By Fatin Kwasny, Founder & Austin ambassador
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.
Last week, MezzeCulture teamed up with Austin-based Executive Chef Julio-Cesar Florez, 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.
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.