What do quinoa, potatoes, tomatoes and hot peppers have in common? They were all indigenous crops cultivated by the Incas in Peru hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in 1535. Peruvian cuisine, according to Peruvian-born, personal chef, Nico Vera, is unique in its incorporation of food traditions from the five vibrant cultures that have shaped Peru: the Inca, Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese. Vera, who blogs at Pisco Trail will be one of the featured chefs at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (along with Annie Somerville of Greens, Thy Tran and KQED’s own Leslie Sbrocco). The Garden show runs March 20-24. Vera's cooking demo will be March 21, at 3:00 pm, on the Sequoia Stage.
In an interview with Bay Area Bites, Vera shared that he has been cooking since he became his mother’s “sous chef” at the age of 10. Since Vera moved to San Francisco in 2000, his mission has been to promote appreciation of Peruvian food and drink through pop-ups, dinners, classes and recipes on his blog. He’s been a regular at 18 Reasons, plus guest blogger on Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s blog with a five-part series that examined Peruvian cooking through "Five Courses, Five Cultures, and 500 Years of Fusion."
INTERVIEW (edited for length and clarity)
How have the several cultures you mentioned impacted the culinary history of Peru?
The Spaniards introduced onions, limes, grapes and spices like cumin and oregano. They also brought over African slaves who worked on sugar plantations or for wealthy families in Lima. And the Africans brought their own cooking styles. For example, the dish anticucho, (a kind of shish kebab) is a popular street food of barbequed beef hearts marinated with vinegar, hot pepper and lime and cooked on a wooden skewers. Long ago, when the upper classes discarded the tough cuts of beef, the poorer people, (the African slaves) would cook them because nothing should go to waste. Now people line up for anticuchos every night at street carts and food stalls.
What dish will you be preparing for the San Francisco Garden Show?
Aji de Gallina, a famous creamy, Peruvian chicken stew with hot peppers, that is always prepared for special events, even though it’s slow cooked and pretty laborious. It’s a distant relative of blancmange, a nourishing European dish dating from the Middle Ages made with chicken, sugar, rice and milk. When that dish made its way to Peru, hot peppers were added which changed its color and flavor completely. This chicken stew brings up a very special memory for me.
Can you share that special memory?
When I was about 10 years old, on my Dad’s birthday, my Mom made her chicken stew for dinner. And as often happened in the small third world town where we lived, during the meal, the electricity went out, so we ate the chicken stew in the dark. Eating that chicken without seeing it heightened the senses. The flavors were so intense and beautiful that I fell in love with Peruvian food in that moment and decided I had to learn to cook it.
As a Peruvian mixologist, you are always creating variations on pisco cocktails. Can you explain its history?
Pisco is a grape brandy popular since the late 1500’s. Grapes were not native to Peru. They were brought by the Spaniards who established some of the first vineyards in the Americas. The wine they produced there was so good that the King of Spain banned its production – he was worried that it would compete with Spanish wine. So instead, the grapes were made into the first distilled spirit in the Americas.
When this new spirit was created, it became very popular all over Peru. It was considered medicinal, like brandy. In 1920, the National Drink of Peru, the Pisco Sour, was created in Lima (by an American bartender who lived there) mixing two parts Pisco, one part simple syrup, one part lime juice, and egg whites, shaken with ice, and served strained with drops of Angostura bitters
How do you play with creating new pisco cocktails?
I try to tweak it using different herbs like thyme. Or I infuse the sugar syrup with hot peppers, habanero or chicory or infuse the pisco with coffee beans. It’s alchemy. At the Garden Show, I’ll demonstrate Pisco Punch, (which has a long historical connection to San Francisco).
We’ve discussed a main dish and cocktail, can you describe a special Peruvian dessert?
There are so many, but one of my favorites is flan with quinoa. It has a different texture. Historically, when the Spaniards brought over sugar cane in the eighteenth century, everything changed . In Lima at that time, there were lots of convents and it was the nuns who specialized in making extravagant desserts for holidays and celebrations. And what’s great is that they were good record keepers and wrote everything down. But they used some odd measurements. Like a recipe might say: take 2 soles (the Peruvian currency) worth of eggs. So we have to do some detective work to figure out how many eggs 2 soles would have bought back then.
We often don't hear about what people eat for the first meal of the day. I'm curious about a typical Peruvian breakfast.
My favorite breakfast is pan con chicharron, a fried pork sandwich with sweet potatoes, and cafe con leche.
Are you planning to open a restaurant some day?
Right now, I'm not sure, because I’d miss interacting with diners, which means a lot to me. When I do pop-ups at 18 Reasons I’m not just back in the kitchen. I’m up front with the guests, plating, serving. I tell them the stories behind what they’re eating.
Can you recommend any Peruvian restaurants for people who want to sample this cuisine?
San Francisco has many Peruvian restaurants. Two of my favorites are very different from each other:
Mi Lindo Peru is a hole-in-the-wall on Mission, where you feel like you are eating in someone’s home.
I’m writing a book now. I’ve been passionately collecting stories and recipes from my Mom; finding out what Peru was like back when she was a child; it's a memoir that takes a girl’s perspective.
You picked a recipe for Loma Saltado to share with Bay Area Bites readers, because of its Chinese influence?
Chifa is what they call Chinese food in Peru. It’s been around for 150 years. After the Afro-Peruvians won their freedom, immigrants from China came to work on the farms and plantations, bringing ingredients such as ginger and soy sauce and woks. When my family would go out to eat we would always go to eat Chifa and sit at big round tables. In Peru, there are thousands of Chinese restaurants. Now when I travel to cities like New York and Vancouver, I make a point to visit their Chinatowns, because they make me feel at home.
Lomo Saltado is one of the most important dishes in the history of Peruvian cuisine — it’s the first time that ingredients from China like ginger and soy sauce were mixed with Peruvian aji amarillo hot peppers, and the fusion is a truly savory and spicy Chifa dish.
Though there are many variations of Lomo Saltado, the main ingredients are beef, red onions, tomatoes, and French fries. The real key to this dish, however, is the seasoning — in addition to salt, garlic, and ginger, I prepare a sauce with soy sauce, white wine vinegar, oyster sauce, and aji amarillo. The recipe here is from my mom, but the addition of the oyster sauce was inspired by Gaston Acurio’s version of Lomo Saltado at La Mar.
INGREDIENTS FOR THE STIR-FRY
• 1/2 lb. beef (see notes below)
• 1 tablespoon canola oil
• 1 red onion
• 1 tomato
• 1 clove garlic
• 1 small piece of ginger
• 1 bag of frozen French fries
• salt to taste
• green onion and cilantro for garnish
• 1 lime
INGREDIENTS FOR THE SAUCE
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1/2 teaspoon aji amarillo paste
• 4 teaspoons white wine vinegar
• 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
In addition to the ingredients above, you’ll need a skillet for stir-frying and a bowl to mix the sauce.
1. Preheat the oven and follow the instruction to bake the French fries, usually at 450°F for 30 minutes or so. You can continue with the preparation that follows while the fries are baking, but wait until they are done before stir-frying the beef.
2. Mince the garlic and ginger. Chop the cilantro and cut the green onion into rings. Slice the tomato into six wedges. Peel the red onion, cut in half, and cut each half in quarters and separate onion layers into leaf-like slices. Cut the lime in half.
3. In a small bowl, prepare the sauce by mixing together the soy sauce, vinegar, aji amarillo, and oyster sauce.
4. Cut the beef into medium size strips.
5. When the fries are done, remove from oven.
6. Heat canola oil in skillet over medium to high heat.
7. Season the beef strips with salt and stir-fry the beef in skillet, about 30 seconds.
8. Add the garlic and ginger, stir-fry about 30 seconds.
9. Add the onions and tomatoes, stir-fry about 30 seconds.
10. Add the fries and prepared sauce, stir-fry about 30 seconds.
11. Turn off heat and mix in the green onion and cilantro, stir-fry about 30 seconds.
12. Serve immediately and squeeze juice of half a lime over dish.
Lomo means tenderloin en español, but other cuts of beef will work well as long as you don’t overcook them. For example, I like using a New York strip and sometimes a top sirloin. The beef strips should be of even thickness and not too long, that way they will cook uniformly. Once the sauce is prepared, the fries are baked, and all the ingredients are chopped or sliced, the cooking happens very fast. The timing in the steps above is only an estimate, what is most important is not to overcook the beef or tomatoes. Also, you should only add the amount of sauce and fries to balance all the ingredients. The end result should be tender beef, crispy onions, moist tomatoes, and warm fries — nothing should be too soft or soggy.