Who is the ‘Auntie Poison’?
One of the several Peruvian memes reads: “If you haven’t eaten at Auntie Poison, you have not enjoyed your childhood.” Although a tad exaggerated, this phrase has some truth. On a random stroll around Centro de Lima, anyone may come across the popular “Auntie Poison”(Tía Veneno). She would greet you thus:
Good evening, nephew (Buenas tardes, sobrino) or,
Good evening, young girl/man (Buenas tardes, señorita/joven)
What will you have today? Coming up with your order is not hard. Auntie Poison has two or three items on their menu. Options are irrelevant; at this point, you just want to eat. Auntie Poison knows this and, in the blink of an eye, you’re already munching your food. My neighborhood Auntie used to say: ‘estabas con filo, sobrino’ (you were starving, nephew). I often smiled complacently.
Many friends said that, after eating Auntie’s food, I should have checked into a hospital or write my last will. I was also advised to take the precaution of bidding farewell to mom and dad. Before it’s too late, they said. But they were mistaken.
When reminiscing about Auntie Poison, I consider her a savior. And perhaps many Peruvians feel the same. Our dear Auntie saved us from many a starving night. Nowadays, eating Halal at a Manhattan food stand, I certainly miss hearing the: “ta rico, joven“, “chanfainita o combinadito?” and “ta’ bien taipá, sobrino!“
Why Do We Call them ‘Auntie Poison’?Image Source:
Why “Poison”, though? For starters, Peruvians are always searching for excuses to laugh. Don’t get confused, these sweet ladies are not offering pesticide to kill rats or cockroaches. They are simply street hawkers selling food. Yet, the average Peruvian is a master of dark humor. Nobody, not even Auntie Poison, is immune to their jokes. Since Auntie Poison sells street food, people graciously imply their menu is unsanitary. Other Peruvians assure that after eating at “Tia Veneno”, you will definitely rise to heaven. Not food heaven, but real heaven. Really.
Since Peruvians are always eating, business for our Aunties is fabulous. As soon as they finish breakfast, some Peruvians are already thinking about lunch. Our Aunties, who fulfill that need, are pretty accessible. They are where you least expect them: under a bridge, on a street corner, outside school, or a few steps from the farmer’s market.
How tasty is the food? Nothing to envy a dish from a New York chef. Only quadruple the size and half the price. The hardworking Auntie is a culinary expert. Their contributions to our cuisine style and flavors are undeniable. From their humble station, Auntie Poison shaped the trends and presentation of certain dishes. Let’s review some of them:
Specialties of our ‘Auntie Poison’
Anticuchos or Pancita – Oxheart Skewers and Grilled Pig TripeImage Source: En Lima antes de morir
Food Street Hawkers always existed in Peru. Writer Ricardo Palma described the dishes sold during 1860’s: Arroz con leche, Mazamorra Morada and Anticuchos. The original Anticuchos were made from Llama meat. However, Spaniards popularized the Oxheart Anticucho, using wooden sticks to cook it. The recipe may have vanished had it not been for African immigrants. Oxheart was part of the African diet and mandingas preserved the tradition while in Peru.
Pancita (grilled pig tripe) is another excellent dish. On Lima streets, it’s common seeing Peruvians growing their Pancitas eating Pancita.
Caldo de Gallina- Fowl’s BrothImage Source: Volunteering Peru
“Auntie Poison!, serve us two Calditos calientitos, please!”, we said after a night out at Chim Pum Callao. For as much as we drank, Fowl’s broth was a magical levantamuertos. The hardworking Auntie waited for us (the drunkards) outside the discotheque for the entire night. It was a surreal experience. Seeing the tired yet beautiful Auntie’s face amidst the dark, pouring the boiling broth. We smiled because we were too drunk to talk. Flies circled above our plates while stray dogs yowled for a fowl’s bone.
Callao, 4:27 am, Sunday morning, listening to Chicha on Auntie’s transistor radio, and enjoying Caldo de Gallina. Nothing compares to that.
Combinadito – Sampler of Three or More DishesImage Source: Operacion Fishland
To follow a strict diet while living in Peru is very difficult. Let’s be honest; it’s impossible! Especially after seeing Peruvians munching four different recipes in just one spoonful. ‘Combinadito‘ is a Peruvian institution. The custom of mixing Ceviche, Spaghetti, Papa a la Huancaina and Chanfainita in a small plate is quite unique. This sampler dish was popularized by ‘Auntie Poison’, and millions of Peruvians love it.
CevicheImage Source: Comunicacion Gastronomica
Ceviche al paso is an instant plate prepared in a matter of seconds. Auntie Poison cooks it with fish, fresh limes, and recently sliced onions. But a growing number of Aunties rather use cuttlefish (pota) for ceviche instead. Besides being cheaper, cuttlefish is easier to handle.
Higado o Molleja- Fried Liver or Chicken’s GizzardImage Source: Depor
Casero! We have a fine Molleja, Caseritoo!, it is heard in the market. Caseritoo, come here!, taste my Molleja, please, sin compromiso!.
Thus, without obligation, customers would taste Auntie’s Molleja. Most end up ordering a plate. Fried liver or gizzard is one of Auntie’s most basic dishes. In some populous neighborhoods, six out of every ten Aunties only sell Fried liver, Caserito.
Some of us forget the enlightening experience of listening to Auntie’ life stories. Most Aunties came from distant Peruvian regions; their stories are tainted with struggle and redemption. Some endured racism and prejudice, which is so unfair. Having fed a nation for decades, it is mindboggling to see how underappreciated our Aunties are.
Chifa- Chinese-Peruvian FoodImage Source: Hdhod
Better known as Chifa, Chinese-Peruvian food has a wide dish selection. But our Aunties usually serve Arroz Chaufa and Tallarines. Now, it’s not two separate options. It’s actually a single dish with both options mixed: the popular Aeropuerto. Customers are accustomed to having it with a fried egg on top.
One of the peculiarities of eating at Tia Veneno is the random walkers watching you eat. New Yorkers also watch, but not with the fixed and studious gaze of Peruvians. Aunties also watch their customers eat, expecting for their sign of approval. People regularly fill them with compliments.
Sandwich de Pollo- Chicken SandwichImage Source: RPP
A chicken sandwich is usually eaten in the morning or late evening. Peruvians call them sánguches or sanguchitos. The Peruvian version is basic: bread, lettuce and chicken in mayonnaise. Other Aunties replaced the mayonnaise with mustard.
A whole subculture of sangucheros specializes in a wider selection: Butifarras, Fried Pork belly Sandwich, turkey sandwich, Lomo Saltado sandwich..etc. The list is vast, being a topic for another article.
Chanfainita- Beef Lung StewImage Source: Nutricional Paso
Chanfainita. This name alone triggers multiple memories. The ‘beef lung stew’, accompanied by sliced potatoes, has a spicy flavor.
Chanfainita has an interesting history. Power structures affect everything, even what we eat every day. In colonial times, Chanfaina was only consumed by indigenous and African communities. It wasn’t a matter of choice but a necessity.
Wealthy Spaniards ate the tastiest beef sections and discarded the rest (lung, liver, belly). Their hungry servants didn’t let the beef entrails to be wasted. Necessity is the mother of invention. Using the discarded lungs, Africans invented the Chanfaina, unaware it would become an essential recipe in Peruvian menus.
Choclo con Queso- Corn and CheeseImage Source: Panoramio
Corn paired with sliced cheese was a plate created after the Spanish Conquest. Incas had been eating corn for ages. But Spaniards were the ones who brought cow’s milk, butter and cheese to the Americas. Historians reveal that Quechuas loved cheese and quickly assimilated it. Corn and cheese were consumed in Andean households for centuries.
Auntie Poison regularly sells Choclo con queso with a delicious green sauce, Huacatay sauce. She also has ají on the side, because a dish without ají is practically not Peruvian.
Papa Rellena- Fried Stuffed PotatoesImage Source: Posteando en Trujillo
In the colonial era, a commissioner famously wrote: “Except corn, there is nothing in the world more Peruvian than a potato… base and foundation of Peruvians well before the Inca Empire.” This quote survived in the form: “You can’t be more Peruvian than a potato.” Having over three thousand potato varieties, it is natural to have potato in our daily diet.
Fried Stuff Potatoes were a staple our soldiers ate during the Peru-Chile war. The old legend goes that Peruvian soldiers carried the pre-made stuffed potatoes in their bags. The filling is beef based, having black olives, peanuts and raisins.
Although I was advised to cross myself and elevate a prayer before eating Auntie’s food, I never did. I entered food heaven for a bargain price, no prayers involved. I feel blessed by our thousands of Aunties who each day delighted us with their magnificent food.
Auntie Poison embodies one of the many blessings of living in my beautiful nation of Peru.
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