Overland miles: 14256 Bus hours: 436.75 Empanadar: 98
We’d sampled fish tostadas in Mexico, the ‘Elvis’ breakfast in Guatemala, grilled king prawns (naturelemente) in El Salvador, vigaron (yucca and pork scratchings) in Nicaragua, chicken and waffles in Costa Rica, seafood ceviche in Panama, steak in ant sauce (yes, ant sauce) in Colombia, pork lomitos (manwiches) in Chile, empanadas al horno (baked pies) in Argentina, peanut soup in Bolivia, and of course here in Peru, grilled cuy (guinea pig). But despite having the privilege of road-testing so many amazing dishes on the road, we had never got to learn how to cook any of them (unless you count making chocolate). So on our last full day in Latin America, we finally got to tick off something we failed to accomplish (due to severe food poisoning) in Oaxaca, and booked ourselves onto a cookery course in Lima.
Peru is – as we have mentioned more than once – experiencing something of a foodie revolution right now, and Lima is at the epicentre of this gastronomic tidal-wave. So it seemed wholly appropriate to learn what goes into the production of this cuisine fused with so many influences from a guy who has worked in restaurants across Germany and Italy for over twenty years (starting his career at Reinard’s in Berlin) before returning to Peru and his Andean roots three years ago. Chef Yurac – to give him his American title – not only takes great pride in his kitchen and food, but great care to get to know his guests first and treat them as friends rather than mere students (He found out all about what we had been up to on our ten month trip within the first ten minutes of his flawless demonstration.)
Yurac’s cooking school, SkyKitchen, is based on the top floor of what he describes as “a friend’s penthouse”. And what a penthouse. Decked out in bold colours, filled with fresh flowers and herbs, and flooded with natural light flooding in from the roof terrace, the place does feel like a very stylish home kitchen rather than a professional classroom. Christian, Yurac’s welcoming German partner, comes bounding to the lift door to meet us, and handing us a couple of bright blue and pink aprons, shows us to the washstation then arms us with tall glasses of fresh OJ.
SkyKitchen wasn’t entirely sure we were coming this morning because of some strange delay between our email accounts, but had prepared the session anyway, and as luck would have it no-one else had booked onto it, meaning we had Yurac to ourselves. Gamely we try out our conversational Spanish with Christian (whose English is clearly far better than our Spanish), knowing that this would be our last chance to practice our language skills before we leave for São Paolo, as he explains the technical differences between the dishes we’ve tried in Huancayo and those we will recreate in Lima this morning.
As Yurac rocked up into the kitchen area drying his hands and shaking ours, it was time to stop exchanging pleasantries and start cooking – in Spanish. For those thinking of taking this course earlier in the trip, worry not, Yurac has just started giving lessons in English (and he can do it in German just for kicks). Full of infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter, our amiable chef took us through the dos and don’ts of Peruvian cooking (Do: sweat your onions like a Swedish spa. Don’t: leave your fish out at room temperature too long when you’re making ceviche) and showed us step by step how to make a three course typical lunch. First up was the classic starter Papa a la Huancaina, a dish of yellow chilli and white cheese sauce over boiled potatoes. Originating in Lima, these days it is better known in its spicier form prepared in the highland town of Huancayo. Jovian demonstrated his OCD tendencies by taking about ten minutes to choose and arrange his potatoes.
Next on the decks: ceviche. This dish of cured raw fish in a marinade of onion, lime juice, fish stock, chilli, garlic and evaporated milk is Peru’s most well known culinary export, and as it differs subtly from other versions hailing from Northern and Central America, deserved our full attention to the details. Delicate slivers of filleted Pangasius are gently swished in the marinade for mere seconds, rather than the minutes I had imagined, before being plated up with kernals of cooked corn and sweet potato in an artful pile. We had first learned the trick of this dish (the way the fish is prepared) from a Limeño sailing with us to Colombia, and needless to say it was a lot easier to get it right in the bright, spacious and motionless SkyKitchen.
Finally Yurac helped us cook up the legendary Aji de Gallina (poached chicken in a spicy bread sauce), ably assisted by the unflappable Sonia who had shredded the chicken whilst we worked on the previous dishes. (Chicken takes longer than you think to shred, people.) The dish combines a barnstomping concoction of ground pecans and breadcrumbs soaked in more evaporated milk (the normal pasteurised sort being historically useless as Andean communities tended not to have Smegs in their kitchens), with turmeric, chilli, parmesan and his secret ingredient (SPOILER ALERT): a generous slug of Pisco thrown in towards the end. It’s generally served with a heap of fluffy white rice.
In between courses we were able to sit at a large dining table, sample our efforts and quiz Yurac on ways we could recreate them when we returned to the UK. Luckily, he had reminded us to take photos of all the ingredients needed for each course, and promised to email the recipes to us later (in English as well as Spanish). A good suggestion was to buy sachets of pre-made aji molido paste to replace the bright yellow chilli that goes into both the starter and chicken main, not easily found outside Latin America. (You can see it in the first photograph.) We duly stopped by a local tienda on the way back and purchased a bagful. The only item left on our shopping list before we headed to the airport was that trusty bottle of Pisco.
After three hours, Prawns for Breakfast had attempted (in the main successfully) and consumed three perfectly Peruvian and deeply delicious dishes that proved again how versatile and rewarding this cuisine of simple, earthy flavours can be. For us today the clear winner was the comfortingly downhome Aji de Gallina, with its deep but manageable heat: ranchero grub with a satisfying kick. This entertaining and informative experience came to 158 soles per student (US$57) – money well spent in our books. And when it comes to recreating the taste of South America in our own kitchen, the Sky’s the limit.
An adapted version of Papa a la Huancaina has been added to the WWOOFER Cookbook.