Food Fit for the Gods
The kitchen in my childhood home in Peru was a large room covered with blue-and-white tiles and inset with ample windows opening onto a lush garden nourished by water from a series of aqueducts designed by the Incas. From that garden came many of the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that my mother used in her cooking. My favorite time of day, when I was growing up, was noon, an hour or so before lunch was served, when the kitchen became the center of household activity. I loved watching my mother create, as if by magic, one of her extraordinary meals. The menu had been discussed with the three kitchen maids early in the morning, at an elaborate planning meeting in the dispensa, the food storage room. By the time my mother arrived in the kitchen to cook, everything had been washed, chopped, and carefully positioned on the countertops. She moved around like a well-rehearsed dancer, and we stood by silently as she mixed, stirred, and sniffed; she never tasted the food as she worked, relying instead on color, texture, and scent to create our sumptuous midday meal.
Mother was equally creative at the market, where she always sought the "perfect ingredients". She'd scan the piles of vegetables and fruits, choosing the best limes, tomatoes, and peppers, the finest potatoes and corn, the most luscious papayas and cherimoyas. The women of the town taught her how to tell when a pineapple was ready to eat or if a potato had been stored for too long, and she pinched, sniffed, and shook the produce with the rest of them before making her choices. These exotic crops were a challenge to her—a challenge she relished as much as she relished her new country.
The Chimu and Paracas peoples, whose cultures thrived at least 2,000 years ago in what is now Peru, may well have been the region's first gourmands. Evidence of their interest in food can be found in the pottery and weaving they left behind—some of which bears images of local gastronomic riches, among them not only potatoes, cherimoyas, and other vegetables and fruits, but also the bounty of the Pacific. The Incas, a thousand years or so later, made potato-themed pottery of their own—and they, too, appreciated seafood: Those who lived in Cuzco, in the heart of the Andes, are said to have had fresh fish rushed from the ocean by runners who crossed the mountains in relay on a sophisticated system of roads known as the Inca Trail.
When the Spanish arrived in the region in the 16th century, they found a multifaceted native cuisine based on foodstuffs new to them, including many varieties of potatoes, corn, tomatoes, and peppers—and even guinea pig, called cuye, favored to this day by some Peruvians for its mild, sweet flesh. The Spanish, in their turn, introduced their own style of cooking, with its Roman and Moorish influences, to the area, and imported a host of products previously unknown in the New World—among them citrus fruits, grapes, almonds and hazelnuts, wheat, pork, and beef. As the seat of the Spanish viceroyalty for South America for nearly 300 years (until it gained its independence in 1821), Peru became a capital of commerce and political power, able to support a class of wealthy citizens with the resources to indulge in fine food, and a sophisticated regional cuisine developed. In the 19th century, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants began introducing their own culinary traditions, expanding the vocabulary of the Peruvian kitchen still further.
In the small town where I lived as a child—as everywhere else in Peru—each household had its signature dishes. These might be anything from an everyday soup or a variety of hot pepper sauce to an elaborate way of making parihuela—a fresh seafood stew. Among the classics of Peruvian cuisine common to almost every town were (and still are) a local version of escabeche (fried fish served with a sauce of vinegar, onions, peppers, carrots, and chunks of fresh cheese) and ceviche—raw seafood marinated in lime juice. Another typical preparation is pastel de choclo, a kind of "shepherd's pie", with a stuffing of pigeon meat, raisins, olives, onions, and peppers beneath a topping of grated corn mixed with eggs. (My mother always added a sprinkling of pine nuts on top.) Still another favorite is cau-cau, a stew made of finely chopped tripe, onions, peppers, and cumin. Minced mint leaves are added
to the stew just before it is served, and it is always accompanied by rice or boiled potatoes.
When, towards the end of her life, my mother was sick, we worked together on a small cookbook as a legacy for her grandchildren. I realized then just how vast was her cooking repertoire and how much pleasure she had derived from creating our family's culinary heritage. Now, after having lived for many years in America, first as a college student and later as a housewife and professional writer and art historian, I often long to return to Peru and enjoy the comforts of its subtle yet deeply enriching cuisine. Every time I do visit, I seek out the textures and the flavors of my youth, finding solace as I rediscover the heartening scents that permeate the streets around mealtimes—and as I again sample my favorite dishes, which simply don't taste the same anywhere else.
After leaving her native Italy as an adult to settle in Peru with her new husband in the early 1940s, my mother quickly became fascinated by the indigenous cuisine—taking an interest in both the humble country dishes prepared by our maid Saturnina and the more elegant fare she encountered at the homes of Peruvian friends. Merging the influences of her adopted country with the traditions of her homeland and the refined cuisine of her many French cookbooks, she created an eclectic and personal style of her own. She seldom followed a recipe, preferring to improvise as she cooked.
She had little choice: When my mother came to Peru, no Peruvian cookbook of any significance existed. Instead, recipes were passed from mother to daughter—or, like beauty secrets, were exchanged cautiously by word of mouth, as symbols of friendship. I remember that one of my classmates got into trouble because she revealed to me her mother's special method of preparing mazamorra, a dessert made of fruit and purple corn.
Today, all of that has changed; Peruvians have developed a great interest in the study and promotion of local cooking. Josie Sison Porras de De la Guerra, widely considered the grande dame of Peruvian cuisine, for instance, has devoted more than 35 years to investigating its origins and collecting recipes—over 700 of which she reproduces in her self-published book, El Perú y sus manjares, un crisol de culturas, or Peru and Its Delicacies: A Melting Pot of Cultures. Filled with cultural and sociological anecdotes, this wonderful volume is arranged so that each chapter contains the most coveted recipes nurtured for centuries by a particular family or convent. "I knew all these people," she tells me, "and when they found out I was doing this book, they tried to outdo each other by giving me their very best recipes, some of which have been undiscovered until now and are true family secrets."
A handsome, statuesque woman of boundless energy, De la Guerra traces her roots to the first Peruvian Indian princess to marry a noble Spaniard. It was a marriage immortalized by a famous painting in the Church of La Compañia de Jesús at Cuzco, southeast of Lima. The same painting also provides a detailed visual record of both the food products brought by the Spaniards to Peru and those that Peru offered to Europe in return. "See all that we gave the world," says De la Guerra, employing the reverential tone that Peruvians often assume when they speak about food, as she points to the image of a pineapple in the Cuzco painting.
Later, in her living room in Lima, De la Guerra outlines for me the evolution of one Peruvian dish. Carapulcra, she tells me, can be traced back to the Inca Empire. The name, she believes, is derived from a word meaning stew in the southern Peruvian Quechua language; the principal ingredient is chuño—the "freeze-dried" potatoes that have been dehydrated in the Andes since ancient times (see box, above right). The Incas prepared the dish with guinea pig, and the Spanish adapted it to their own tastes by substituting pork for guinea pig and adding wine. De la Guerra calls these iconic, eternal dishes manjares. It's a difficult word to translate, but the sense is clear: A manjar is a food fit for the gods.