Spicy Epiphany

At a dinner party I hosted in San Francisco, I prepared my favorite Peruvian dish, Aji de Gallina., and after a ¡Buen Provecho!, one of my guests took a bite and started to cry. Tears of joy, they said. I responded with a smile and shared the story of my first taste of Aji de Gallina, at another candlelit dinner when I was a little boy.

It was my dad’s birthday dinner and, as it often happened in the small third world town where we lived, the power was out so we lit a few candles around the house. My mom and aunts were in the kitchen while friends and family sat down at the dinner table on the summer porch. When the main dish was plated, I could harldy see the food in front of me, but I could breathe in the warm and spicy aroma that was rising to cover my face.

To this day I don’t know if it was the darkness that heightened my sense of taste, but at the precise moment of that first bite I fell in love with Peruvian food. And though I was too young to realize it, bite after bite I was tasting a beautiful fusion of cultures; ingredients and techniques from Europe blended with Inca spices and Criollo traditions that created colors and flavors that could not exist anywhere else. By the time I finished, I knew that no matter what I did in life I had to learn to cook.

After my San Francisco guests left, I scraped the bottom of the pot I used to cook the Aji de Gallina and scooped the bits that were almost burnt, the ones that have all the concentrated flavor. Closing my eyes, I took a bite and I am a little boy again, at the beginning of a culinary journey that was set off by a spicy epiphany over a quarter century away.