Stay Away from the NinajuanesDecember 20, 2008
Oh I was a fool to say yes, but how could I not have accepted the ninajuanes? I assumed they’d be better, more special cousins of the fabulous juanes: a mixture or rice, chicken, olives and hard-boiled egg, wrapped in a bihao leaf and steamed into a delectable, perfect rice ball the size of a fist.
I mean, I already tried the juanes especiales – the regular juanes‘ bigger cousin with more significant chicken chunks and a super satisfying softball size – and bargaining with the unknown paid off. So what could go wrong with ninajuanes? I’ve already inquired about the presence of seafood (none); so I was excited when Asuncion offered it to me during our last visit together at her food stand.
I met Asuncion my first week in Pucallpa and fell in love with her tiny self. She can’t weigh more than eighty pounds, she can’t be less than seventy years old and she couldn’t be sweeter if she tried. She has been working for years selling dinners from a picnic table she sets in front of her house on Inmaculada Street. I’ve been to visit her three times now, and last night was my goodbye meal.
She made me ninajuanes especially for the occassion. Somehow, without me advising her, she knew tonight I was going to drop by for our farewell. So she prepared the chicken on the grill and wrapped it up with eggs and cilantro into that familiar bihao leaf package which I’ve seen so many times before.
I was so excited to try it, having heard they were so delicious – soupy, savory, filling – even decadent! Why, that’s right down my alley right?
Asuncion sets my plate down in front of me and begins to cut open the leafy greens.
“What goes into ninajuanes?” I ask her.
“Mollejitas, patitas, higado, cuellitito – y le echo un huevito y culantro. Muy rico es! Los que vienen a comer a veces chupan las hojas para comer todito toditoooo!” she declares.
Uh oh. Oh no… It’s my last night with Asuncion and I absolutely cannot offend her but…
Gizzards. Chicken feet. Liver. Neck… Oh man, I don’t want to do it but I start slurping. Asuncion has just told me that she throws in a little bit of egg and cilantro too and the regular diners love it so much they suck the leaves dry to make sure they’ve gotten everything.
I’m not going to be able to perform the same feat. Luckily she hands me some yucca because “people like to eat it with the liver.” I like to do it too, but I’m sure for different reasons. I ask for more yucca to dilute my mouthfuls.
The gizzard – as much as my dad says he loves it – I just can’t get through. It’s at turns impossibly chewy and then iron-tasting and crumbly like liver. I surreptitiously slide my unfinished gizzard in between the layers of leaves and hope it will never be found… I’m ashamed of myself. It’s just food, Jenny, EAT IT!
The liver is down and not so bad, the chunky broth is super salty and that part I do slurp down happily. The neck is just like a chicken wing and I dispatch of it handily, licking my fingers.
But the chicken feet are still there, pointing all their toes at me accusingly. Asuncion sees me looking and nudges to me conspiratorially, “Ninajuanes aren’t complete without both little footsies!”… They are curled and menacing, the ridged skin is still piqued – the cooking has softened the scaly outer shell of toes and talons and it makes me picture an imaginary chicken who’s been in the bathtub too long… I’m not into it; I have to fess up.
“Asuncion,” I answer, smiling conversationally, “you know, it’s funny we don’t normally eat chicken claws where I’m from…”
She doesn’t care, she thinks it’s funny and the lady beside me is only slightly incredulous. I can see her thinking, “Oh, that silly foreigner; but, ah well, they’re all weird.”
Well, she’s right. I’m not Anthony Bourdain; and, up to this moment, I think I was fooling myself into thinking I was a more intrepid traveler eater than I really am. But, that’s okay. Reality checks are good, because they keep it… well, real. So I say my goodbyes to Asuncion wholeheartedly and tell myself not to worry about whether she’ll see my hidden gizzard when she dumps the remains of my meal. I am more fixated really on whether I will see her next time I come back to Pucallpa and when that next time might be.
A few minutes later, I’m still ruminating on this subject and – because of things recently brewing at home and at work I wonder if it’s possible to come back sooner rather than later. The thought – more of the opportunity rather than the reality – makes me merry and I’m swinging down the road past the bumping discotecas and bars briskly. The nightlife scene hasn’t been a big fixture in my life here – I’ve seen the inside of a bar twice since I arrived in November. So, I have something way more fun in mind for the rest of my evening: maybe it’ll be a date with a homemade passion fruit popsicle … or maybe a little paneton, the Peruvian Christmas bun, my fat new friend … or perhaps even, a tryst with the ever-exotic ice cream cone. Mmmmmmmmmm.