Sweets are everywhere in Lima. They are sold in food markets, fancy restaurants, out of carts on street corners and cardboard boxes at bus stops. Some are fried, some frozen and some freshly chopped before your eyes. Their names are evocative and poetic like the “Suspiro a la Limeña” which is a mixture of meringue and manjar blanco caramel custard and translates as “the sigh of a woman from Lima,” or simply hilarious, which is the case of “champus,” a dessert I just had to try for the name alone.
When I heard there was a dessert called, basically “shampoos” and yes, that’s plural for whatever reason, I thought it would probably be some overly sweet, extremely processed and jellified thing (I’m looking at you mazamorra morada) in an impossible color of pink or pearly white. I was pleasantly surprised when I went on an after-dark dessert cart expedition to Parque Kennedy in Miraflores to experience the phenomenon known in Spanish as empalagarse. Why does this wonderfully concise verb meaning “to be so full of sweets as to feel sick” not exist in English?
The champus sold in Parque Kennedy are actually doled out at a bustling butifarra cart; Italianate sandwiches with roast pork, turkey and various fillings and spreads like the ubiquitous pepper puree aji amarillo. The cart is run by two no-nonsense women who happen to have an aluminum pot of freshly made champus on offer for 3 soles (about 1 US dollar). Champus have been sold on Lima streets for hundreds of years by women typically of Afro-Peruvian origin called “champuseras.” Just as there is some debate over the origins of the drink-like-dessert; whether it was Incan in origin and later adapted by the Afro-Peruvian population, if it originated in Mexico (it is common nowadays to see versions of champus in Colombia and Ecuador), there are as many variations in the fruits and special touches used to create it.
In Lima, champus are typically served warm. At Parque Kennedy they are ladled into a styrofoam cup and topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon. When it is falling into winter in Lima this delightful and not-too-sweet mash-up of Maizena (a corn-porridge served at breakfast all over the Latin world), and apple sauce made with fresh quince and guanabana (soursop), and dried giant white corn is the perfect “thanks mom” thing for a nighttime stroll through the park, earlier on with family or late night to soak up multiple pisco sours. Don’t miss the other desserts like the perfect squash and sweet-potato-based donuts, picarones. They are addictive and lovingly prepared by Don Paolo at Picarones Mary, about 10 steps away from the champus.
RECIPE: Champus (Champusera Style)
Preparing the liquid base for the champus is where you can infuse the most flavor. Since guanabana is not readily available in most North American markets you can substitute guanabana nectar in the ratio below, although honestly, it didn’t make a huge difference in the flavor. Most important is to pump up the hard spices and, if you’re feeling a bit non-traditional and up for it, I suggest add-ins like fresh ginger (a 1-inch piece should be fine), black peppercorns (about 5 should be good for this amount), allspice berries, juniper berries, a bay leaf, lime peel, lavender, the list goes on. Also, the pisco splashed in the end is for balance, brightness and bite. Any strong spirit works. I tried one with Colombian aguardiente which has an anise flavor and that worked really well. Lime zest, a drizzle of buckwheat honey or bee pollen (an ingredient used surprisingly often in Peru) might be good and fun garnishes as well
-liquid base (see below)
-1 cup sugar (I used raw sugar, but you can use white sugar as well)
-1 quince, peeled and chopped into small chunks
-1 red apple i.e. Fuji, peeled and chopped into medium chunks
-1/2 pineapple, peeled and chopped into medium chunks
-1/2 cup dried mote, boiled until soft (about 1.5 hours)
-1 cup of harina de maiz (corn meal)
-juice of half an orange
-2 ounces of Pisco
For the Liquid Base:
-Rind of 1 pineapple
-2 1″ wide strips of orange peel
-2 cinnamon sticks
-5 cups of water OR 3 cups of water, 2 cups of guanabana (soursop) nectar
1.) Prepare the Liquid Base: Combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn heat off and infuse for about an hour. Strain and put in a larger pot to prepare champus.
2.) Add quince and sugar to the base and bring up to a boil. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the quince begins to feel soft. The quince takes longest and should be almost falling apart in the recipe. The other fruits are more distinguishable and intact in the final product.
3.) Next add the apple and simmer for about ten more minutes, then add the cooked mote and the pineapple. While the fruits are simmering, slowly add about 2 cups of cold water to the harina de maiz, whisking the whole time to incorporate it and make sure there are no lumps. The maiz/water should have the consistency of a pureed soup and pour easily, it will tighten up adding body to the champus when activated by boiling on the stove top.
4.) After ten to fifteen minutes, once the fruits and mote all seem cooked and soft, slowly pour the harina de maiz/water into the pot in a thin stream and turn up heat, make sure to stir vigorously so it gets incorporated completely. Once the mixture is boiling the heat and natural pectins from the fruits will cause the whole mixture to tighten up very quickly. Using a wooden spoon and scraping the bottom and corners of the pot to avoid burning, stir until the champus have the body of loose cream of wheat. It will continue to tighten once you turn the heat off so don’t go too far unless you enjoy a thicker consistency. Now is the time to add the orange juice and liquor. Stir in (this will also loosen the consistency slightly if your champus got too thick).
5.) Serve in a bowl or some sort of mug and garnish with freshly grated cinnamon stick or crumbled Mexican cinnamon. Go for a walk around the neighborhood or make out on a park bench like everyone else in Lima.
Tessa Liebman lives in her hometown of Brooklyn but loves to travel; inspired by the outposts much of the rest of the world has sprouted up around her since childhood. She has been cooking for the last ten-plus years and as a traveling chef always manages to spend way too much money on salt and spend more time than companions can bear in supermarkets and markets of all kinds, including her other favorite, flea markets. You can find her inspirations on tumblr, Whet.