Anticuchos Offer a Taste of Africa’s Influence on Peruvian Cooking
December 4, 2018 4:50pm
Like many Western cultures with a history of slavery, Peru’s cuisine boasts influences from Africa, from both the African kitchens the slaves were forced to leave behind and the ingredients they were allowed to cook with and eat in Peru.
The first Africans were taken to Peru by the Spanish conquistadors in 1521. By the time slavery was abolished in 1854, approximately 95,000 slaves had been brought over; the last group arrived in 1850. As was the case for slaves in the U.S. and other countries, their diet depended on local ingredients that thrived, like rice, sugar, and bananas, and leftovers, like the beans and rice cooks seasoned with aji amarillo for tacu-tacu. They were also given innards to cook and eat, and seasoned beef hearts, other offal, and meaty scraps heavily spiced to make them more palatable, as with cau-cau, a dish of tripe seasoned with yellow chile, turmeric, and cloves. When the slaves were freed, they took those meats to street carts and began selling skewered beef heart anticuchos on the streets of Lima. The anticuchos proved to be popular among locals and tourists, and the food of their imprisonment has since become one of Peru’s most iconic dishes.
“One of my fondest memories of growing up in Lima was walking around and seeing women with anticucho stands on the corners,” recalls Jose Navarro, chef/owner of the Peruvian restaurant Sazón in Santa Rosa, Calif. “The women would fan the meat with newspapers, and the smell was incredible; you had to have some.”
Navarro later moved to the northern part of Peru, near the Ecuadorian border, and then to the U.S. at age 10. But the memory of those anticuchos stayed constant, and when he cashed out his retirement savings to open Sazón, he added them to his menu, using beef heart even though he wasn’t sure American customers would go for it.
“It’s all about the marinade, which has close to 20 ingredients,” Navarro says of his anticuchos de corazón, which are served with grilled potatoes and Peruvian pepper dipping sauces (recipe). “You could skip a few ingredients, but you have to have the panca, which is a smoky pepper. Without those, you are lost; it’s essential.”
Even with a small Peruvian community living in the area, the dish floundered on the menu for a few years. “I couldn’t sell it—people said no way,” Navarro says, adding that he kept the dish on the menu for sentimental reasons, and because he believed in it. Changing tastes and his customers’ familiarity with his cooking in the eight years since he opened Sazón have turned the skewers into one of his most popular dishes, much in the slow but steady way the skewers gained popularity on the streets of Lima.
“This is such a different food to bring to Sonoma; my cuisine is so unique,” Navarro says of his cooking. “I have African, Chinese, Japanese, European influences on my menu. It’s important that we show all of those, not just what people know.”
Chandra Ram is the editor of Plate and will eat just about anything on a skewer.