Photo: Fruit market in the streets of Cusco, a town in the Peruvian Andes.
Peru is home to one of the great cuisines of the world, but many people only know its seafood and coastal influences. Chef Martin Morales just wrote a cookbook called Andina, in which he says you have to go a little higher than sea level to get to the soul of Peruvian food. He talked with Francis Lam about the culinary importance of the Andes Mountains. He also shared a recipe for Quinoa & Cheese Pudding (Pesque de Quinna).
Francis Lam: Your first book is called Ceviche. You have a popular restaurant based on ceviche. The dish probably most associated with Peruvian cuisine around the world is ceviche, which is fish, so probably coastal. But you say that the highlands of the Andes are where you find the heart of Peruvian food. Why?
Martin Morales: Around the world, the few or the many people that know about Peruvian food know it as an introduction to Peruvian food, which is based on coastal cuisine. That’s based on indigenous cuisine influence, but certainly also from the migration of the last 500 years from Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and African people, all of which has created a beautiful explosion of what is Peruvian food. But the origins lie in our indigenous cuisine that date back thousands of years before the land known now as Peru was not called that, to the Andean regions that not only stretch from the top and the bottom of Peru, but to other countries north and south of Peru.
Certainly, in the Andes of Peru and the other regions of the Andes, there’s a wealth of ingredients, a wealth of dishes, cooking techniques, and, for me, that is the heart of our cuisine. Without that, we’re much poorer gastronomically. I also think it’s important to pay credit to the history, legacy and people that still support that in the Andes of Peru: growers, chefs, the picanteras, as I call them, the women chefs at these wonderful family-run picantería restaurants, which uphold the tradition of dishes that are sometimes 50 or 100 years old, sometimes they are 500 or 1,000 years old.
FL: What would you say are some of the defining aspects of Andean cooking?
MM: I think the fascinating thing about Andean cuisine within Peruvian cuisine is we have been zero waste, organic, nose-to-tail, farm-to-table for thousands of years. It’s not fashion, trend, or hip; it’s just something that we are. That is a defining legacy. That is history. And that is good for the world.
Of course, there’s also ingredients that define us. You might know we are one of the major homes in the world for potatoes and for different types of corn, grains and seeds like quinoa, amaranth, maca, kiwicha, and canihua.
There are different types of chilies that are native to the Andes of Peru, whether it’s amarillo chili, which many people have come to discover through Peruvian food, or limo chili, panca chili, or a smoked chili. In Mexico they have chipotle, in Peru we have panca chili. It’s different, it’s smoky, it’s delicious.
There are also fruits and vegetables like lucuma. You go to any health food shop in the U.S., the U.K. and France, and if you ask for lucuma, you get lucuma powder. We grow it fresh; it’s native to Peru. It tastes like butterscotch and it’s high in nutrients. And there are different types of corns, as well as different herbs, other fruits.
And also techniques. We have pachamanca, which is cooking underground. There are different ways of fermenting and different ways of drying as well, which are unique to the Andes of Peru.
FL: The Andes of Peru are the spiritual home of potatoes, right? This is where potatoes come from?
MM: That’s what people say.
FL: What are some of the things that you do with potatoes?
MM: Apart from juggling them? No, I’m kidding. We use them a lot in something called causa. Causa, which translated means "the cause." Causa is a bit like a potato salad. We flavor a mashed potato with chilies, lime juice, different ingredients, and use that as a base. Like people use bread or a bun or a piece of toast, we use that as a base and add toppings. The word causa, the actual dish, and its origins are fascinating. The origins of the dish come from a war that we had with our southern neighbors. There was nothing left to eat on the front line for the Peruvian soldiers. Their wives only had potatoes and scraps of food. So, they created this cold dish with potatoes, added those scraps on top, and they presented that to the soldiers. They seasoned it beautifully with all their love and care. In their last final efforts of the battle, they said, “This is for the cause.” That’s how the dish was born, and that’s one of the many different potato dishes that we have. The great thing about potatoes is the sheer variety. They say that in the world there are 3,500 varieties. They say that 2,500 varieties of those come from Peru, from the native land of the Andes of Peru.
FL: Let me ask you about someone you write about in the book because I’m fascinated by her story. There’s a woman that you introduce to us named Feli. Tell us about her.
MM: I was born into a lower-middle class father’s family from the U.K., and a lower-middle class, working class, or peasant kind of family in Peru who was Andean. I grew up in Lima in what would be described as a privileged lifestyle because the extremes between rich and poor are huge in Peru; even if you have a little bit of money, you’re considered pretty wealthy. Life is tough, and people have to work. We were lucky enough to have a housekeeper that could live with and cook for us at times, or stay over some days a week. But that also meant that, in a way, I was abandoned by my mother because she had to work and be elsewhere. And many people might say, “It’s a privilege that you have a helping hand.” And in a way, I can’t argue with that; I was lucky to have that. But in another way, it was sad that that my mother wasn’t closer to me and be with me more from a very young age.
Feli was the person who took a role of a second mother. She was an Inca lady, an indigenous lady from an Andean region called Huancavelica. Her legs were thick and strong, and her arms were big and muscly, she had black hair, and she had the warmest smile. In effect, she was a housekeeper, but she was also a mother. She cooked for me from a very young age, and I grew attached to her through the years. Huancavelica is a region that has been destroyed by mining and terrorism, and we felt that destruction through the stories that Feli told me and through the stories that Feli lived even while she was working with us.
I talk about her in my book because she was not only an influence in terms of my care and the love I received from her, but also in terms of my culinary influences. She was the first person that taught me how to cook a boiled egg, which was the first thing I cooked. She taught me how to cook basic Peruvian dishes. I had to leave Peru because my father was threatened by the Shining Path guerrillas for being English, and for working for an American company. He wasn’t a politician, he didn’t care about politics, and we weren’t a wealthy family by any means. But because he had a senior role in an American company in Lima in the mid-1980s, they threatened him. We had to leave because it was horrible living in the destruction and the violence that Peru was suffering at the time. It’s a whole different world now. It’s an incredible, flourishing, exciting, safe country now, but back then it was, it was dangerous. We lived under armed guard for a year, and then my family said, “Enough's enough.” So, I came to the U.K. and I lost my surfing, because I was in love with surfing. I lost my love for the coast and my love for the Andes. I lost my cuisine and my dishes, my treats, my friends, and some family members of course. But, I also lost Feli. I didn’t lose her in terms of communication; we’ve always kept in touch. For the last 30 years, whenever I’ve travelled to Peru I go and see her. I stay with her, and we cook and reminisce. I owe her a great deal.
FL: That’s lovely, chef. Thank you so much for sharing that story with us. When I read about her in the book, I had noticed the part where you said there were dishes that she told you about when you were young that you never actually got to eat with her, that she never cooked for you. What an incredible feeling it must be now to be able to cook those dishes for her. Thank you so much for sharing that.
MM: My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. I hope to serve you some delicious dishes if you’re ever dropping by London.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.