The peppers of Peru

“Peppers bring food alive,” writes Peruvian-born chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi in 'The Art of South American Cooking'.

Pepper purees and other delicacies on sale at Mercado Surquillo, one of Lima’s main markets (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Pepper purees and other delicacies on sale at Mercado Surquillo, one of Lima’s main markets
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Peppers were prominent at Expoalimentaria, Peru’s large food show that took place in Lima at the end of August. As we strolled among the exhibits, we came across peppers in different forms – fresh, dried, as sauces and flavoring pastes in jars, and even as a sweet jam made from semi-hot yellow peppers.
Peru’s peppers are central to the country’s cooking; they were already prized by the ancient inhabitants of Peru. “The Inca warehouses always had a generous supply of hot peppers, which were considered a very important commodity,” wrote Maria Baez Kijac in The South American Table. “Peru has, since its days as the heart of the Inca Empire, developed a sophisticated cuisine, one often ranked the best on the continent,” wrote Barbara Karoff, author of South American Cooking.
Indeed, at the International Summit of Gastronomy, “Madrid Fusion 2006,” Lima was declared the gastronomic capital of Latin America.
In our meals in Lima, peppers – some sweet, some slightly hot and some hot – embellished many dishes. We liked the way the Peruvians use peppers to enhance their best-known specialties, such as lomo saltado, a beef sauté with onions and tomatoes; ceviche, an appetizer of lightly marinated raw fish garnished with hot pepper strips, red onion slivers, corn kernels and sweet potato slices; aji de gallina, chicken in creamy yellow pepper and walnut sauce; and papas a la huancaina, potatoes in light cheese sauce.
Even at breakfast in our hotel, there was chicken sautéed with peppers.
Peruvian cooks simmer pepper strips in chicken soups, too, along with potatoes, rice, corn, peas and fresh coriander. Their tasty fish a la chorrillana is flavored with hot peppers, tomato wedges and a generous amount of sautéed onions. (See recipe.)
“Peppers bring food alive,” wrote Peruvian-born chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi in The Art of South American Cooking. “ ...It is customary to choose a specific type of pepper for its flavor, color, size and the thickness of its flesh. The spicy, thick-fleshed rocoto, for example, is usually stuffed with meat; it is also one of the peppers of choice for pickling.”
Rocoto peppers are apple-shaped and not pointed, and thus are easy to stuff.
“Although the food [of Peru] is not generally as spicy as it is in Mexico, overall it is the hottest in South America,” wrote Karoff, though the dishes we sampled in Peru were not overly hot.
“The pepper we use most often in our cooking is the aji amarillo, because it is reasonably priced,” said Milagros Salome, our guide. “We make sauces out of these peppers, and we add them to a red onion relish called salsa criolla, which accompanies many foods.” Although amarillo means yellow in Spanish, these finger-shaped peppers are actually bright orange, with a meaty texture and a flavor that is sweet with mild to moderate heat.
Salome told us that when she begins a stew, she sautées onions and garlic, then adds a puree of peppers – often of dried, elongated dark red aji panca, which are mild and fruity in flavor. This gives her a sauce base, to which she adds meat or chicken and water.
A busy working mother, she buys freshly prepared pepper purees at one of Lima’s major food markets. We visited two of these markets – Mercado de Surquillo No. 1 and No. 2, and found a colorful array of pepper purees, as well as purees of garlic and of herbs, and a variety of fresh and dried peppers in different shapes and colors.
The kinds of stews that Salome makes are typical of Peruvian cuisine. Maricel E. Presilla, the author of Gran Cocina Latina, wrote: “If I were to name the most characteristic dishes of Peru, I would include the secos of the northern coast, a small family of stews flavored with dried or fresh Andean peppers and fresh herbs that are immediately recognized by their tangy, aromatic dark green sauce... distinguished by large amounts of cilantro.” (See recipe.)
When peppers are too hot, Peruvian cooks blanch them in boiling water before using them to make a sauce. One delicious dish that might be hot is stuffed deep red rocoto peppers, which are fiery. Before stuffing such peppers, cooks cut off the tops, remove the pepper’s membranes and seeds, and boil the peppers two or three times, changing the water each time to diminish their heat. The usual filling of meat mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs, raisins and olives is flavored with mild red pepper paste and onions.
When Gaston Acurio, Peru’s most famous chef, opened his Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco, California, he said he would be OK as long as he could cook with peppers from his homeland. We find that Peruvian specialties can be made successfully using readily available peppers. For example, we experimented in our kitchen with aji amarillo peppers from Peru in relishes, sauces and sautés, and found that combining sweet orange peppers with a pinch of cayenne pepper gives similar results in color, texture and taste. ■
The writer is the author of the award-winning book, Faye Levy’s
International Vegetable Cookbook.
Tuna steak a la chorrillana
This recipe is adapted from The Art of South American Cooking. Author Felipe Rojas-Lombardi wrote that “a la chorrillana” is a style of cooking that originated in Chorrillos, once a fishing village that supplied Lima with fish and now a neighborhood of that city. “Everyone understands a la chorrillana to mean smothered in onions and fresh hot peppers. This method is now used with both fish and steak.”
Rojas-Lombardi recommends using tuna steaks that are cut thick, so they will not be overcooked and dry by the time the surface is golden. This dish is often served with rice.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 6 to 8 tuna steaks, 3.2 to 3.8 cm. (1¼ to 1½ inches) thick (about 225 gr. or 8 ounces each)
❖ 4 garlic cloves – 2 whole and peeled, 2 thinly sliced
❖ 1 Tbsp. coarse salt
❖ A 3.8-cm (1½ -inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (optional)
❖ 1 to 2 Tbsp. lime or lemon juice
❖ 3 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
❖ 1.1 to 1.35 kg. (2½ to 3 pounds) red onions, peeled and cut into 6-mm. (¼ -inch) slices
❖ 1 small sweet pepper – orange, yellow, red or green, seeded and cut in thin strips
❖ 2 to 4 jalapeno peppers or other hot peppers, seeded and julienned (cut in very thin strips)
❖ 900 gr. (2 pounds) tomatoes, cut into wedges
❖ 3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh oregano, cilantro or parsley
Remove and discard skin from tuna and trim off any dark sections.
In a mortar with a pestle, pound the 2 whole cloves of garlic and the salt to a smooth paste.
Add the ginger and continue pounding. Add the lime juice and stir. Let sit for a few minutes and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Mix thoroughly.
Rub the tuna steaks with this mixture and let marinate for 10 to 15 minutes.
Preheat broiler. Broil tuna steaks in a pan at the middle level, or about 10 cm. (4 inches) away from the heat source, for 10 to 15 minutes or until fish is golden.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat. Stir in the sliced garlic, onions and sweet pepper and sauté, stirring now and then, until all the liquid has evaporated and onions are golden around the edges. Add hot pepper strips, tomato wedges and half the oregano, and cook until tomatoes are heated through.
Cover the bottom of a serving platter with the braised onion. Arrange the tuna steaks on top, surrounded by the tomato wedges.
Serve immediately, sprinkled with remaining chopped oregano.
Peruvian lamb stew – Seco de carnero
This recipe is from The Book of Latin American Cooking. Author Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz wrote: “Don’t be afraid of the amount of garlic used here. The flavor will not be at all aggressive; indeed, it will be quite gentle as the pungent oils cook out. The fresh coriander, garlic, fruit juices and hot peppers combine into a most delicious sauce.”
Some add cumin to the flavorings of this dish and cook it with beer instead of citrus juice.
Others cook the meat with carrots instead of potatoes.
If you prefer to use beef instead of lamb, the simmering time will be about 2½ hours. In Peru, this kind of stew is often served with rice.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 1 cup cilantro (fresh coriander), chopped
❖ 2 or 3 fresh hot red or green peppers, seeded and chopped
❖ 1 whole head garlic, peeled and chopped
❖ ½ cup olive oil
❖ 2 medium onions, finely chopped
❖ 1.8 kg. (4 pounds) lean boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2.5-cm. (1-inch) cubes
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper
❖ 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
❖ 3 Tbsp. lime or lemon juice
❖ 900 gr. (2 pounds) potatoes, peeled and sliced
❖ 454 gr. (1 pound) green peas, shelled, or 1 to 1½ cups frozen
In a blender or food processor, combine the coriander leaves, hot peppers and garlic, and blend to a puree.
Heat the oil in a stew pan and sauté the onions until soft. Stir in the fresh coriander mixture and cook for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the lamb pieces and cook for about 5 minutes, turning to coat them with the sauce. Season to taste with salt and a generous amount of pepper.
Add the orange and lime juices and enough water to cover, about 1½ cups. Cover and simmer until the lamb is tender, about 1½ hours.
The stew may be cooked to this point a day ahead and refrigerated, so any fat may be removed; let stew reach room temperature before reheating.
Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender; drain and add to stew. Boil the peas in salted water until tender; drain and add stew.
Bring the stew to a simmer, and cook just long enough to heat through.