A growing passion for Peruvian cuisine

by Karen Weisberg
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The National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2013 Chef Survey of more than 1,800 members of the American Culinary Federation forecast Peruvian cuisine as having the most impact on menus across the country this year. And the buzz grows louder by the week as traditional Peruvian recipes and flavors, some with a North American twist, are “now” and “happening.” In fact, it’s “cool” even when the heat generated by various peppers has customers reaching their forks toward the cool respite of causa, a cold mashed potato dish, to reduce the heat.

The interest in Peruvian food may stem from a number of factors, including a growing Hispanic population used to similar flavor profiles and ingredients; more guests seeking menu items they perceive as healthy; or a number of high profile Peruvian chefs — including Gaston Acurio and Coque Ossio — who have opened restaurants in major US cities amid much media attention.

Peruvian cuisine is an amalgam of ingredients and recipes from various influences. Many Peruvian dishes may be traced to the indigenous peoples of the Andes, to the Incas, to Spanish settlers who followed on the heels of the conquest of the region. Italians, Chinese, West Africans and Japanese who came to Peru over the centuries also exerted an influence on the culinary culture. For these reasons, such staples as Peruvian corn, which features a larger, less sweet kernel than those found in North America, potatoes and chili peppers, became an integral part of a dish.

The power of peppers

There are four or five core items within Peruvian cuisine. No. 1 on the list is aji amarillo.

“This yellow pepper goes back to the Incas in the Andes, and we bring it in from Peru,” said Christian Encalada, the executive chef and co-owner of the 85-seat Divino Ceviche restaurant in Miami.

“I have four suppliers in Miami and whole aji amarillo comes in a frozen pack of about a dozen,” he said. “We remove the seeds and the vein, then we boil the pepper three times, changing the water every five minutes. Next, we remove the skin and blend the pepper in the blender without water. This yields pure aji amarillo paste that we use to cook seco (which is a stewed meat).”

A second ingredient identified by Encalada is aji panca, a long, thin red chili pepper used in Peruvian-style seafood and rice dishes. Since the pepper is delivered dried rather than frozen, Encalada’s staff cut it, remove the seeds and vein, and then boil it three times, changing the water every five minutes.

Blended with a bit of water, the resultant aji panca paste becomes a primary ingredient in Encalada’s seafood and rice dish, where the Spanish influence of paella is evident.

To prepare the dish, Encalada creates a "mother sauce" by adding fish broth to a pot with oil, garlic, onions, aji panca paste, salt and pepper. Then he quickly adds and briefly cooks a seafood combination of perhaps calamari, shrimp, scallops and mussels.

Aji limo is an ingredient that typically gives ceviche its spicy flavor. Small and thin, the red pepper is “very, very spicy — it’s the most spicy of the three,” Encalada said.

Aji limo comes in frozen from Peru and Encalada blends it with the seeds and vein.

“In the restaurant, we ask guests if they want ceviche spicy, medium or just a little spice; Peruvians want it spicy or medium,” he said. “In Peru, lime juice cooks ceviche from three to five minutes and we don’t eat it without aji limo — they don’t even ask you, they just give you the spice.”

Of course, onions and garlic are sine qua non ingredients in Peruvian cooking, although “way more” than in Spanish cooking, Encalada said.

Next on his list is huacatay (pronounced whack-a-tay), which is sometimes called black mint, Amazon black mint or Mexican marigold. The powerfully flavored herb is used in many salsas and is grown in the Andes. It was used by the Incas in a dish called pachamanca.

Encalada said Peruvians still prepare a version of the dish today.

“First, you make a hole in the ground — that’s ‘huatai,’ the earth oven — fill it with hot rocks, put meat on top of the rocks, add huacatay leaves and other herbs from the Andes, plus sweet potatoes. Cover with broad leaves and turf; and after about two hours, remove the turf, leaves, plate the now cooked ingredients and eat.”

Encalada estimates his restaurant — which opened in September 2011 — serves about 30% Peruvian guests and 70% “foreign people,” comprising Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Americans of various heritages. An active member of the Peruvian-American Chef Association, he said there are about 150 Peruvian restaurants in South Florida today.

A cross-cultural cuisine

Since “almost all the elements of Peruvian cuisine are known to people,” Hank Costello finds that once guests taste the food, “they’re fans.” As executive chef at Andina, Portland, Ore., Costello and his staff serve about 300 guests each night as well as 600 to 700 guests nightly on the weekends.

“That attests to the popularity of Peruvian food — out of towners say they want us to open in LA, San Francisco, etc.,” he said.

In a nutshell, Andina boasts a native Peruvian cook staff formally trained in traditional culinary styles but it also aims to incorporate the styles and pre-colonial ingredients into “novoandina.” The restaurant's menu was created by Andina’s founding chef, Emmanuel Piqueras Villaran, when it opened in 2003. Coque Ossio, one of Lima’s top chefs and a CIA-Hyde Park graduate, has served as consulting chef for the restaurant.

Costello, a California native, is bilingual and has more than a decade of training in the culinary arts in Spain as well as in Peru. At Andina, he’s forged strong relationships with suppliers and local farmers.

“We import [aji] purees from one farm family and receive shipment about twice a year — it’s the base of all our flavors,” he said.

He’s pleased that several farms in the Portland area are now growing aji amarillo.

“It’s a strain; it’s not exact,” Costello said. “But now, in the summertime, we have them fresh. Then, if dried, aji amarillo becomes aji mirasol. Mirasol means ‘facing the sun,’ therefore, dried. The oxidation in the drying process changes the flavor profile.”

Rocoto pepper makes Costello’s short list of “must have” Peruvian ingredients. Grown in the low hills of Peru, the red, apple-size pepper is “traditionally stuffed with ground meat topped with fresh cheese and baked,” he said.

Huacatay also makes Costello’s ingredient list. He said it’s in the marigold family and, since it smells a bit like bay leaf or sweet mint, it’s excellent chopped raw in gremolata as well as with beans — “sort of the South American equivalent of savory with beans,” he said.

Huacatay also plays a lead role in ocopa, a traditional cold fresh cream cheese sauce from Lima. Ingredients also include evaporated milk, huacatay, plus a small cookie.

“We use the sauce on poached shrimp — like aji mirasol for depth and aji amarillo for spice,” Costello explained.

Speaking to the healthy aspects of traditional Peruvian menu items, Costello cited potatoes and quinoa as staples.

“Plus, Peru being a poor country, criolla cuisine or comida criolla (criolla being a mix of people of Andean, Spanish, African and Peruvian descent) made Peruvian cuisine famous,” he said. “They couldn’t afford butter, cream, oil, so there is none, or very little, in the cooking.”

Commercializing the cuisine

As a chef with a master’s degree in food science, Christopher Warsow serves as corporate executive chef for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill. His objective is to assist Bell’s customers in both food service and retail “make more authentic products by being able to substitute ingredients (from Bell) for hard to get rare and exotic flavors,” he said. “Plus, some commercial cooking techniques will destroy a lot of delicate flavors so there’s a need to use commercially-prepared flavors to enhance or bolster those (more delicate) flavors.”

Although Bell has developed a line of South American flavors, Warsow is currently working on formulating five or six huacatay-centric sauces for one customer. The sauces will be packaged in stand-up pouches and Mr. Warsow’s challenge is to compensate for the reality that the heat required to make the product shelf-stable destroys some of the flavor.

Fortunately, Warsow is able to use commercially available aji amarillo and aji panca, both in powdered form and sourced from Woodland Foods, Waukegan, Ill.

He is currently working on flavor combinations for papa a la huancaina

“It’s aji amarillo, evaporated milk and cheese to make a sauce over potatoes plus eggs with chopped olives,” Warsow said. “We deal with the paste or powder and accent with the flavor to get it authentic — so we do the top notes.”

There’s also increasing demand for Peruvian lime that’s included in Bell’s Latin American line, said Warsow.

“It goes in everything from ceviches to pisco sour; it’s like a key lime, but more sour and very fragrant,” he said. “There’s also camu camu, a sour fruit that’s an excellent source of vitamin C. We have that flavor for beverages as well as lemon verbena — Inca Kola is basically lemon verbena.”

Well aware that the Spanish-speaking population in the United States has steadily increased, Ron Spaziani sees that “manufacturers are looking for flavor profiles that those of Spanish heritage would recognize.”

As product development chef in the savory business unit for Symrise, Inc., Teterboro, NJ, he said his company tends to avoid using the name of any specific type of pepper since “some people don’t know (the names of) the different types of pepper or how they taste. So we’ll do a ‘ceviche-type seasoning of lemon-lime plus heat,’ perhaps for chicken.”

For the Symrise customers planning to manufacture frozen or ready-to-heat refrigerated foods, Spaziani has created a marinade, “Peruvian spice Christmas turkey with aji panca paste plus cinnamon, rosemary and tamarind,” he said. “We can convert the marinade to a powder blend, using flavor keys to make it authentic. If we can’t find that note, we’ll get it shipped from Peru or Mexico; we’ll run an analytical then make a flavor that’s like it. We already have a whole line of fruity flavors for marinades and rubs.”

Eileen Simons, director of applications for Symrise’s savory business unit, underscores the common culinary elements of Peruvian cuisine.

“We see potatoes, chili — like a potato salad with very spicy mayonnaise — so they’re familiar ingredients plus Peruvian spices.”

Simons is particularly keen on focusing on sauces as a proactive way for Symrise to bring new ingredients and new influences for different sauce concepts to a client’s attention.

“Sauce, to my mind, is noncommittal; you can put it on a sandwich, splash it in soups, etc.,” she said. “For example, aji amarillo in a chili pepper sauce is now at the right-before-mainstream stage more consumers are looking for big, bold flavors and willing to be adventurous.”
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