In a place where you would image every type of food to exist, it’s pretty amazing that Sen Sakana is New York City’s first Nikkei kitchen. The Peruvian Japanese restaurant—you got that right, Peruvian Japanese—is actually a cuisine that is over a hundred years old. Wondering how on earth the cuisines of two countries that are an ocean apart might co-mingle in the concept of Sen Sakana in the heart of Manhattan?
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The gastronomy of Peru is as complex as it is rich. From its indigenous Incan cuisine, to the influences of the Spanish, and even the Italians and the Chinese, Peru has a history of embracing the ingredients and traditions of others with their own. A sort of believe in strength in diversity when it comes to food that today has Peru at the top of the world’s food destinations.
When Japanese immigrants made their way over to Peru in the 1900’s to work on the country’s railroads, they eventually intertwined their traditions with that of the Peruvians, resulting in today’s Nikkei style of cuisine that Peru is well-known for.
At Sek Sakana guests can experience dishes like Tiradito, where sashimi meets ceviche, like big eye tuna rolled with sprouts and pickled radish, nestled atop a spicy jalapeno cilantro sauce; the Causa Onigiri,the Peruvian take on a Japanese rice ball with yellow and purple potatoes; Salchipapas, Peru’s classic street food with miso mustard and kurobuta sausage; and a Japanese chicken curry empanada. Stop in for lunch or dinner at Sen Sakana to give these modern Nikkei dishes a try, and you’ll get a taste of Peru’s deeply rooted history of innovative cuisine.
Sen Sakana is located at 28 West 44th Street, New York, NYC 10036. For more information about the restaurant, visit it’s website.
I believe there’s more for local travel enthusiasts to learn about international dishes just by stepping into their backyard than by reading a second-hand account in a book, blog or television program about a country first. That’s why this series of articles will be based on the advice of local business owners whose cultural influences have not simply intrigued- but shaped them, allowing the essence of a culture to become their very livelihood.
It’s because getting travel advice about international food that comes from the heart of someone that shares for a living forms an experience you can trust. It’s bound to feed more than your senses. A peer or friend’s opinion, or even a review on where the best international dishes are in your backyard might be a place to start, but read on in our series for the thoughts of true connoisseurs who’ve been influenced abroad and now share their learnings.
Our hope is that getting to know cultures through food favorites of local businesses will guide you to stumble upon something new that you didn’t know you’d love.
Read on as four Austin business owners share their favorite dishes, including why they enjoy the food, and where they remember it best prepared abroad.
From Colombia: Ajiaco con Pollo
Astrid is a local artist that owns Astrid’s Colombian Jewelry, a handmade shop in Austin featuring beautiful accessories from bracelets to earrings and necklaces made from natural materials like nuts and fruits, like in her native Colombia. Her favorite dish is a soup called Ajiaco con Pollo, from her state of Cundinamarca. Ajiaco is made with chicken, green peas and carrots, and different kinds of potatoes, including yellow or Andes potatoes, whichever can be found locally in Austin.
The soup is made with guascas, a plant from the daisy family used for seasoning, which can be found in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in the eastern Colombian Andes Mountains. “Colombia has a [rich] variety of food depending on where you are located… and everything is pretty yummy,” Astrid shared. She’s enjoyed this dish in her home state, and for the travel enthusiast recommends the small Colombian town of Machetá in the state of Cundinamarca because of it’s good food, but also amazing views, friendly people and outstanding landscapes.
From Cuba: Sandwich Cubano
When we asked Iska, the owner of south Austin’s genuine Cuban eatery Cuba512, formerly Guantanamera, what his favorite Cuban dish was, he said it was most definitely the Sandwich Cubano—the quintessential Cuban Sandwich because it’s so simple and delicious. “The ingredients inside a Cuban sandwich are simple: ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and every Cuban sandwich needs Cuban bread,” he shared. He also explained that although comparable to French or Italian bread, Cuban bread has a different baking method and ingredient list which makes the difference.
A native of Cuba, he recalled having the best Cuban sandwich in the city of Bayamo. He said that there the sandwich he had was made with pork, lechon in Spanish, roasted with firewood from the local hills. When considered, it’s understandable why the version of the sandwich served at Cuba512—coupled with a thoughtful ambiance and signature drinks like a crisp mojito—the restaurant maintains an esteemed level of authenticity to get you as close to Cuba as you can get in Austin.
From Jordan: Maamoul (also known as Kombe)
Ali, the owner of food truck Austin’s Habibitucked below a towering skyscraper downtown, turned his childhood passion and family legacy into a local eatery. He serves the type of fresh, healthy and flavorful food that the eastern Mediterranean is known for, from Greece to the Middle East. While he features a number of savory dishes for locals to try, he also recalls his favorite dessert—a small, shortbread cookie called Kombe, in Turkey, but also known as Maa’moul in Jordan, where he had the best version of the treat because of its tasty and plentiful when served.
A native of the eastern Mediterranean, he especially enjoys Greece, a reason for the Greek influence in the dishes he serves. When he came to Austin, he decided to open the same type of eateries he grew with abroad while working with his father. Offering a taste of home, he also seems to remind us that no meal is ever complete without dessert. Curious cultural enthusiasts should stay tuned as Austin’s Habibi will be opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant soon.
Miguel owns and runs the downtown Austin food truck Llama’s Peruvian Creole. Although his favorite Peruvian dish varies, he’s a big fan of Lomo Saltado, which his eatery also serves up. The dish is “a beef tenderloin stir-fry over steak fries and garlic rice to soak it all up,” he shared. In the version served at Llama’s, Miguel includes homemade sauces on the side, such as Rocoto, Huancaina, and Anticuchera.
“I’ve tried Lomo Saltado all over Perú. Besides finding quality beef perfectly cooked and smoky, the Huacatay sauces I encounter in Perú are uniquely delicious,” he shared. In his book, Perú always wins when it comes to ingredients because there’s nothing like a well-prepared dish served in the coastal South American country. He invites curious cultural enthusiasts to stop by Llama’s on September 4th for a free sample during its first annual Lomo Saltado Day.
Ready to explore more about Colombia, Cuba, Jordan or Peru? Let these few favorites be your guide. In Austin, if you look closely there is a slice of so many countries that you can start to explore locally.
When Chef Julio-Cesar Flórez set out to introduce Peruvian cuisine to Austin’s already popular food scene a few years ago, he had a couple things in his favor besides tremendous talent. First, he would become the city’s first Peruvian chef, and second, the capital of his native Peru and place of birth, Lima, was becoming not just the gastronomic capital of the America’s but known as the best food city in the world. It seemed to only be a matter of time before Peru’s cuisine, so rich in culinary history, would be ushered into Austin, the world’s live music capital.
Starting his professional career working in the banking industry, by 25 Chef Julio-Cesar felt something was missing in his pursuits. It wasn’t just his creative spirit, but a deep connection to his cultural background and family that stirred a desire to become a chef. “Food and cooking was a big part of my life and what made me who I am today,” he shared. “I remember that my grandma, whose from Cajamarca, cooked delicious food when we went and visited her, or traveling around Salaverry, outside the town of Trujillo where my dad is from. We’d also travel around Lima and the coast of Peru to eat different things. He’s been my biggest influence. It was [experiencing] the food of the people of Peru, and even though it had been in front of me all my life, I had just fallen in love with it.” The people of Cajamarca are known for their dairy and cheese-making craft, and Trujillo is Peru’s third largest city and where cebiche (ceviche) is first thought to have originated.
You’d need a history lesson to understand the rich complexity of Peru’s gastronomy—from indigenous Incan and Creole cuisine, to Spain’s colonial rule beginning in the fifteenth century, to even ingredients from the Italians. Peru embraces all of it; most especially, its Asian influences from the Chinese and Japanese who settled in the country during the 1800s and eventually married their own recipes with Peruvian ingredients. The result: Peru’s popular Chifa and Nikkei styles. It’s pinpoints like these of Peru’s intertwined cuisine that are alone telling of its deeply rooted history, and just one of the reasons why Austin could no longer miss a taste for it.
It was through working behind the scenes and as a cook and then chef at restaurants for several years that Chef Julio-Cesar became trained in the ways of the professional kitchen—including those that carried their influences into Peruvian food culture. From his time as executive chef of La Sombra Bar & Grill, a Latin-American restaurant where he first introduced Peruvian flavors and preparation, to downtown Austin’s Spanish tapas bar Malaga where he served as executive chef, followed by shaking up the menu at Austin’s Caribbean-inspired Isla to offer Peru’s popular and innovative dishes as chef de cuisine.
These days, you’ll find Chef Julio-Cesar’s menu still featured at Llama’s, a popular Peruvian food trailer downtown, and he now serves as Sous Chef and runs the kitchen at Lucky Robot, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, a food culture that has undeniably influenced the craft of Peruvian Nikkei.
When he crafted the menu at Isla, for example, he featured dishes and flavors that he grew up with as a kid, or that he experienced on trips back to Peru. “I am from Lima, so you would find a lot of more modern touches to some dishes; some Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese influences. My parents come from the northern city of Trujillo where the food is simpler but extremely delicious,” he explained. Chef’s cebiche, ceviche as it’s commonly known to Americans, for example, is prepared like it would be in his parent’s hometown, using longer cuts of the fish rather than cubed, and it isn’t made with a ton of cilantro as you might typically find in other regions or cultures.
In fact, on one of his recent trips to Peru going as an experienced chef, he found himself examining the food differently than from traveling back the first time, he said. Peruvian cuisine, he has found, is not only delicious because of its people’s cooking skills, but because the daily ingredients they use are of such high quality. He explained, “I noticed that things like rice taste more like rice there—the sweet potato tastes more like sweet potato in that its sweeter and earthier. Onions, limes, herbs, all taste more like themselves. Fruits and vegetables are picked ripe at their peak, so they taste amazing, and because Lima and Trujillo are coastal cities, you find the seafood is extremely fresh and high in quality.”
In whatever capacity he serves, Chef Julio-Cesar seems to carry the spirit of Peruvian cuisine with him in his own quest for quality. For example, while at Isla he would always search for that better ingredient, so that this important part of his culture was reflected on the plates he shared with his customers. The kitchen would stretch boundaries by taking a modern approach to cooking, but also always respected the tradition behind the food.
“When you ate something at Isla, whether it was a traditional dish or a modern interpretation of a dish or preparation, we wanted you to think, ‘This tastes like Peru,’” he told me.You could also feel Peru at Isla, where he said many times customers would comment to him that the décor and music playing made them feel like they were in an old district of Peru called Barranco, known for its Bohemian culture and lifestyle.
During Chef Julio-Cesar’s many visits to Peru, he’s traveled through the entire coast and even crossed its neighboring borders into Ecuador and Chile. While it would be obvious to say his favorite thing to do is eat while traveling, it’s actually watching how people live and go about their lives that tops his list. “You can see the culture and the heart of a community that way, and then you taste it in their food,” he said.
It’s this kind of warm, dedicated and inclusive way of life in Peru, that Chef Julio-Cesar likes to carry within him in every role as chef. Like Peru has seen the wondrous ways that other cultures have enhanced its own regional cultures, it’s become a signature of Chef Julio-Cesar to merge local Austin ingredients and flavors into his cooking while keeping the spirit of Peruvian cuisine. Having lived in Austin for over 17 years, it’s a trait that he feels not only shows respect for the city’s local tastes, but like Peru’s now world-renown food scene would make Austin’s even richer.
Recently, we chatted with Chef Carlos Delgado, Head Chef of José Andres’ Restaurant China Chilcano about some of his favorite things to see or do in Peru, and what spirit about the Peruvian people and way of life travelers could take back with them.
A native of the district of Callao, along the coast west of Peru’s capital city Lima, and its main seaport, Chef Carlos grew up familiar with the attractions of the city. “I grew in the Port of Lima, so Lima itself is a food city and there you’re going to learn about the food and culture,” he shared.
“[Visitng Peru,] You’re able to find everything in one country, and it’s a surprise to many people—from the Amazon Rainforest, to a coast full of beaches, and you even have the Andes Mountain Range and imporant historical sites like Macchu Picchu,” he explained.
Within an hour or two in the plane you’re not just transported from city to city, but rather visitors can almost literally be transported back in time to a way of life and social customs preserved for centuries in Peru’s small towns and regions. Even the way people have traditionally cooked and dressed for centuries, shared Chef Carlos. “What shines the most about Peru is the culture. The culture behind where the people are from and why they do things a certain way.”
Although in cosmopolitan or urban cities like Lima most people wear western-style clothing, for example, in more rural areas or villages people still often wear traditional clothing based on their regional background. Many customs are fused with influences from pre- and post-Spanish colonial and native Incan traditions.
When it comes to the way of life of Peruvian people, travelers will notice how leisurely and united the spirit of Peru is. We’re so used to being busy here [in America], but in Peru the culture is more slow-paced, he explained. I can agree, in the U.S. its common culture to be driven by our work schedules. We usually only slow down when we’re on vacation, or take the opportunity to spend true quality time with family when we have the time to travel. Chef Carlos notes that in Peru this type of quality time is very much a part of everyday life. In fact, it’s these cultural values that Peruvian families share together that influence their children. Traveling to Peru, you’ll often see families working and just spending the day together.
“The kids are still doing things their parents did, and that their parents did. You go anywhere in Peru, or Lima for example, and you’ll see the mom and dad, sons and daughters out doing things as a family. Those kids are going to be able to have that under their belt or in their heads as expertise. Like me, I had no clue I’d come to America at the age of twelve, but knowing I was in love with cooking and that I wanted to do that in Peru, here when I was 15 I knew I wanted to be a chef.”
When he was 15, Chef Carlos Delgado knew he wanted to be a chef. In Peru, we learned from him that kids cook, families do things together, and that Peruvian people carry a deep sense of pride in their food and multicultural influences, and embrace it all to make every day unique. A native of Callao, a district in the port city Lima, the capital of Peru, today Chef Carlos’ journey and influences has culminated in his role as Head Chef at Washington, DC restaurant China Chilcano.
“I grew up with a grandmother who was a cook, and she cooked every meal, every day. We treated [home and the process of cooking] like a restaurant, so we never got bored of what we ate,” Chef Carlos shared of his passion for expressing Peruvian food. He was born in a country where food is a part of the people. They eat every day, but each generation has a hand in daily meals, he explained. Each day, his family would see it as an opportunity to find good products, and then better products to incorporate into every meal.
It’s really the cultural norm for Peruvian children to play a part in food, in cooking, and in home life. Many children accompany their mothers to the market and help with meal preparation, he said cheerfully. “There is no Peruvian mom or Peruvian child who doesn’t know how to cook as a young kid. As a kid, whether you’re making it or helping to buy it, there isn’t a kid in Peru that isn’t involved in the cooking process of the family,” Chef shared.
At the restaurant, a creation of Chef José Andres and his talented team, you’ll find a hybrid of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous Peruvian cooking showcased in a trifecta of popular dishes. For those unfamiliar with Peruvian cuisine, these influences are deeply rooted in Peru through centuries of the migration, mingling and making of traditional cuisines with local Peruvian ingredients. A look at China Chilcano’s menu, you’ll find these cultural fusions displayed through Chinese Chifa, Japanese Nikkei and Peru’s Native Criollo Cuisine.
Peruvians always find inspiration though how diverse Peru is, Chef explained, and having his grandmother teach him all these things, had him only wanting to learn more; that’s why when he was just a kid he knew he wanted to be chef.
“Depending on the subject, there is criteria that you grow up with as part of the culture as a Peruvian to know what is really a good or fresh ingredient and what isn’t—it’s what makes us who we are because we have a wide variety of food,” he explained. “Peruvians are very needy when it comes to food,” and because of this they know to expect fresh ingredients all the time. Today, with the boom in Peruvian gastronomy topping the global food scene, you’ll find more than 80,000 restaurants in Lima alone, he told us. That’s not even including the hundreds of thousands of hidden gems tucked away from the crowds.
At China Chilcano, every dish has its own story. Each part of the menu showcases a part of Peruvian cuisine that has become influenced through Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous cultures of Peru. The whole story requires a history lesson that dates to at least to the 18th century, but as Chef Carlos explains at the restaurant, “whether it’s connecting or combing the two or three cuisines or simply allowing the original to come through, since we’re combing Chinese and [traditional] Peruvian ingredients some people unfamiliar with the history think that it’s fusion, but it’s not.” It’s more about culture, he explains.
The Chinese migrating to Peru, marrying their traditional dishes with Peruvian ingredients then the standard becomes normal to you, to me, to them. That’s how, after chatting with Chef Carlos, I understood what he meant: “This is Chinese-Peruvian, this is Chifa. All the dishes at the restaurant are representations of these stories.”
Even as Peru has become a popular food destination in recent years where you can sample these cuisines in its cosmopolitan cities, the Peruvian palette is even more diverse than even the stories shared through the dishes at the restaurant. “Lima has been the food capital of the world for the last four years, and young Chefs like me are showcasing that; and I’m from Lima, so I’m going to showcase it, but Peruvian cuisine goes beyond that. There is still the cuisine of the Amazon, and the Incas, for example, that still hold on to their own traditional culture.” At China Chilcano, there’s yet a wonderfully diverse gastronomy for a taste of modern-day Peru.
When it comes to defining dishes at China Chilcano, the “Aji Gallina is very homey; something a grandmother would make, and we’re still showcasing it a very traditional way. It’s not something you can really mask or redo,” Chef tells us. Another very popular dish, “Our ceviche—we take a lot of pride in it; we respect all the ingredients for what they are. We try to mimic as much as we can its traditional preparation as in Peru. This fish comes in fresh every day, and it lets us showcase the fish and the techniques to pronounce the fresh ingredients—to allow them to tell an actual story of Peru,” he explained.
By paying attention to the freshness of ingredients in its dishes, China Chilcano is true to Peru. Chef tells us, “At the end of the day we cook to tell a story. Whether you’ve gone or will go to Peru, you’re tasting quality. We’re able to leverage the back-end of things, like the trueness of preparation, to show you what Peru is about.”
Stepping into the restaurant, there’s an overall experience that visually echo’s the multicultural diversity of Peru. “We’re about telling you a story through the restaurant because there is a deep and unique story behind how Peru started, and how the Chinese and Japanese migrated and how these cuisines were born—how they are now under one umbrella in Peru” Chef explains about the features of the restaurant that evoke the senses through a balance of décor, ambiance, music, and especially the bold flavors and aromas; a slice of Peru in the U.S. capital.
In terms of the menu, the restaurant also strives to preserve the Peruvian norm for local ingredients. As Chef explains, while you can’t serve tomatoes, for example, on the menu year-round like in Peru because of its climate, his team respects the seasons of the Washington, DC area by incorporating its local and seasonal ingredients.
Take a visit to China Chilcano for lunch or dinner any given day and you’ll surely discover that each cuisine has its own persona, the sort of magical mingling of South American and Asian flavors. Bite into any dish and we think without words you’ll start to understand the vast and diverse history of Peruvian cuisine. “The presentation of the countries that migrated to Peru is something that Peruvians are very proud of because it makes our cuisine more diverse than if they never came,” chef shares proudly.
Chef José has said of Chef Carlos in this article from his website, “He’s the Head Chef at China Chilcano because he’s super talented … He’s gonna help us keep telling the story of HIS Peru to Washington, and to America, and to the world.”
We wholeheartedly agree, and he’s got the heart to do it.
For the Mid-Atlantic’s original Peruvian food truck owner Chef Manuel ‘Manny’ Alfaro, his love for Peruvian cuisine started after coming back to America upon finishing his culinary studies in Spain and meeting his Peruvian wife. For twelve year’s he lived and studied in Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain where the seafood is plentiful and wonderful, not unlike Peru’s own coastlines. But, for Puerto Rican-born Alfaro, he appreciated how the rich plant and animal life of Peru formed a gastronomy unified with Spanish and even Asian influences, forming a cuisine unparalleled.
When he started the food truck in 2012 in Washington, DC, he was still working at the time as a chef at restaurants in the region. It was then that Alfaro’s daughter Stephanie, tired of seeing her father working early mornings and late nights’ day-in-and-out, approached him one day about opening a food truck to sell what he really wanted to cook. Encouraged with the idea, he put in his notice at the restaurant and began getting things ready to bring his passion for Peruvian food to the masses.
“The biodiversity of Peru enables dishes you can’t create in Spain,” Chef Manny explained. “For example, Peru’s cuisine is influenced by the Spanish, but also its Creole cuisine is very much influenced by Chinese cooking styles that arrived in the 1800’s, and then before WWII the Japanese and after WWII the Italians were bringing in their styles of cooking.” Influences on Peruvian cuisine even include now common basics ingredients like onions, garlic, and olive oil.
Using a converted fire supply truck from a fire station, Chef Manny restored the vehicle after purchasing it from a retired captain in Rhode Island. He was a volunteer firefighter for two years while attending college in Florida, and on the side of the food truck he added a sign in honor of 9/11 first responders. On the side of the truck, you’ll also find “Peruvian Fusion Cuisine” with drawings of Peru’s famed Nazca Lines, as well as some of Peru’s best street foods served on board.
“We created the menu for the truck when we were in Peru the summer of 2012 and spent two monthly in Trujillo, the town my wife is from, with her family and worked with my nephew who is a trained chef in Peruvian seafood. We knew for a fact we needed to offer Peruvian flagships like the ceviche and Lomo Saltado.”
It was after Chef Manny started the food truck that he realized there was a sort of “food desert” when it came to Peruvian cuisine in Washington DC, which stretched the Mid-Atlantic. Upon opening, El Fuego became the first Peruvian food truck in the Mid-Atlantic region— along the entire east coast, from Georgia to New York.
“Back then, not even in NYC were there Peruvian food trucks. Now the scene is growing, with Peruvian food trucks and restaurants popping up every day,” Chef Manny explained. He feels a humble sense of pride in El Fuego helping to serve as a catalyst to usher in- and get Peruvian food off the ground in the Washington DC area.
In fact in 2012 and 2013, Peruvian government organizations took Alfaro and other purveyors of Peruvian cuisine in the world under their wings as the country started to promote the cuisine worldwide. In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has gained its wide popularity. He was also included in a worldwide promotion, selected among a few non-Peruvian people that are doing things they love in celebration of Peruvian culture—for him, it was the gastronomy.
The food truck is very popular with the lunch crowd in DC and Northern Virginia, including work hubs like Arlington and Tyson’s Corner. “We cook everything to order on the truck; we don’t bring the food pre-cooked from a restaurant or commercial kitchen, and besides the rice that we make plentiful in a rice cooker on the truck every dish on the menu that our customers order is cooked fresh, stir fried quickly over high heat—one Lomo Saltado takes 1 minute and 45 seconds to cook.”
You’ll find flavorful cooking sauces and other Peruvian street foods—to name a few—the stir-fried shrimp or Chicken Saltado, a braised pork sandwich called Pan con Chicharrón, a traditional chicken stew called Aji De Gallina; Choripan, and a chorizo sausage sandwich once named in Northern Virginia Magazine for its simplicity and ingenuity.
Also on the menu, Nikkei, a Peruvian-Japanese fusion or creole noddle stir fry dish, and Salchipapas, a snack a lot of people including kids have in Peru. It consists of a bed of freshly cooked crispy French fires topped with kosher hotdogs, and smothered in Heinz ketchup as well as a signature sauce made from Peruvian peppercorn called Rocoto.
The truck’s El Fuego Burger comes full circle in America. “Inspired by one of my favorite burger spots in Trujillo, Peru, the toppings on the burger are very Peruvian. This is an example of fusion with American culture. When you get a burger in Peru you get as many pieces of meat as you want and they’re blended. Our version of this popular street food incorporates a one-third pound black angus beef burger, and it’s been a big hit!”
It’s now been five years since Alfaro was named Peruvian Gastronomy Ambassador for the Washington DC area by the Ministry of Exterior Commerce and Tourism of Peru (MINCETUR). His love for Peruvian cuisine evident, Chef Manny was one year the only chef in the United States invited by the Peruvian government to attend MISTRUA Peru—the largest gastronomy festival in the country—to share Peruvian cooking demonstrations and tips.
“A few years ago, the largest commercial newspaper in Peru came out with a list of the top ten things Peruvians identify themselves with: one, Inca Kola, second, MISTURA, and three, the MINCETUR,” Chef Manny told us. He is grateful for the great honor of the help to his business at El Fuego from the promoters of Peruvian tourism and commerce.
“I was able to meet the minister [of Tourism], and they did and continue to do an amazing job to promote not only Peru as a culture, but also Peruvian food and the culture. Peru has won a lot of awards, and has done a great job promoting and exporting products worldwide. It’s really been able to give me the push to be able to give a real authenticity to every dish El Fuego creates.”
When you’ve gathered together a group of Austin’s international culture and travel enthusiasts to discover Peruvian cuisine, on the day of the country’s independence and at a table in a Spanish restaurant, it’s going to be nothing short of an extraordinary juxtaposition—and celebration.
MezzeCulture teamed up with Austin-based Executive Chef Julio-Cesar Florez in August for a ticketed 4-course introduction to Peruvian cuisine, and how it’s been inspired by Spanish culture. During the exclusive meal guided by Chef Julio, sixteen MezzeCulture guests greeted one another across a communal table and then listened intently to a story as each plate was described, during a unique two-and-a-half-hour Peruvian experience.
For a bit of a history lesson, it was in 1542 that the Spanish extended their rule over the Inca Empire and the Viceroyalty of Peru was established, of course only after a long campaign that took many years before the Incas, the mightiest empire in the Americas, could be subdued. Peru gained it independence from the Spanish in 1821.
It’s now been over 500 years since the Spanish first occupied Peru, and with it left numerous cultural influences from architecture to food. Over the centuries, Peruvian culture has also been shaped by its indigenous populations, including pre-Incan and Incan cultures, as well as influences from Japanese, African, and Italian cultures. We learned from Chef Julio that all of these influences were taken and mixed to form a modern-day creole, or criolla, culture in Peru.
For our diners, the dinner was an opportunity for Austinites to discover in their backyard why Peru is the gastronomic capital of the Americas and has been the number one culinary destination in the world for the past 5 years.
The menu was more than about eating good food, but rather and more importantly it was to learn about Peruvian culture through the food. The menu was culturally inspired by Chef Julio’s own experiences as a kid growing up in Lima, Peru’s capital city. “Lima was the viceroyalty of the Spanish empire in the 1500’s and it was referred to as ‘the city of kings,’ and each dish on the menu has direct Spanish influences whether it’s from ingredient or preparation,” he shared with us.
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Many times, the cuisine is a person’s first venture into a country’s culture. For all but one guest, who at one time had even hiked to the top of Peru’s acclaimed Incan citadel Machu Picchu, this pop-up dinner was the first time our diners had ever experienced Peruvian culture through food. It was clear from first seating that everyone was excited to try each dish—and some were surprised by some really new flavors. Austin doesn’t have a lot of places to experience Peruvian culture through its food, so the dinner was the perfect opportunity for curious palettes.
Over the course of the dinner, guests were also treated to a Pisco Sour and Chilanco de Pisco, the most popular cocktails in Peru. While pisco is considered a South American classic, especially in Peru, the Pisco Sour was actually invented in the early 1920’s by an American bartender in Lima named Victor Vaughen Morris. Over the next few years it underwent some changes before settling into the modern Peruvian recipe we know today.
The first course served was Cebiche Criollo, a fresh seafood dish made from Hamachi, a type of fish, octopus and fried calamari, with choclo, cancha, and aji limo leche de tigre. “I wanted [this dish] to represent the bounty of seafood the Pacific Ocean provides Peru,” the chef shared. One of the main reasons Peruvian food is so amazing is because of the importance of using very fresh and high quality ingredients. The Spanish octopus and Japanese Hamachi were both delicious and tender, well prepared and presented in this Peruvian dish.
Chupe de Camarones was the second course, a contemporary presentation of the chef’s favorite childhood dish, this was a chowder of gulf shrimp, potatoes, queso fresco, aji panca, and fried egg. As the chef explained, the dish originated in the Peruvian city of Arequipa which is known for having exceptional langoustines, little prawns. We also learned that there are many kinds of Chupe, or chowders, served in Peru but this is the most popular version of the dish we learned. “My mom used to make this when I was kid. [In fact,] I’d even ask her to make this for me on my birthday,” Chef Julio shared.
Next the team served up a dish called Aji de Gallina, a plate layered with pulled chicken, aji amarillo, potatoes, pecans, and an alfonso olive. The dish literally means, “chicken braised in aji peppers,” in Spanish. Chef Julio explained that it was was during his studies of Spanish cuisine that he also discovered an interesting fact about sauces like those used in this dish.
He shared with us that, “[while] going over the use of bead and nuts as a thickener of sauces, I realized the direct connection that Aji de Gallina, an emblematic Peruvian dish, had with Spanish tradition. I imagined Spanish immigrants in Peru cooking using their own techniques but with Peruvian ingredients, [essentially] coming up with different concoctions that [would lead] to the creation of Peru’s most popular dishes…”
He also explained that we could see the natural progression of the depth of Spanish influences on Peruvian cuisine when we looked at other modern-day Peruvian recipes like Romesco, Salmorejo, and Ajo Blanco, which are essentially all Spanish dishes thickened with bread and nuts.
While bread and nuts are commonly used as thickening agents in the Peruvian sauces, we learned about other similar techniques when making sauces like Huancaina, thickened with bread or crackers, or Ocopa, which uses animal crackers and peanuts rather than bread, as well as a sauce called Uchucuta, which includes a variation that is sometimes thickened using peanuts.
Lastly, our Peruvian explorers enjoyed a decadent dessert called Suspiro de Limeña made with manjar blanco, or vanilla custard, and a port meringue. While the introduction of ingredients like milk, nuts and honey date back to the times of the Spanish Empire, as the story goes the name for this dessert was given by poet Jose Galvez when it was invented by his wife a couple hundred years ago. In Spanish, the name literally translates to “A lady’s sigh” because, like the sound the dessert is sweet and light Galvez is credited to have said. Today, it is known as one of the most loved Peruvian desserts.
Within just a couple hours over dinner, Chef Julio took us on a culinary journey through coastal Peru. The end of dinner left us with more than full bellies—we received our first impressions of how a capital city like Lima and country not only won its independence, but also embraced the influences left behind to shape the distinct flavors and culinary style that make up the charming seaside nation it is today.
On the evening of Thursday, July 28th, Austin’s travel enthusiasts will join MezzeCulture and Executive Chef Julio-Cesar Florez Zaplana of downtown Austin’s Tapas bar and restaurant Malaga, for an exclusive 4-Course Spanish-Peruvian Chef’s Dinnerat 7:00 pm to explore Peruvian cuisine, and in celebration of Peruvian Independence Day.
This all-inclusive dinneris Austin’s ticket to discover in its backyard why Peru is the gastronomic capital of the Americas and has been the number one culinary destination in the world for the past 5 years.
Guests will experience how the last 500 years since Peru’s independence from the Spanish Empire have influenced it’s food culture, but also how the ingredients and distinct flavors in Peru’s capital Lima have shaped its culinary style, as a seaside city and the only country capital on the coast in all of South America.
“The menu is inspired by my own experiences as a kid growing up in Lima, Peru. Lima was the viceroyalty of the Spanish empire in the 1500’s and it was referred to as ‘the city of kings,’ and each dish on the menu has direct Spanish influences whether its from ingredient or preparation,” Chef Julio shared with us.
Travel and culture enthusiasts in Austin will experience quintessential aspects of Peruvian culture through the dishes Chef Julio will present, offering a small taste of Peru’s expansive gastronomy.
“Not only is Peru influenced by Spain, but also it’s indigenous population [pre-incan as well as Incan cultures], African, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian cultures. All of these influences were taken and mixed to form a creole culture ‘criolla’,” Chef Julio explained.
The exclusive four-course menu features fresh ceviche and fried calamari, gulf shrimp and a pulled chicken dish, as well as a decadent custard dessert, and 3 drinks will be demonstrated to accompany the meal. If you love to explore, you ought to know that Austin does not have a lot of places to experience Peruvian cuisine, so you don’t want to miss this!
Your $60 ticket includes:
4-course meal guided by Chef Julio
3 signature Peruvian drinks: 2 cocktails and a beer upon arrival