By Tami Ganeles-Weiser
Chef Aliya LeeKong is always on the lookout for what is going on in the culinary world. One country in particular was capturing a flurry of headlines and after some research and planning she spent a week in a land that has more culinary schools per capita than anywhere else in the world. It has been influenced by the Spanish, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Incas and many indigenous, tribal peoples. Chef LeeKong immersed herself and yet she felt after an intensive all-cooking all-eating week, “… it was not enough time.” Read along as we learn about her recent culinary expedition to Lima, Peru and the Sacred Valley of the Andes Mountains in the next chapter of the Chef Diaries.
The Chef Diaries: Chapter 3, Aliya LeeKong– Peru.
The bio-diversity alone would have been enough to compel Chef LeeKong to jump on a plane and see this Latin American gem. But Peru’s culinary environment is setting the world on fire, and she needed to see it and taste it for herself. “What’s already happening (there) and what’s going to happen (there) is tremendous,” she said.
She was immediately captivated by the busy and picturesque capital city of Lima. “Lima is amazing. It’s set in the mountainside. Between the salt air and the mountains- it’s amazing,” she said.
The sheer variety of foods grown was like nothing she had ever seen. “The varieties of potatoes! Amazing herbs and fruits. I travel a lot,” she said, marveling, “…(and) this was the first time I was like what’s that ? What’s that ? What’s that?”
She tasted the tumbo, a passion fruit cousin but “…more tart and a bit floral,” she said.
She tasted the local chermoya fruit.
She adored the slighty dry fruit that tasted like butterscotch called lucuma. Lucuma is commonly used in many dessert preparations and is set to become an acai style super fruit in the US since it’s a nutritional powerhouse.
Notwithstanding warnings from her doctors in New York not to try foods before washing them very well, “ …when I was in the markets … I was eating them all!”
Chef LeeKong investigates the seasonal produce used by average home cooks wherever she travels. She found that in Peru most people shop often and eat fresh foods daily. The varying climates and geographical landscapes create one of the riches environments for produce on Earth. Even for Chef Aliya, a renown expert in the world flavors, Peru’s never-ending varieties was a true Willy Wonka Factory.
She also loved learning about the impeccably fresh fish and shellfish harvested from the nearby Pacific Ocean early every morning, ready to be sold and eaten before lunch. The shrimp are more like crawfish and the scallops, large and succulent, are eaten with foot on.
The ceviches are made from mariscos ( shellfish only), mixtos ( mixed fish and shellfish ) and pescado ( fish only ).
She tasted causa, a layered, composed dish of mashed potatoes, lime juice aji amarillo, and oil, layered with crab, avocados, mayonnaise and onions., shared salads with corn, queso fresco, dried olives, fava beans, cilantro, limes, and potatoes and found quinoa in every conceivable color everywhere.
Arroz con pollo , a Latino classic was on every menu but arroz con pato was her favorite – rice with duck. Her recipe for arroz con pato is on her website at aliyaleekong.com
Peru is a large Latin American country with a sizable coastline on the south pacific ocean, boarders with Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia. Peru has many climates within it’s borders-has has many different topographies from ports to jungles to the Andes mountain range- and Chef LeeKong went through quite a few.
Peruvian cuisine is a poly-cultural mashup of the foods of indigenous tribal peoples, kingdoms and fiefdoms, colonial European conquistadors mixed with the history of tumultuous years of being run and overrun by neighboring countries and the wildly diverse ecosytems.
The resultant economic complexities have brought immigration from all over the world that has forced Peruvian cuisine to evolve into a multi-dimensional culinary profile unlike any other and well beyond ceviche and pisco. These two classic dishes, have left Peru’s borders and have now, gone on to influence some of the very cultures from whom Peru took inspiration.
Pisco is a grape brandy. Although it is also claimed by Chile as a national drink, in Peru it is distilled in copper pot stills and it is produced in the Ica Valley around the Pisco River and the Ica River. In Lima, Queirolo restaurants, with small plate or pequeño meals, Chef LeeKong was told that it the make their own Piscos. An American bartender in the 1920′s created the pisco sour. Penelope Alvarez, a local chef-instructor that Chef LeeKong worked with told her that it must be served immediately to prevent any bitterness. It’s an insult to the proprietor or server if you leave it unfinished.
Ceviche, the most famous dish from Peru, has an interesting history all it’s own. Ceviche (seviche, cebiche) is considered the “national” dish of Peru. It is also immensely popular in Ecuador, who sometimes claim it as their “own”. Every Latin American and Central American country has their own traditional version. It has become more popular in the US over the past thirty years outside of the Latino communities and it is increasing in popularity globally.
In Peru, it is traditionally served with slices of cold orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and hearty chunks of corn-on-the-cob with huge kernels and occasionally toasted nuts. This exactly is how Chef LeeKong prepared it using flounder.
In one of Lima’s oldest cevicheria’s she snapped this picture.
In Ecuador, ceviche is often served with nuts, dried corn nuts and popcorn. Just to complicate the Peruvian – Ecuadorian debate, the Peruvian Incas may have invented or at least popularized popcorn. Onions and tomatoes occur in most Mexican preparations, although there are distinct regional variations. In Ecuador and some Central American countries, like Guatemala and El Salvador, it is frequently prepared with ketchup. Ketchup is not used in Peru. Traditional Peruvian ceviche is flavored with Peruvian lemons which are similar to a key lime. Throughout Peruvian cuisine is the utterly omnipresent Peruvian aji amarillo or yellow pepper and the red rocoto pepper. Chef LeeKong, who tried peppers raw at the markets, was probably allergic to the raw rocoto pepper.
Ceviche is also sometimes made with sour oranges particularly in the Caribbean. Although the taste profiles are different everywhere ceviche traveled, what remains the same is the fresh, white fish or shellfish and the technique.
The history of the birth of ceviche technique is a matter of myth. Tales abound of fishermen who made ceviche in the morning and allowed it to “cook” in the sun. Perhaps ceviche’s history is fishermen’s accidental fare that became beach food. Chef Aliya found that lunchtime was the main meal, especially in the coastal city of Lima where fish and seafood are common. It was well accepted that this was rooted in the lack of refrigeration from fishing time to eating time. This would seem to make sense out of the fisherman’s ceviche tale. But perhaps ceviche also tells the story of Peru. Some historian and Peruvians feel ceviche was created by the ancient Incas. Peru was the home of the great Incan Empire. Peruvian take great pride in that important past.It’s a huge source of tourism, a commercial and marketing tool and a national cultural treasure.
Other historians think that ceviche really much later, after a consequential and influential Japanese immigration which began in the late 1800′s. There has even been a Prime Minister of Japanese descent.
In Lima, Chef Aliya enjoyed a wide variety of food. She cooked cooked conchitas a la parmesana, grouper and crawfish stew and suspiro de imena con frutas de estacion with a homemade dulce de leche and a meringue with port. She had a memorable tasting dinner at Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz’s Lima restaurant, Central.
He is is rising international star noted for his French and asian touches given his years working in NYC at Lutece and years of travel. Although he invited her, she couldn’t fit in a day at the at the markets with him near his new restaurant in Cusco.
Before heading of into the Andes, Chef LeeKong, went to the lima markets in Milaflores. She picked up aji dulces and dried aji panca and dried aji amarillo to cook with.
She continued on to an old stately casa with elaborate rose gardens and lotus and turtles in ponds and aloe and agave plants lining the stairway that went up the mountainside to get to the manor house at the top. There, she cooked with another local cook. He explained that the antichichos were a form of shish kebabs because the Spanish conquerors had Arab wives who brought the tradition with them. This street food made of animal hearts is very popular to this day. They made aji paste from the fried chiles, and created papas a la huanicaina, antichucos from calves hearts and aji, vinegar, garlic and cumin in a paste . Lamb stew with garlic, cumin, black pepper, spinach, cilantro, pisco and stout beer and an avocado salad with fresh water shrimp chopped tomatoes, lime juice, a corn rice, frijoles from fresh beans with ginger and epazote, a coconut casserole and a sweet rice pudding. The meal finished with Colonial desserts of candied limes filled with sweet milks and macaroons.
She did get to the Sacred Valley and Cusco.
The archeology left behind in the relics of Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley is a source of national pride, tourist dollars and provides a deep sense of history for the indigenous peoples.
Peru’s population is as heterogeneous as it’s produce is diverse. Speckled with the descendants of Incas, Conquistadors, Colonists, European travelers and traders and Andean peoples, they were joined by a huge influx of Asian peoples by the 19th century. Slave labor was brought in from China. The Japanese also began consequential immigration to Peru and Brazil in late 1800′s. The strong Pan-Asian influence is evident in Peruvian food and unusual in the Americas. Peruvian dishes like arroz chaufa, a fried rice, and lomo saltado, a beef and potato stir-fry as well as the use of fresh ginger root.
Chef LeeKong started in Cusco to acclimate to the height.
There Andean villagers sell goods at the market regaled in vivid and colorful dress.
Corn has been a staple food since Incan times. Today there are over 55 varieties grown. Corn is used in numerous Peruvian dishes. In northern Peru grated corn is the base of pepián, a stew, mixed with turkey, onion, garlic and chilies. In Arequipa, soltero is made of beans, corn, onion and a queso fresco. In the Andean jungle, the inchi cache, is a stew of chicken, roasted corn and peanuts. Desserts include the sanguito made from yellow corn flour, raisins and molasses. Peruvian corn is also used to make drinks. Purple corn is the main ingredient of the chicha morada. Chef Leekong drank it perfumed with cinnamon and cloves and finished with a punch of lime juice . It was “ delicious and refreshing,” she said. Fermented corn is the basis of the famed, super-strong chicha de jora beer that has to be consumed the day it is made.
In the Andes, many local ingredients are integrated into the Peruvian staples, for example, the antichuchos, which are made with alpaca.
Many families keep guinea pigs and fatten them with leftover corn beer sediment. They are eaten for special occasions.
She took cooking lessons at local hotels. The lucuma was pureed and lightened with whipped. At the San Pedro market the frugality of the local people was apparent in their use of every part of the animals . (Warning: this is a graphic picture)
The small restaurants has guinea pig meat in their potato causa, quinoa crusted shrimp and dark chocolate and lucuma mousse. The pastales, or pastries, were sweet tamales.
In Urubamba in the Sacred valley, Chef LeeKong took another cooking lesson starting at a small farm . She enjoyed yerba buena and local mints. They made quinoa lomo saltado (the Chinese stir fry dish ) with alpaca meat. She made a tirado – a trout with leche de tigre- the leftover fiery liquid at the bottom of the ceviche bowl and local river seaweed. She visited the volcanic salt evaporation ponds were rose, white and brown salts are collected.
She visited the “Wednesday” market and saw a wide variety of proteins.
Chef LeeKong was intrigued by this adventure. Her trip to Peru lacked only one thing- “enough time.”
So where does world traveler, an expert in the exotic food, go next to explore the world of food? “Japan,” she said without hesitation. “It has everything- a dynamic population, a growing and sophisticated food scene, great culinary training and rich and varied regional culinary tradition.”
We’ll be waiting to talk to her about it.