Initiation to an unfamiliar culture often occurs via food. On recent visits to a farmers' market in South Pasadena to take photos for a Food Destinations write-up, a stand named The Happy Inka kept tugging at my eyes. Wanting to know more I looked up Wikipedia and was surprised to learn that hitherto little-known Peruvian cuisine has recently exploded on the world gastronomic scene. This seemed worth exploring. On the next visit I made a beeline for the stand to peruse the several dishes plated for display.
There were basically two dishes, the first being a choice of shrimp, pork, chicken or beef saltado, a type of stir-fry with tomatoes, onions and the distinctly Peruvian aji amarillo, or yellow chile, and splash of vinegar. Lomo saltado (beef tenderloin), usually eaten mixed with rice and fried potatoes, is a Peruvian classic. The second was chaufa, a type of fried rice with the same choice of meats, eggs and scallions, seasoned with soysauce in addition to the aji. I tried the shrimp chaufa and it was delicious.
Both saltado and chaufa reflect cooking techniques and products bought to Peru by Chinese immigrants. Peruvian cooking, I learned through further readup on Epicurious, is the ultimate fusion cuisine, a spicy hybrid of Andean food mixed with Spanish, African, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences.
Indeed, at the bottom of the menu I spotted ceviche, Peru's flag dish and epitome of that blend: aquatic resources from Peru's Pacific coast, Inca hot peppers, onion and citrus from Spain, the Japanese approach to preparing fish. I asked for a pint of ceviche de pescado, which was fished out of an icebox. The opposing contrast of ice cold lime marinade and fiery hotness of chile shook me out of any lingering summer langour. The opaque morsels of cured white fish were but distant cousins to Japanese sliced raw fish; the flavors were much stronger and sharper than the original. None of the easy familiarity between shoyu and sashimi, like that of a longtime husband and wife; ceviche is fraught with tension of strangers in co-existence that does not allow complacency.
Preparation is elemental. Just combine the ingredients and watch the transformation.
Peruvian Ceviche (serves 6)
-2 pounds of lean, white fish such as sea bass or snapper
-juice of a dozen squeezed limes, approximately 1 cup
- tablespoon of aji amarillo paste, or several good shakes of Tabasco sauce
-1/2 purple onion, thinly sliced
Cut the fish into smallish cubes. Place in a bowl and cover with lime juice. Mix in salt, chile paste and onion slices. Wrap and refridgerate for at least 6 hours until the fish is "cooked" -- it should look white and nearly opaque. It is important to use the lime juice immediately after squeezing or there will not be enough acidic content for proper curing. In any case, it is best to use sashimi-grade fish.
(This recipe is but a blueprint. Experiment by substituting the limes with lemons and oranges, adding diced tomatoes or red pepper for color and crunch, garnishing with chopped cilantro or popcorn.)