I visited Peru last year, and I think it may be among my top three all-time favourite cuisines. I first went to the capital city, Lima, which has a shocking degree of inequality. The ride from the airport passes slums with awful living conditions, in contrast to the “rich” suburbs that overlook the ocean, full of gleaming skyscraper apartments, manicured lawns and upmarket shopping centres. I also went to Cusco, which is the town closest to Machu Picchu. Both are extremely touristic places, and therefore fairly affluent and seem to have good living conditions. Regardless of how I feel about the societal dynamics, the food is out of this world, and recognised as such at least in other parts of South America. I think the international high esteem of Peruvian food likely stems from its prolonged and varied fusion of many ethnicities. A strong basis of Incan cuisine based on local ingredients such as corn, potatoes and beans was incorporated into those brought by immigrants from Spain, Italy and Germany. Later, this basis was further influenced by waves of immigration from Japan and China, as well as West Africa. This particular combination, for whatever reason, led to a microcosm of food perfection. There’s a lot of geographical diversity across Peru, and the cuisine varies with it, from coastal regions, to the Andes, to the Amazon rainforest. As such there are a lot of famous and traditional foods that didn’t make it into this week’s list for one reason or another. One of those is guinea pig, which is not a myth and is actually a commonly eaten delicacy in Peru. I didn’t cook it here in Australia because it’s impossible to source except live and cute from pet shops. Although, to be honest, even in Peru I didn’t try it, partly because it was always the most expensive thing on the menu, but also because it was usually spit-roasted whole, which slightly unsettled me. My uneasiness could also be attributed to altitude sickness though, which I experienced at 3400 m above sea level in Cusco, and which rendered me bed bound for the first day. We received coca leaves to chew at the airport, which purportedly aid altitude sickness and are the base component of cocaine, but which only made my mouth a bit numb. Other honourable mentions of Peruvian food and drink include Inca kola, which is a bright yellow soft drink that tastes a lot like Australian yellow creaming soda, and pisco, which is an alcoholic spirit made of grapes, and which Peru and Chile compete over furiously for the title of superior producer.
Those of you paying close attention may recall that I love ceviche of all varieties with a fiery passion. For those still catching up, ceviche is made of raw fish, which is “cooked” without heat in acids like lemon juice. There is mystery shrouding the origin of ceviche, but I think it’s most famously associated with Peru. With that simple basis, infinite combinations of different flavours can be used to ensure that you never tire of ceviche. I made three types of Peruvian ceviches, using snapper, orange roughy and pink ling, and with various combinations of lemon, lime or orange juice juice, red onion, aji amarillo (yellow chilli pepper), garlic, red chilli, coriander, mango, avocado and corn. Ceviche is considered a hangover cure and aphrodisiac in much of Latin America, and its powers are considered to be concentrated in the juice that is left in the bottom of the bowl, which is a sought-after delicacy called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). I served the three ceviches with traditional accompaniments: sweet potato, white hominy corn and dried corn nuts (called cancha) with lettuce. I made this meal during the first of what is sure to be many heatwaves to come of the seemingly endless Brisbane summer, and deeply appreciated the opportunity to assemble a varied and delicious meal without turning on the stove or oven. So reluctant was I to increase the heat in my kitchen that I even steamed the sweet potato and corn in the microwave. At the end of the meal I thought the same thing I always do after going through the extraordinarily easy, quick and delicious process of ceviche assembly: why don’t I do this more often?
Aji de gallina
Aji de gallina is Spanish for chilli pepper chicken, and the chilli pepper it refers to specifically is the Peruvian yellow pepper (aji amarillo). Aji amarillo is a little spicy, and has a great deep yellow colour, but is very hard to find fresh in Australia, although specialty stores do sell a paste and whole bottled peppers. To make aji de gallina, boiled and shredded chicken breast is mixed into a sauce made with sautéed garlic, onions, finely chopped walnuts, parmesan cheese, evaporated milk, fresh bread crumbs, and aji amarillo paste. These ingredients all come together to form a delicious balance of spicy and creamy flavours. Aji de gallina is usually served/garnished with sliced boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, black olives and white rice. I’ve tried this dish several times before, and always enjoy it; being one of those dishes that’s better the next day after the flavours have blended. It’s also a fairly cheap and easy way to feed a lot of people, and kids love it (if it’s not too spicy)!
My smattering of Spanish informs me that the name “causa” directly translates to the word “cause”, which immediately skyrocketed my curiosity about the dish. “The cause of what!?” I immediately demanded. Initial guesses included the cause of satiety, weight gain, family arguments (because of the difficulty of making it), or even some sort of association with a political/ideological cause. There is some rumour of the latter origin, with a story of women making the dish during the food shortages of the 1879 Pacific War against Chile and giving it to brave soldiers for “the cause”. However, I may have been wrong on all accounts, as the name is also thought to have arisen from a native Quechua word “kausay” meaning “sustenance of life”, and the dish is thought to derive from ancient Incan recipes. This etymology makes sense, given that the primary ingredient of the meal is potatoes, which are native to South America and have formed the ultimate staple of the indigenous people for millennia. If you are imagining a brown oval the size of a fist when I say potato, you need to expand your imagination when it comes to Peru – the potatoes come in an incredible variety of colours, shapes and flavours. I recommend you to google some images of the 5000 types available if you want your conception of a potato to be completely changed forever! This variety of potato means that causa is much more flavourful and variable than you might initially imagine, but in its essence is formed by layers of mashed potato, flavoured for instance by lime/lemon juice, some native peppers or other ingredients that impart colours or flavours. The mash is layered with fillings, which can be any sort of seafood, meat, eggs or vegetables, often with a base of avocado or mayonnaise. The wonderful thing about this dish is that it has a simple core concept, but, unlike many overly-prescriptive recipes, it is flexible enough that it can be completely innovated by any cook’s imagination. Indeed, I was inspired by a description of the dish I read during my research which said “housewives and the most esteemed chefs alike feel like artists when they prepare causa”. I used aji amarillo (yellow pepper) mixed with yellow potato for my yellow causa, orange sweet potato for my orange causa, yellow potato mixed with beetroot for my pink causa and purple potato for my purple causa. For the sauces, I used a mayonnaise base, mixed with aji amarillo and passionfruit for the yellow, a tapenade of olives for the purple, beetroot for the pink and avocado for the green. In the true spirit of Peruvian cuisine, I took a lot of care with the decoration of this dish, using an assortment of delectable fillings and garnishes, and, as promised, I felt like a true artist by the end of it!
There aren’t many restaurants in Brisbane that serve Peruvian food, so when I get the chance to sample any, I try very hard to select something I’ve never had before. However, lomo saltado is one of my all-time favourite meals, and therefore often prevents that decision. It’s again a wonderful example of the international culinary fusion of Peru, being a stir fry with strips of beef steak, red onion, capsicum, aji amarillo and tomato. These ingredients are added to a pan at different stages of cooking to achieve cooked-but-still-crunchy textures. The flavourings used in the stir fry include garlic, soy sauce, cumin, vinegar, beef stock, and plenty of coriander and parsley. The flavour combinations are exquisite, and, to me, preferable to anything The East or The West could produce in isolation. Lomo saltado arises from a subsection of Peruvian cuisine called “chifa”, which is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, although its subsequent popularity has resulted in integration into the mainstream food culture. The term “chifa” comes from a Cantonese word meaning “to eat rice”. Indeed, lomo saltado is typically served with a side of white rice, originating in Asia, but also with potato chips, originating in South America. The two starchy accompaniments soak up the juices of the stir fry in different ways but both wonderfully complementing each other. I encourage you to try this dish at your next opportunity; it’s the best example of old and new world intermingling of food that I know.