Of all the stories I learned in my grade school History and Geography classes, perhaps the most memorable was that of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. He wanted to prove that it was possible for Incas to have sailed to Polynesia using balsa wood rafts, and in 1947, with a crew of five men, he built such a raft and made the 5,000 mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. The name of the expedition was the Kon-Tiki, and this Pisco cocktail tells its story.
5 years ago today, on August 2, 2011, I cooked the first ever Peruvian dinner at 18 Reasons. And since then, I’ve had the honor of becoming a regular guest chef and teacher there, bringing 24 pop-up dinners and cooking classes to a community eager to be taken on a gastronomical tour of Peruvian cuisine. Recently, I was asked by 18 Reasons to share my Tiradito Nikkei recipe for their volunteer newsletter, and to answer some questions about what drew me to 18 Reasons. I am happy to share that interview with you in this post. Thank you 18 Reasons for 5 wonderful years, I look forward to the next 5 years of sharing Peruvian cuisine with your community — cheers!
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For a long time, I’ve been wanting to make a Pisco cocktail to honor one of my favorite novels, Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez. In the story filled with magical realism and the fate of unrequited love, one of the most dramatic proclamations is made by Fermina Daza when she accepts Florentino Ariza’s wedding proposal circa 1880 with these words:
Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.
And from those words, a challenge was born — to make a Pisco cocktail using eggplant that even Fermina Daza would fall in love with.
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Culinary inspiration can be found in many places — cookbooks, food films, dining at a new restaurant, visiting farmers markets, meeting other chefs, or following the World’s 50 Best Restaurants on social media. But nothing inspires me to cook as much as traveling, being immersed completely in another culture, and learning about it through food is an experience that stays with you forever. And after coming home from a week-long exploration of the food and cocktail culture in Tokyo, all I’ve been wanting to do is to cook.
For days, I was profoundly inspired to cook a Peruvian tasting menu that followed some of the progression and Japanese culinary traditions of a kaiseki meal — 5 colors, 5 flavors, 5 senses, and 5 methods of cooking, all of which center around a sense for shun, the peak of seasonality for ingredients. Going through this creative process completely transformed how I viewed a menu, thought about the ingredients, and plated the dishes. The result, a culinary fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cultures, is something that I am calling kaiseki criollo.
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The Spanish Paella is popular all over the Americas and the Caribbean where each culture has made it their own — in Louisiana the Creole and Cajun cooks transformed the Paella into the Jambalaya, and in Peru we added a spicy aji amarillo onion sofrito to give birth to the Arroz con Mariscos, or Peruvian Paella. Start by cooking steamed rice with a saffron to honor the roots of this dish. Prepare the seafood, sauté the sofrito, and then combine all the ingredients in a paella pan. Garnish with cilantro and parsley and top with freshly squeezed lime juice and shredded parmesan cheese for a touch of umami.
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