TRAVEL : QUIXO PERU : Special Interests
Cooking Peruvian Food in the U.S
Your Guide: Catherine Criolla
Many of the key ingredients of Peruvian food are unique products that are not readily available outside of Peru. I have found that most substitutions are unsatisfactory, but there are a few that work pretty well. Also, since the varieties of certain ingredients (e.g. potatoes, tomatoes, onions) are distinct there, you need to use special care in selecting which varieties available in the U.S. to choose.
As with all cooking, the most important advice is “know your ingredients.” To me this means know what each flavor is and what goes well with it. If you’re just starting out with Peruvian cooking, begin with a recipe that you understand, and that you have all the ingredients for. Taste each ingredient before you cook with it, and then, well, try it!
Ingredients and Substitutions
- Peruvian aji — this is one of the most basic building blocks of much Peruvian cuisine, and you will need to find some if you want to cook most Peruvian staples. Fresh ajies are best, although I have had pretty good luck substituting pureed Peruvian aji (chiles) for the fresh aji that is called for in the recipes. I do not find the dried ajies or the powdered aji to be good substutes for fresh aji although they can be useful for creative varations or to introduce a different flavor to some other kind of recipe. Note that when you substitute the pureed aji from the jar for the fresh aji you have to decide on the quantity by taste — just start with a very small amount and keep adding until it tastes the way you like it.
- Each aji is different. Don’t try to substitute one for another — e.g. aji Amarillo for aji panca or visa versa. Also, rocoto (hot peppers the shape and size of bell peppers, often served stuffed, especially in Arequipa) and aji (smaller, hotter, mostly used sliced or diced or pureed) are not interchangeable.
- Peruvian potatoes are fresh and flavorful and they come in many varieties, each with it’s own flavor and consistency. For most recipes (causa, lomo saltado, papa a la huancaina etc) choose yellow potatoes, which are quite tasty. My favorite for many things is Yukon Gold. It’s harder to find potatoes suitable for Peruvian soups — even the potatoes sold as Peruvian blue potatoes lack the substantial texture of those found in Peru. Experiment with locally available potatoes and you may find some good substitutions but no commercially available potatoes in the U.S. will ever be just right…
- Farmers cheese — Try substituting a top quality cottage cheese (choose large curd, and pick one you really like — cottage cheese vary tremendously in flavor) for queso fresco called for in such things as Huancaina sauce. You may have to leave it in the blender longer, and add the oil only slowly, but you can get a pretty good flavor! The Yanuq website suggests ricotta or feta, but I disagree strongly — they add different flavors altogether.
- Limon (lemon) — Peruvian limon is a small round greenish yellow lemon that looks very different from the lemons sold in the United States. Most people say that you should substitute key limes for limon and this works fine if you can get them. Small Mexican lemons (sometimes sold as Mexican limes) can also be similar. I have found, however, that in many recipes, you can get pretty good results using a regular lemon or a Meyer lemon. You may need to adjust the quantity a little bit to get the right flavor.
- Onions — Peruvian onions are small red onions with a milder flavor than most sold in the U.S. Try using a mild red onion for recipes where the onion is being cooked. For salsa criolla and other recipes where the onion is not cooked you might also try a mild sweet onion such as those sold as Vidalia or Hawaiian Sweet Onions. A tip for salsa criolla is to soak the sliced onion in cold water for a while — this can take some of the strongest flavor and smell from the onion (I learned this in Peru)
- Tomatoes — you should have good luck with good quality fresh roma tomatoes or (even better) with tasty heirloom varieties of Italian tomatoes. Don’t use tasteless salad tomatoes or those sold for looks rather than flavor.
Finding Peruvian ingredients
There are several hundred thousand Peruvians living in the United States, and you can get Peruvian ingredients in many of the larger cities (I get prepared Peruvian ingredients at El Camaguey Market on Venice Blvd in West L.A.). I’ve come across ads for
several internet stores that sell Peruvian prepared food but I haven’t tried any of them. I’ve also seen a website for a “chile woman” in Indiana who sells and ships plants of several varieties of aji (note that I haven’t yet tried her wares, but I’m planning on it).
The first thing to know is, if it’s in English and from a non-Peruvian source, it’s probably wrong (or at least incomplete and possibly poorly translated). There are exceptions (and some of the ‘wrong’ recipes are pretty good – just no longer Peruvian), but let the cook beware.
I mostly use recipes that friends and family have given me, but when I want to make something I don’t have a good recipe for, I usually go to Yanuq. I use the Spanish version, but the English translations are often pretty good. The instructions can be a little bit cryptic, however.
My rules of thumb for identifying recipes to avoid are:
- If it calls for jalepeño peppers or green chiles, it’s wrong, and it will probably taste bad too. I love Mexican and southwestern food and jalepeño peppers and particularly green chiles have important places in my kitchen pantry. They have completely different flavors than Peruvian ajies, however, and if you use them in ostensibly Peruvian recipes you will be combining ingredients that may not go well together. There is absolutely no substitute for the flavor of real Peruvian aji, and you cannot substitute one kind of Peruvian aji with another. Also, rocoto is not aji and vica versa.
- If it sounds icky, it probably is.
- If I don’t understand the directions, and can’t figure out what I’m supposed to have at the end, it probably won’t work.
Resources for learning about Peruvian food and how to cook it:
- Tony Custer's bookThe Art of Peruvian Cuisine (once only available in Peru) can now be purchased in the U.S. via Amazon. It provides a general introduction to the development of Peruvian cuisine and discusses some of the key ingredients of Peruvian food and their origins. You can buy it here.
- The Peruvian website Yanuq. In addition to their list of Peruvian recipes, their glossary is very useful.
- YouTube. Watch videos of cooking school students or restaurant cooks making classic recipes (these are in Spanish but you’ll get the idea)
or leave a message on the “blather” page if you have any questions or comments. Buen provecho! (enjoy)