Dessert First

Crema Volteada at Contigo Peru

Latin American cuisine often gets grouped together in one big category, but since the region spreads across two continents, it should go without saying that the culinary traditions are incredibly diverse. Located on the Western coast of South America, Peru offers very different tastes than the Mexican cuisine that Arizonans are accustomed to. Popular dishes include causa rellena de camarones, an appetizer composed of two layers of cold mashed potatoes with lime juice, aji, and a layer of shrimp salad in between, and tallarin verde, stir-fried linguini with spinach pesto.

In Peru, even a simple dessert can be given a unique spin. Crema volteada, which literally translates to "upside-down cream," is the Peruvian version of flan. The most popular flavor is vanilla, which is what Contigo Peru in Mesa serves, but Peruvians can also get fairly experimental with their favorite sweet indulgence, adding unexpected ingredients like quinoa, pears, raisins, lucuma, corn, and prunes.

Flan is already considered to be an acquired taste (or texture) by many Americans, but that's especially the case with the Crema Volteada served at Contigo Peru, which has a complex bitterness similar to coffee. It also has notes of cinnamon and burnt caramel, altogether creating a fairly mature flavor profile. Kids probably won't be begging for this dessert any time soon, but the unique flavors will please at least a few adult palates.

The interesting thing about the complex flavor is that the dish contains just four ingredients: eggs, evaporated milk, sugar, and vanilla extract, so the caramelization of the sugar is what develops so many layers of flavor. The owner of Contigo Peru says that this is the only way she knows how to make it -- following the same process she would use at home -- and that she's tried Mexican flan and "didn't like it." So while the variance in technique can't be precisely nailed down (even when comparing the flan recipes vs. the crema volteada recipes available online, they're practically the same), there clearly is a big difference in the final result.

It's not just the taste that sets this dessert apart; the texture of crema volteada also differs from the usual flan. Most flans are smooth, firm, gelatinous, and somehow simultaneously dense and light. Although very similar to the Mexican style, this version ends up with a texture similar to the softest of bread puddings. Crema volteada is still firm, dense, and light like Mexican flan, but it's not as smooth.

While it might take a few bites to get accustomed to, crema volteada is definitely worth a try, especially for fans of flan and bitter coffee drinkers. It admittedly took me half of the dessert course to wrap my head around this flan alternative, but once I stopped questioning the differences between it and the flans I've previously tasted, it became an enjoyable custardy dessert, one that I would order again. For another rare taste of South America, try Contigo Peru's Lucuma Ice Cream, which is flavored with a popular regional fruit.

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Dominique Chatterjee