Origins: Anticuchos de Corazón

Turning the corner onto Jirón Ignacio Merino in the Lince neighborhood of Lima, Peru, the smell of grilled meat hits you like a brick. From a block away you can see the smoke floating up towards the street lamps and the jostling crowd spilling into the street. This is Doña Pochita, one of hundreds of anticucherías – street side grills serving Lima’s most iconic street food – that set up around the Peruvian capital every evening.

In most places, beef heart is tossed out by the butcher. In Lima it has become revered, thanks to the humble anticucherías that season and marinate the meat so perfectly that it could pass for a piece of filet.

“You need a hot grill, good quality meat, proper cuts, skewers brushed with marinade on both sides and grilled for about five minutes over a fire with a high flame,” says Joselito Ve, who works the grill alongside his mother, Rosana Delta Espiritu Escobar. Better known as Doña Pochita, she began making anticuchos when she was 15 from her house in the town of Jauja in the Andes. She continued the tradition when the family moved to Lima in 1990.

“We use corazón nacional (beef hearts from Peru) which is less fatty, has less waste, is meatier and results in a better cut for the skewers,” says Ve. Other vendors may use less expensive, imported meat.

Skewered three to a palito (bamboo skewer), the meat is marinated and seasoned with a blend of garlic, ají panca, pepper, vinegar, cumin and salt. As they are grilled – about two or three minutes a side – they are continually brushed with more marinade so that they become especially tender.

A boiled potato and a chunk of large kernel corn are served with an order, along with spicy sauces based in native peppers, like rocoto or ají amarillo with huacatay. Less popular offal meats such as pancita (tripe), choncholí (intestines) and mollejitas (chicken gizzards) often share the same grill. Anticuchos even appear on the menus of fine dining restaurants where octopus, fish or alpaca may replace beef heart.

Quechua for “cut stew meat,” the origins of present day anticuchos date to Pre-Columbian times. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they found the Incas cooking pieces of meat on sticks over flames. While the name may be attributed to the Incas, modern anticuchos are attributed to Afro-Peruvian culture.

From the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century, cotton and sugar plantations on the Peruvian coast that were sustained by the labor of black slaves brought by the Spanish from Africa. The hacendados (owners of the haciendas) periodically slaughtered cows, and then, they used to give the innards—which they considered garbage—to their slaves. Because they needed to eat, they did what they could to make the innards edible. They saw how Andean people seasoned their food with native peppers, and also had access to Spanish ingredients like garlic, vinegar, cumin and salt through the hacienda kitchens. The absence of proper stoves forced them to cook over a fire, using sugar cane stalks as skewers.

As early as 1833, carretillas, or street carts, began appearing on Lima streets selling anticuchos according to Peruvian Ricardo Palma’s Tradiciones Peruanas. Until recent decades, offal was seen as a cut for poorer classes, though that has since changed and anticuchos are embraced by much of Peruvian society.

While anticucherias are found all over Lima, only a select few have grown followings, such as Anticuchos Pascuala in Surquillo. The most famous is Doña Grimanesa Vargas Araujo, or Tia Grimanesa. Operating a charcoal grill on a Miraflores street corner for thirty years, she grew a loyal crowd that included Lima’s top chefs, local celebrities and politicians. Every night at 8PM, she began selling just 50 kilos of anticuchos until the quantity ran out — which they did every night. Some arrived an hour before the first palitos were sent out to place their order, just to make sure they didn’t miss out. Limousines with tinted windows would pull up to the curb and have their drivers wait in the line.

In 2008, Grimanesa appeared with her grill at Lima’s annual culinary festival, Mistura, and became a national celebrity overnight. She began appearing on television, and even has a potato chip flavor based on her anticuchos. Crowds surrounding her grill began to stretch around the block and clogged the street, forcing the municipality to push her off of the street. She now operates out of a brick and mortar restaurant near her old corner. The flavor remains the same.