — giggling, whispering in each other’s ears, and hugging some more as Todd and I take our first taste of queso helado.

Queso helado cheese ice cream, Arequipa, Peru photo

A cheesy star

With a single lick, it’s clear that queso helado holds no cheese in its ice crystals, or even any artificial cheese flavor. It tastes slightly of cinnamon, vanilla, and perhaps coconut, but mostly of milk. The frosty texture is more like shaved ice than a the fat-packed ice cream I’d anticipated.

But, for just 1 Peruvian sole for a pequeño serving on a hot day, cheeselovers can’t be choosers.