I am excited to have the opportunity to share our family recipes with you in this book. First, allow me to introduce myself and share with you how this book came to be.
I was born and grew up in Lima, Perú and learned very early on that flavor was the essence of life and love. Although Peruvian food has recently become fashionable, it has long been a source of comfort to me and my family. I didn’t know then that Perú is a melting pot of rich and ancient Inca and pre-Inca native heritage and cultural influences from around the globe. I took it for granted that 2,000 species of fish, 2,000 varieties of potatoes and sweet potatoes, 35 varieties of corn, 15 species of tomatoes and 650 species of fruit not only existed in Perú but were part of our diet, or that ancient plants like quinoa, which ended on our table on a daily basis, had been recently rediscovered.
My love for food developed at my parents’ table, with my sisters Hilda and Berta, in their huge dining room adjoining the kitchen in Lima, at my maternal grandparents’ house in Lima, and at “Tartar,” the traditional country house belonging to my paternal grandmother, Semiramis, in Cajamarca, Perú.
My father, Alfonso Sanchez Urteaga, was a lawyer by trade—a “respectable” profession according to his family’s standards and expectations—and was already a renowned painter, “Camilo Blas,” when he asked my grandparents Anita and Felix Siles for the hand of their beautiful daughter, the 16-year-old Ana Maria Siles, my mother. A step ahead of Lima’s then conservative bourgeois society, my mother was a daring and bold young woman. She parachuted from airplanes, drove her own car and participated in swimming competitions, which was rare for a woman in those times. It was after she became a mother of three—Hilda, Berta and me—that she gave up those daredevil sports and took up with equal passion flamenco dancing, instrumental music and cooking.
My father, who adored her, painted her face in many of his portraits, street scenes and country harvest tableaux. Both my parents were fans of Peruvian cuisine, and my mother would replicate the dishes she had learned from her own mother, Anita. As a seven- or eight-year-old child, I would delight in watching them both in the kitchen; and at the age of nine I was allowed to “help” the cooks, supervised by my mother, who would talk to me of times gone by.
I loved those special moments when food and stories blended into one delicious afternoon. I also loved the lazy summer days when my mother would drive us and our friends to Herradura Beach, 25 minutes away from Lima, and take us to the seaside “El Suizo” Restaurant, famous for the freshness of its seafood and its mouth-puckering ceviches. My sisters and I reveled during the three days of Carnaval in Lima in February—we, Limeños, are extremely fond of dancing, eating and making merry. So, we’d dress up in different disguises and go dancing at the “Regata Club Lima” or go to parties at the “Barranco Park,” the “Club Terrazas de Miraflores” or the “Lawn Tennis Club.” All the parties were catered with great meals.
My parents loved to travel, and I fondly remember trips to New York, Miami and the beautiful beaches of Fort Lauderdale, where I am now living. But it is at home, in Lima, that we best enjoyed the flavors of food. We children used to wait impatiently for Sundays to eat Causa and Palta Rellena, followed by Ají de Gallina. This is a delicious, traditional Peruvian chicken stew in a spicy, nutty sauce. It takes time to prepare, but it is well worth the effort, served over white rice or sliced potatoes. On Sundays we had a late lunch. At 2 p.m. we started with Ceviche or Causa followed by a rich Chupe de Camarones (in summer, which is the season for shrimp in Lima).
We had long and interesting conversations. My father loved a good conversation, and he would answer all our questions. He had a great sense of humor, and we laughed a lot. But etiquette was strictly kept. I remember my parents teaching us conversation, manners, etiquette, in short how to behave at the table, which we were not allowed to leave without being excused.
These family meals held in the big dining room were a treat. My parents would drink wine, and we children were allowed a little bit of wine in a glass of soda or water. We looked forward to these meals. It was a very happy time that we liked to share with friends, acquaintances and occasional associates of my father’s.
It is on one of these occasions that I met John S. Magac, who came to dinner one night with a friend of the family. This dashing young American, an executive for International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) in Lima, swept me off my feet, and six months later we were married. After the wedding, my parents gave a big reception at the Lima Country Club.
Our life together was the beginning of a great adventure. For the first time, other than trips with my family, I lived outside of Lima; Puerto Rico, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and then, for John, back in his native Pennsylvania where my children, John, Roy and Vanesa, were born. Living in Pennsylvania, I had no cook or nanny like my mother did or like I used to have throughout our stay in different Latin American cities. So I quickly learned how to cut corners and still prepare the delicious meals we were used to eating in Lima. Cutting corners doesn’t mean compromising quality and using lesser ingredients. I found that the frozen section in my neighborhood supermarket was a great source of vegetables for my “jardinière”—a mix of peas, carrots and corn—which I remember used to keep our cook busy for most of the morning when she made Russian Salad or Stuffed Avocado.
In Pennsylvania, I got really excited the first time I saw avocados in my local grocery store and immediately bought four. Soon shoppers were looking in my basket, curious about this strange green sphere they had never seen before. The avocados were hard as golf balls, but then, I assured them that if they’d keep them in a paper bag for a few days, they’d soften and be good to eat just as is or in salads. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, John and I founded “Pagoda Records,” a
record label that produced gold-winning releases, and we represented the renowned “Fania Records.” Both of these projects took us to the Cannes Music Festival, to St. Tropez, Paris, Montecarlo, London, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Gibraltar, Italy… a kaleidoscope of gold records, successes and trips.
In every country, in every city we visited, I’d find foods that reminded me of home—additional proof that Peru is a melting pot of cultures and ingredients.
Having lived in different parts of the world, I find nothing wrong in substituting ingredients. For instance, Cau Cau Criollo is traditionally a tripe stew with diced potatoes often accompanied by rice. I’ve replaced the heavy tripe with chicken breast for a lighter, healthier and no less tasty version of this traditional and fragrant dish. When I yearn for steak, I make Lomo Saltado instead—a dish of marinated steak, vegetables and fried potatoes, usually served over white rice—which brings back to me the flavors of home. After traveling with John, my husband, and, after he passed away, by myself, from Thailand and Mexico to Egypt, China and Italy, among other countries, I understood how the cuisines of Peru assimilate African, Chinese and Japanese cooking styles in addition to Spanish, Italian and other European cuisines.
The canvas of Peruvian foods I inherited is as rich as the canvas of expression and poses that my father Camilo Blas painted. This book on the flavor of Perú is my legacy to my children and their children as well as to the legions of Peruvian food lovers who are eager to reconstruct recipes just as I remember enjoying them at the tables of my mother and my grandmothers.