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.
Ceviche and causa
Those of you paying close attention may recall that I love ceviche of all varieties with a fiery passion. So much so that I made this meal for my birthday! 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 two typical Peruvian ceviches, the first with white fish (I used orange roughy), lemon juice, red onion, aji amarillo (yellow chilli pepper), garlic, red capsicum, lime and lemon juice and coriander. I assembled the prawn ceviche with similar flavours, except that the prawns were already cooked and had a bit of tomato instead of red capsicum. 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 two ceviches with traditional accompaniments: sweet potato and corn on a bed of lettuce. I did the corn two ways – a whole fresh cob chargrilled, and a bowl of dried kernels, also called cancha, which is a bit like South American unpopped popcorn. I also made causa, which is a casserole of layers with mashed potato, flavoured and coloured with aji amarillo (yellow pepper) paste, lime, onion and chilli. This potato is layered on the bottom and top, with the filling of your choice in between. These fillings can be vegetarian/vegan (layers of avocado, cheese, tomatoes, corn etc), seafood (tuna salad, prawns) or meat (chicken salad), often mixed with mayonnaise and lime juice. This dish is assembled and eaten cold, and can be layered in a large casserole dish, then cut out into the shape of your choice to serve. Causa is usually served with garnishes of hard boiled eggs, tomatoes and black olives. I think this is an ideal summer dish, and can be made into different varieties to suit any dietary requirement under the sun.
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.
Pollo a la brasa with papas rellenas and solterito
Pollo a la brasa means charcoal chicken. It was invented in the 1950s in Lima, and consists of a whole chicken or large chicken pieces cooked on a rotisserie above hot coals. I didn’t have a rotisserie or hot coals, so I roasted mine in the oven. However, I did use a traditional marinade of soy sauce, limes, garlic, ginger, oil, aji panca paste, cumin, annatto, paprika, oregano, rosemary and cayenne pepper. If that list doesn’t convince you that Peru is an exemplar of culinary fusion, then nothing will. Pollo a la brasa is often served with sauces that combine the exotic variety of chilli peppers native to Peru with other flavours in a creamy mayonnaise base. I served the chicken with an aji verde (green chilli pepper) sauce, made by food processing jalapenos, coriander, garlic, green onion, aji amarillo paste, lime juice, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and mayonnaise. Papas rellenas are stuffed potatoes, which are sort of like a Latin American croquette. In Peru, they are most traditionally filled with spiced beef mince flavoured with onions, hard-boiled eggs and cumin. A dough is then made out of mashed potato, which is sometimes thickened with potato flour. The dough is moulded around the filling, and then coated in egg and flour or breadcrumbs. The balls are usually deep fried, although I elected to bake mine as I hate to deep fry. They are fiddly to cook, but very delicious, and a good way to do something new and exciting with the humble potato. I also made solterito, which is a Peruvian salad made with lima beans, corn kernels, black olives, tomato, red onion, capsicum, coriander and fresh white cheese. I dressed mine with some olive oil and red wine vinegar, and found it to be a great accompaniment to the heavier chicken and potatoes. Solterito actually means “unmarried man” in Spanish, but I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps it implies that the salad is so easy to make that even a bachelor could do 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.