Without Peru, modern American civilization might not be here. With the exception of maize and squash, almost every native American food we eat in quantity today hailed from the Inca empire of the 12th to 14th centuries. Potatoes, quinoa, a huge number of chile peppers, tomatoes, peanuts: all hail from the west side of South America.
Peruvian food is at once alien and comforting: a fairly short list of familiar foods combined in unexpected ways. Lawrence Durrell once said that olives had a taste as old as cold water; that same sense pervades Peruvian food. Even modern, high-end Peruvian dishes carry the pedigree of more than a thousand years of tradition; eating Peruvian is a bridge to the past in a way few cuisines can match.
That's not to say that Peruvians aren't open to culinary commingling: Thor Heyerdahl proved that Peru in 1947 was well within range of Asian explorers, even given the technology of Inca times; there are thousands of Asians in Peru. There is a huge ethnic Japanese population in Peru (the former President of Peru was named Alberto Fujimori), and Chinese cooking is so prevalent that the word for it in Peruvian Spanish is chifa, from 吃饭 (chi fan), meaning "eat".
Peruvian cuisine has lots of divisions, but arguably the most useful division is coastal food vs. mountain (Andean) food. Much of what is served in Peruvian restaurants in the United States owes at least a token nod to the cuisine of the Pacific, but some mountain specialities show up now and then.
Today's episode of Ethnic Eating 101 covers appetizers and first courses in Peruvian food.
Every tostada de ceviche in every Mexican restaurant in the world is trying to live up to its Peruvian counterpart. There are no tomatoes in Peruvian ceviche, there is no Clamato juice, there is no cilantro and no garlic. The list of ingredients in a Peruvian ceviche are simple: fish or seafood, salt, lime juice, onions and rocoto or limo chiles. The ingredients are blended together and allowed to sit. The acid of the lime juice wreaks a chemical reaction in the fish, similar to cooking; the proteins denature and bind up, and the texture becomes firmer. The acid has a similar, though less powerful, effect on seafood, which is often cooked with heat before being marinated.
The result is a powerful dish, with fresh fish and a citric punch that lands in the upper palate. Beer is a good choice to accompany ceviche, incidentally: the Mexicans got that right, and it will help with the thirst that ceviche can cause.
True Peruvian ceviche is served very simply, with some or all of these accompaniments: toasted seaweed, cooked potato, cooked sweet potato, choclo (enormous, juicy, cooked fresh corn kernels, each about the size of a man's pinky nail) and cancha (corn kernels that have been parched in sand, then cleaned and tossed with salt, like the best corn nuts in the world).
The liquid left over is called leche de tigre--tiger's milk--and is served as a stimulant and a hangover remedy. A shot of this sour, spicy, tangy liquid has a caffeine-like effect on the nervous system. Any Peruvian restaurant in the region will serve a portion leche de tigre with their ceviche for the asking.
In some ways, potatoes are to Peruvian cuisine what rice is to Chinese cuisine. Two thousand of the three thousand known varieties of potato in the world are grown in Peru, from the waxy, yellow, Yukon Gold-like potatoes to chuños, potatoes which have been dried in the frozen Andean air (this concentrates the potato flavor).
Causa is technically a potato salad, but what a salad! Traditionally, causa (pronounced "COW-sah") is a layered salad, the original ring-mold idea. Cooked yellow potatoes are mashed with ají (chiles), lime juice, salt and pepper. A layer of this paste is spread in a container, and then topped with a filling. The filling may be eggs, shrimp with avocado, shredded chicken with mayonnaise, crab with vinaigrette, scallops with orange sauce or any of dozens of other fillings. A second layer of potato purée is spread on top; more elaborate causa may have a second layer of filling (the same or different) and a third layer of potatoes. Causa is served with salsa de ají, the Peruvian chile sauce made of potent yellow chiles, lettuce, bread and oil; it is addictive.
A different, but extremely common variation is called causa rellena, or sometimes just papa rellena. This is filling enveloped inside the potato purée (often formed in the shape of a large potato) and usually deep-fried until the top layer of the potatoes starts to brown, bubble and flake. The most common filling for causa rellena is a variation on picadillo, chopped beef cooked with spices, raisins and olives, and nearly all causas rellenas will have at least a piece of hard-boiled egg tucked inside. Causa rellena is always served with pickled red onions.
Anticuchos are more technically street food, but they tend to show up on appetizer lists in this area. Anticuchos are small pieces of meat, often organ meat such as beef heart, marinated in vinegar, garlic, cumin and ají panca (a smoked red chile which tastes like spicy Spanish paprika), threaded onto skewers and grilled over impossibly high heat until they sear. They are amazingly juicy and, in the case of the aforementioned beef heart, the beefiest-tasting piece of meat on the steer after the cheeks.
After grilling, a boiled potato or a thick piece of bread may be speared on the end of the skewer, both to prevent injury and to provide a place for the juices to be soaked up.
Other anticuchos include higado (beef liver), tripas (book tripe), rachi (honeycomb tripe), bistec (usually rump steak), pollo (chicken) or very rarely seafood.
Anticuchos are usually served with choclo (corn on the cob) and potatoes; the omnipresent chile sauce will be there to add some kick.
Anticuchos make great drinking food, paired with Peru's national drink, the Pisco sour (brandy, lemon juice, sugar and egg whites shaken together) or with dark Cusqueña beer (there are light and dark varieties; the dark is far superior).
Other common appetizers don't fall neatly into categories.
Papa a la huancaina is a cold dish of boiled, sliced waxy potatoes and hard-boiled eggs covered in ají-cheese sauce with an olive. This is by far the most common appetizer served in a menú (two or three courses, prix fixe). Yuca, another tuber, is commonly substituted and has a sweeter, slightly flour-y taste. A variation called ocopa is boiled, sliced potatoes, but topped with a sauce of nuts, cheese and huacatay (black basil).
Choros a la chalaca are mussels on the half shell showered with lime juice and corn-tomato-ají salsa.
Tiradito is fresh, raw fish (often firm white fish, but sometimes tuna), cut like sashimi and marinated briefly in ceviche-style seasonings. Tiradito nearly always comes with sweet potatoes.
Humitas are the Peruvian answer to tamales, wide packets wrapped in corn husks and steamed or baked in a pit oven, but using fresh, juicy choclo in the dough. Humitas normally are stuffed with cheese, not meat, but humitas dulces are stuffed with raw brown sugar, raisins and sometimes cinnamon.
Rocotos rellenos are the immensely hot rocoto chile peppers (like piquins or habaneros) stuffed with meat and onions, then layered with thinly-sliced potatoes and milk; the milk and the heat temper the capsaicin enough to make them edible. Once the chile heat passes, the chiles taste surprisingly sweet.
Incidentally, chicharrón on a Peruvian menu doesn't necessarily have anything to do with pork skin; it can also refer to something that has been fried. Chicharrón de camarón is breaded, fried shrimp; chicharrón de calamares is fried squid.
Where To Get It
El Misti (3070 W. Lincoln Ave. #D, Anaheim) specializes in Arequipa-style food; another contender is Inka Grill (23600 Rockfield Blvd., Lake Forest). Nory's is a pair of restaurants (933 S. Euclid St., Anaheim; 6959 Cerritos Ave., Stanton) with good ceviche and one of the better renditions of papa a la huancaina.
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If anticuchos are the order of the day, the single best place in all Southern California to get them, Anticuchería Danessi, lies just over the Los Angeles county line in Norwalk (14531 S. Pioneer Blvd.).
Come back next week for Peruvian-Chinese food! Chaufa and tallarines and saltados and jaleas, oh my.