Corazón Criollo

Hearts Retablo

Hearts Retablo

The first time I cooked for my girlfriend marked the beginning of my journey as a vegan Peruvian chef. Planning the menu, I profoundly thought about how to transform a traditional dish with animal protein using only plant-based ingredients. I wanted to not only preserve the flavors and textures of the original, I wanted to make it better.

The menu had four courses, each paired with a drink. I called the menu: Corazón Criollo, or creole heart. Criollo is Peru’s creole cuisine, a fusion of Inca, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Japanese culinary cultures that was born in Lima over 500 years ago. This is the food I grew up with, and that I learned to cook from Mom.

Having cooked traditional Peruvian dishes with animal protein all my life, I had an advantage as a vegan chef: I knew what each dish was supposed to taste like. As I began to cook each dish for the menu, I asked myself: what is the true essence of this dish? Is it the shrimp? Is it the fish? Is it the chicken?

One approach I considered was to find a vegan replacement for each animal protein. I had seen vegan chicken at the market, perhaps that would work. But in the end, I decided to use familiar vegetables, tofu, vegan cheese, syrup, and plant milk. I also cooked with native Peruvian ingredients such as tomatoes, potatoes, quinoa, and corn.

As I cooked, I realized was that the star of each dish was not the animal protein, but rather the combination of all the other ingredients. At its heart, each dish was still criollo, it was still Peruvian. And I was happy to discover that though my cooking I could preserve the essence and honor the spirit of Peruvian cuisine.

A chowder from the Andes, paired with a Zinfandel, opened the appetite. Pickled vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce, paired with an IPA, followed. Then, a slow-cooked creamy mushroom stew, paired with a Sauvignon Blanc, left a lingering heat on our tongues that was soothed by the sweet purple corn pudding served with pisco, neat.

Inspired by that menu, and a year after turning vegan, I am embarking on a personal challenge. For the next 10 weeks, I am going to take a traditional Peruvian dish and make it vegan using only plant-based ingredients. Join me on this vegan journey and discover the heart of Peru’s creole cuisine one dish at a time.