Memories of my youth come back to me as bright patches of the smells and flavors of the Andes, where I lived until the age of sixteen. I grew up in Cajamarca, Peru, then a city of forty thousand people situated in the northern highlands, eight thousand feet above sea level. The city’s inhabitants have large hearts and generous chests. Not only do these traits allow us to absorb sufficient oxygen at an elevation at which it is scarce, but they also, I like to think, function as metaphors for the spirit of Andean life. We are people of “big hearts,” and with respect to our fellow beings, we are warm, giving, and hospitable. As many who have visited the Andes can attest, the visitor who enters a home soon discovers that we receive our guests almost as if they were royalty. Food is central to this approach, and ever since childhood it has been a way for me to express affection and welcome.
Two years ago, when Andina became a reality, I made it clear that at this family restaurant we must make our customers feel welcome, just as we honor guests in Peru. I hoped people would feel that they were breathing the country’s soul, the spirit of the Andes and their rich, evolving heritage.
At Andina we are proud to feature Peruvian food in at least two of its most interesting dimensions: both the traditional, richly historic cuisine and what is known as the new Peruvian cuisine. The contemporary movements of novo-Andean and novo-Peruvian cuisine aspire to revive native, precolonial ingredients and techniques and incorporate them into a modern presentation in line with the highest international standards. Whereas traditional Peruvian cooking was largely an oral tradition (albeit an extremely elaborate one), Peruvian chefs today, including our own José Luis de Cossio de la Puente, embrace the rigors of formal culinary training and standardization to preserve and elaborate on the wealth of Peruvian food history.
That history is often abbreviated in terms of the influence of a startling range of peoples. First to arrive in Peru were the Spanish, who brought with them the legacy of the long Moorish presence in Iberia. Nunneries, spices, pastries, lime trees, and livestock number among their imports. With them, too—though as slaves—came Africans, who still constitute vibrant communities in the coastal cities of Peru. Next came the French and Italians. Then, in the nineteenth century, Chinese laborers arrived, bringing their culinary customs nearly intact. They were followed in the early twentieth century by Japanese immigrants, who emphasized and honored seafood in ways that proved especially significant to Peruvian cuisine.
At Andina a meal begins with house-made quinoa bread, served with a trio of traditional ajies (chili-pepper sauces), among which might be ají de maracuya, a brilliant yellow sauce made from a purée of passion fruit and seedless habanero, or ají de huacatay, which combines toasted peanuts with an aromatic herb of the marigold family that is central to many native dishes. Next come our appetizers, of which an exemplary dish is the causa nikkei, which combines a layered cake of yellow potato (a legacy of the colonial era), key lime juice, and chili pepper with raw tuna cured in soy sauce, garnished with tempura sticks of saltwater shrimp (reflecting the Japanese influence). Oregon’s abundant late-harvest beets feature in our chef’s delicate entrée of quinoa-crusted diver scallops perched on wilted spinach and parsnip purée, with golden beet and crabmeat cannelloni and a duet of red beet and passion fruit reductions. Desserts, the most celebrated of which were often produced in nunneries, include handmade truffles infused with pisco (Peru’s grape brandy); traditional ponderaciones, light spirals of crisp pastry sprinkled with pisco-infused caramel and chicha morada (purple corn) syrup, served with lucuma (a tropical fruit native to Peru) ice cream; and, in the novo-Andean spirit, canutos de quinoa con maracuya, crisp quinoa-studded cannoli filled with passion-fruit mousse and served with a mango-lemongrass sorbet.
Sunday Market in Pisac, Peru, at an elevation of 8,910 feet. Photograph by Deb Delman © 2002
At Andina we try to create an atmosphere redolent of my childhood home. I remember many things about my mother’s darkened kitchen with its smell of eucalyptus from the adobe stove in which we burned the green wood. The iron range had holes for pots of different shapes and sizes to cook our daily soups and stews. Above the stove hung a ham to smoke. I remember our batan—the Peruvian mortar—a flat or slightly concave river stone set on the ground or table, along with its mate, the chungo, a convex stone used as a pestle to grind and blend spices and grains. The smell of fried garlic and onion was everywhere. It impregnated my mother’s and grandmother’s clothes, as I never failed to notice when I kissed them goodnight. I recall the variety of stews, an economical way to feed our extended family with a small portion of meat flavoring abundant vegetables and potatoes. Daily visits to the market provided fresh produce and meat and the opportunity to keep abreast of the latest gossip and news.
I can still see our long wooden dining table, with my mother at one end, my father at the other. To his right sat my grandmother; to his left, my mother’s sister. The children were seated in between the adults, in an effort to supervise our manners during the meal. The meal itself was splendid. Our food was quite simple yet alive with aromas and seductive colors. Here is what I remember most: a bowl full of small new potatoes (recently dug from the ground), in a rainbow of colors that competed with the colors of our ajies, including pink, white, cream, purple, and yellow, to be eaten with ají de culantro (peppers with fresh cilantro), ají de maní (peppers with toasted peanuts), ají de menta (peppers with mint leaf), or ají de rocoto (rocoto peppers, fresh or fried). Another bowl held choclos, fresh large-grained corn on the cob (what we call hominy or “Cuzco corn”). Next to this was a platter of homemade fresh cheese. Everyone got a plate of caldo de gallina (home-raised chicken broth). We ate like kings and queens, beginning with a piece of peeled boiled potato dipped in one of the sauces, followed by a bite of corn paired with a piece of cheese, and ending with a ladle of broth. The adults kept an eye on us. No one was allowed to put more than two bites into his mouth at once; we had to finish what we had started before we could take another combination. Eating in this way, in combinations, sequences, and cycles, was to discover different registers of heaven in our mouths.
We hope that what we present at Andina today is no less enchanting, no less inspired and nourishing. Because we are in Oregon, we can take advantage of different things. As my son Peter has noted, Peruvian food is without artifice; it is an authentic fusion cuisine. Contemporary cuisine in Peru today is itself a product of assimilation: of modern techniques, of global exchanges of products and ideas. At Andina we believe that Peru’s greatest culinary gift is not a recipe or an ingredient but a spirit of inquiry and openness that honors other times and places without ever leaving the present. When we introduce our customers to all that is wonderful about Peruvian cuisine, we do so not only through indigenous ingredients and original creations but also through our acceptance of what we have found in Oregon. This spirit of openness leads to moments lived in a welcoming and committed conversation with other times and other places—with other ingredients and flavors along with our own.