Overland miles: 13634 Bus hours: 402.75 Empanadar: 90
While PFB likes to keep it strictly local when we’re rocking the roadside restaurants, we occasionally like to change things up from time to time. We’d already rolled up for Sushi Mexicano in Baja California and taken Italian pizza for a spin in Guatemala. We were parroting for ages about Spanish tapas in Nicaragua and more recently, our tastebuds got an immigration education from kicking Korean dishes in Chile. So when we got to Cusco, the jewel in Peru’s gleaming crown of ancient splendours, the birthplace of the Inca civilisation, a veritable Andean culinary hotspot, there was only one thing we wanted to do: go for a curry.
We’re pretty spoiled when it comes to a taste of India back home. Clare is a veteran of Birmingham’s Balti triangle during her university days, and since we moved to London we’ve indulged in tip-top Punjabi cuisine at Brick Lane’s Tayabs, and savoured a modern-day take on the Bombay Cafe at Dishoom. But hold the front page, West London residents: Jovian still obstinately holds a candle for Greenford’s award-winning (shortly) Bangladeshi restaurant, the Sundarban Tandoori. A stick of cinnamon, a dash of cumin, a healthy kick of garam masala. Spinach. We missed them all like long-lost relatives. Latin America doesn’t do curries.
Well, in fairness there are a few Indian restaurants, in general British owned, on the gringo trail. Our trusty Lonely Planet – fingers reliably on pulses – told us that the Star of India in La Paz was getting “rave reviews” by locals and travellers alike. A quick trip to Tripadvisor indicated otherwise. Reviewers variously complained of bland, burnt and frozen food; others apparently weren’t there for the taste factor and were happily chirping about the free T-shirt they walked away with for eating a phaal. We stayed away. But travellers’ tales of the fare on offer at the hilariously named Korma Sutra in Cusco’s old town were sizzling hot, and the lure of the east was finally too strong to resist.
When you enter an untested Indian restaurant, forget looking at the intricate wood carvings or listening to the piped-in Bangla music: the only sense you need right now is smell. If you can’t smell anything, or indeed lots of things, turn heel and exit in pursuit of a beer. Happily, the British owned Korma Sutra had understood this marketing proposal perfectly, and installed an open kitchen in their restaurant from where a whole raft of enticing flavours was emanating. I’m a sucker for open kitchens: I love watching the whole process of bringing the elements of a dish together before they land on my plate. And fire – I really like seeing fire. So the racks of spices in plastic tubs neatly lined up on shelves spanning the back wall, and the occasional whoosh of flames from a red-hot pan were the only further confirmation we needed to proceed.
Not that the atmosphere wasn’t relaxing or the decor palette pleasantly subdued, mind – some restaurants go to the opposite end of the scale to show that they’re all about the food, resulting in a jarringly decorated over-lit canteen that demands the quaffing of four pints of Cobra just to take the edge off things. But this place had it just right: a beguiling low-lit mix of cheery aubergine walls, restrained black and gold tablecloths and retro pictures of revered Brahmins on the wall in matching gold frames. Prawns for Breakfast doesn’t get many opportunities for romance on the road, but this place was perfect for date night. We dived right in to a plate of poppadum chips with aji (Peruvian chilli) chutney, salsa and raita dips.
Once we’d acclimatised to our fairly unusual surroundings and sipped a couple of strong gin and tonics (an equally unusual drink in Latin America), we got down to business and shared a starter of sag aloo samosas. I guess these babies are the Indian empanadas, and I’ll be getting to them very very soon, so please give me a break about that. We’d never tried this veggie staple in pastry format and the results were simple but effective; we were presented with a very large platter containing two filling but delicious parcels of perfectly spiced potato and that rarely seen leaf in this part of the world, spinach.
Our efficient if impersonal waitress returned shortly to ask if we were ready to order our mains. Clare had considered for a couple of seconds requesting the Tandoori cuy (guinea pig), a local take her favourite style of Indian cuisine. I had toyed momentarily with the Alpaca masala – I had been keen to try this curiously flavoured meat in another style completely. Neither of us remotely entertained the idea of ordering the offensively hot house phaal, even though they buttered you up with a certificate of achievement and put you out with a free beer afterwards. No, there was clearly only one way to go for us, and that was back to the classics: a Lamb rogan josh, a Chicken jalfrezi and a Peshwari naan (flatbread).
Both choices were spot on to our tastes: Clare’s dark, rich rogan josh came quirkily in a bowl bearing the restaurant’s name: it was punchily spiced without being overpowering. Critically for her butter-sensitive palate, it was not presented swimming in a lake of ghee. My drier jalfrezi was perhaps not as mouth-searingly hot as I would have it back home but nevertheless well balanced, and a good deal spicier than most South American food. The sweet peshwari naan was chock full of juicy raisins and partnered our hearty mains well, helping to mop up the sultry sauces.
We sat back, contented, and chatted for ages whilst the warm wafts of spices continued to tease our nostrils. All in all, it was the alternative dining experience our tastebuds had been longing for: a proper London curry house in the heart of Cusco. Korma Sutra has positioned itself perfectly for a hot night out.