Ceviche, lomo saltado, causa limeña—Peruvian cuisine is famous for its bold flavors and blended dishes inspired by African, Asian, and European cuisines. But whether you’re cooped up in a fishing village on the Pacific coast or dining atop a jagged peak in the Andes, you’ll find culinary lines in a handful of pantry mainstays that define Peruvian cuisine: chili peppers distinctive, legumes, tubers, and more.
As part of our SAVIOUR Explore the Cookbook Club Series The Latin American Cookbook (Phaidon, 2021), we asked celebrity Peruvian chef and author Virgilio Martínez to tell us about the ingredients that are still in his pantry and how we can make the most of them at home.
Thousands of years ago, the Incas grew potatoes in what is now Peru, but despite being introduced to Europe through the Columbian Exchange, the tuber only spread there. long before the 16th century. Translation? Peruvians have millennia of experience ahead of most countries in the world when it comes to spud savvy. Martínez is determined to look beyond the standard Russets and Yukons in favor of heirloom varieties that come in a dizzying array of shapes, colors, and sizes. “Most people have never had a real potato,” he says. Good potatoes are a staple of his favorite comforting potato dish, papas a la huancaína, in which slices of boiled potatoes are smothered in a pale yellow chili sauce spiked with queso fresco and evaporated milk. .
$15.79 for a 3 lb. bag of small purple potatoes, by Melissa
The backbone of all Latin American cuisines, from the Rio Grande to the southern tip of Chile, corn is the vital crop par excellence. Its wrappers swaddle tamales in Mexico and beyond, while its bristles are steeped into a medicinal brew. The vitamin- and antioxidant-rich corn kernels can be chopped into cobs and cooked, or dried and ground into flour as the basis of countless national dishes, from tacos to pozole to pupusas. The cobs can be used as fodder for livestock, which often ends up in corn-based dishes.
Monoculture and industrialization have had an impact on corn, just as they have on potatoes, making finding heirloom varieties a daunting challenge. But for the uninitiated, a can of hominy or a bag of maíz trillado (non-nixtamalized cracked corn) are great gateways into a world of Latin corn recipes. The latter stars in a creamy cachaça-based mash in Brazil called canjiquinha, one of hundreds of mouth-watering corn recipes to choose from in Martínez’s cookbook.
In Peru, where cocoa trees grow in abundance, chocolate is not just a dessert. “We eat chocolate anywhere, anytime,” says Martínez. “It is not a treat for Peruvians but rather an essential food.” In Latin American cuisines, chocolate is used in ways that some American cooks might find surprising: in Nicaragua, for example, cacao nibs are pulverized with dried corn kernels and mixed into a sweet drink called pinolillo, probably a descendant of the astringent chocolate drink of the Aztecs. called xocolatl (literally, “bitter water”). In Peru, a potato stew called carapulcra is finished with grated unsweetened chocolate, while in Mexico chocolate is an essential ingredient in many traditional moles.
The Incas called quinoa the “mother seed,” and farmers have planted quinoa seeds in the mountain valleys of the Andes for millennia, long enough to develop over 3,000 varieties of which very few are commercialized. Containing more protein than any other cereal – and the eight amino acids needed to be considered a “complete” protein – it has only recently made its way outside of Latin America. Many American cooks are familiar with the reddish and sandy varieties of quinoa, but Martínez says those are just the tip of the iceberg: there are also orange, purple, and black quinoas, each with its own texture and flavor.
tuberous wood sorrel is the scientific name for this hardy high mountain tuber that often has a shiny fuschia exterior. A staple in ancient Maya and Inca societies second only to potatoes, ocas are small and gnarled with a starchy interior. They can be tart, sweet or neutral depending on the variety and how they are prepared. Interestingly, because they thrive in mountainous soils, ocas are popular in New Zealand, where they are called New Zealand yams. Ocas become nutty and sweet when slowly simmered in chupes (stews), in which they are often bedfellows with other Andean tubers like ollucos (Ullucus tuberosus).
The Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse area on earth, with one in 10 known species of plants and animals found there. Yet surprisingly few Amazonian fruits, vegetables, and herbs are known outside the region. Martínez speaks poetically of the ambrosial properties of passion fruit and açaí as well as lesser-known fruits like cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum), whose flavor between pineapple and chocolate makes it a popular base for ice creams and smoothies. You won’t find fresh cupuaçu in the produce aisle, but frozen pulp is the next best thing.
The sudden trend of Chia belies the fact that the seed was enjoyed as early as the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations. It’s no surprise, considering it’s packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids in addition to protein, calcium, zinc and fiber, what many rightly call a “superfood” today. today. A relative of mint, chia seeds are nutty and crunchy when roasted and become slimy like tapioca when mixed with liquids. “The power of this little seed to make liquids thick and mucilaginous is amazing,” says Martínez.
Ají (“chile” in many Spanish dialects) is an essential ingredient in Peruvian stews, sauces and ceviches. Ají amarillo (yellow ají) is perhaps the country’s most iconic single ingredient, lending a sweet tang and sunny hue to a wide variety of dishes. “Put a spoonful of ají in a ceviche, and you have leche de tigre,” Martínez shares, adding that it’s equally delicious tossed into rice or a potato stew. Ají rocotó, which is dark red with a more earthy flavor than its yellow counterpart, has similar applications; both are easily found in potted paste form (look for those made in Peru), though Martínez swears by frozen whole ají, which contains no preservatives.
Long considered nothing more than a weed in the United States, amaranth is finally getting its due. The sweet, protein-rich leaves of the plant are delicious in salads, although amaranth seeds are more widely eaten in Latin America, ground into flour for tortillas, boiled whole to make porridge and thick drinks , or toasted and added to breakfast cereals for crunch. . In The Latin American Cookbook, Martínez writes that before colonization, amaranth was as widespread in the region as corn. “Anywhere you use rice or couscous, you can use amaranth,” he says. “It’s especially tasty when cooked like a risotto.”