'A taste of PERú' – Interview with Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia

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“The best approach is to incorporate new ingredients while remaining truthful to the traditional Peruvian flavours”.

– Peruvian Chef Alejandro Saravia

Everyone is talking about food this month, from comparing Sugar Hits notes, to rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs, or even get their hands on in cheese making classes or a food tour in Cabramatta. Sydney International Food Festival (SIFF) has definitely sent this city into an eating frenzy. I myself who consider keeping it low key also feels like I’ve been sailing across the seven seas, tasting all the exotic cuisines around the world from French snails, to Nepalese goat curry, and all the way to Peru for some alpaca meat.

As part of the SIFF, Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia takes over the kitchen at Sheraton on the Park to create an exclusive Peruvian degustation menu. I am lucky enough to be invited by Jessica from Illapu Peru to the event along with a few bloggers to sample first hand what Peruvian cuisine has to offer. I must admit Peruvian cuisine has never existed in my gastronomy vocabulary until now. I’ve heard they eat guinea pigs, and I guess the only way to find out whether it is on the menu is by interviewing Chef Saravia myself.

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1. Tell us more about yourself, how did you end up 8000 miles away from home and landed in Australia?

I was working in Europe when a friend called to tell me that the food business was growing rapidly in Australia however no one was introducing Peruvian food. I seized the opportunity to introduce modern Peruvian haute cuisine, marrying Peruvian recipes with local Australian ingredients.

I love to travel and experience new styles of cuisine, also I was looking at Australia as one of my next places to visit, so I thought that it might be a great chance for me to experience Australian culture, cuisine and surfing.

I went to every market, deli, small goods store and restaurant to learn about the different cultural influences in the Australian food business. To discover what appeals to the Australian palate I also worked at a variety of Sydney restaurants and venues.

2. When did you first learn how to cook?

My first approach to cooking was next to my grand mother, she is the best cook I know and the best adviser (and very serious in terms of food and cooking), actually she never lets me cook for her without her supervision!

When I was 16 I started to recognize my love for cooking, cooking for friends and family so I decided to start a chef career at “Le Cordon Bleu – Peru” and they taught me all the traditional cooking theory and introduced me to this incredible world which is the understanding of ingredients.

After I finished, I got involved in to the understanding and researching of traditional Peruvian cooking techniques, where I discovered all the varieties of Peruvian cuisine.

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3.How would you describe Peruvian food?

Peruvian cuisine is one of the best-kept food secrets in South America. It is well known for its exquisite taste, its variety and ability to incorporate influences from different times and cultures. Peru’s three regions, Coast, Andean Sierra, and the Amazon jungle, together with the rich variety of wild fish and seafood harvested from the Pacific Ocean, have made Peruvian cuisine an important expression of its culture and as revered as Peru’s ceramics, textiles, art, music and literature.

The culinary history of Peruvian food dates back to the Pre -Inca and Inca times when the staple diet consisted of maize, potatoes, aji and fish. This was later influenced by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In the ensuing years the cuisine was further influenced and enriched by the influx migration from China, Europe, Africa and Japan.

4. As a chef and part of the “Gastronomic Revolution” that is happening now a days in Peru, where new modern menus are popping up in Lima, but would you worry that the old traditional Peruvian recipes are slowly fading and will be lost forever?

As a Peruvian chef who is part of the “Gastronomic revolution” currently taking place everywhere, I feel I have a responsibility, both as a Peruvian and as a chef, to show other countries what we, as a diverse nation of cultures, have to offer: a fusion of Peruvian recipes and local ingredients, combining traditional cooking techniques with haute cuisine while at the same time keeping our roots, creating a stylish Peruvian cuisine, that’s what this “Gastronomic revolution” is all about. A great virtue is that we are also rescuing lost ingredients to revaluate them and give them the best position on our tables.

“The best approach is to incorporate new ingredients while remaining truthful to the traditional flavours” Never forget your roots, other wise you would lose your identity, but at the same time understand the local palate, which I feel is the main challenge, for us here in Australia.

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5. Is there any particular Peruvian food that is nostalgic to you and instantly reminds you of home cooked meal?

Ceviche; Sebiche, Cebiche and more Ceviche…

As a chef who specialises is fish and seafood, I have to say the Ceviche and Tiradito are my two favorite dishes to work with, it’s so enjoyable to experiment with different flavours and different cooking techniques, but never forgetting the essence of this two dishes, fresh fish and seafood, fresh limejuice, and aji (Peruvian yellow chili).

Peruvians are enjoying ceviches and tiraditos right from the beginning; these two dishes are witnesses of the evolution of Peruvian gastronomy. Ceviche and Tiradito are most enjoyed in those special moments of Peruvian life.

Quinoa

“Quinoa” was the most important ingredient in the table of the first Peruvians, its considered the perfect meal, no cholesterol and gluten free.

Rosario Olivas Weston’s book “Virreinato en el Peru” tells us about the time when Franzisco Pizarro (Spanish conqueror) arrived to Peru. He went to Cajamarca (City in the north of Lima were the Inca had a retread palace), the Incas welcomed him with a great banquet, “quinua” was part of more then 100 plates served that day. The conqueror was so gladly surprised about this new ingredient that he decided to take it in to his next trip to Spain. His aim was to show how rich the new world was in terms of products.

I can’t deny when I say that when I contact Olive Green Organics because of their high quality Quinoa there was a rush of happiness inside me.

Now the “quinua” is taking place in a lot of dishes again, as another healthy ingredient.

I love “quinua”, as a child my mother used to boil the quinua to add it with a bit of honey to my milk. I liked it so much that I used to add more of that fantastic ingredient to my milk cup almost filling it up! In the last a few years this product has been used in modern Peruvian cuisine, rescuing this ingredient and showing the world how many ways it can be used.

Today I am presenting it in a vegetarian Tabule style, with the fresh flavours of Australian Alpaca (native from Peru, but bred in Melbourne) and a mix of aromatic herbs, which gives the plate the Peruvian aromas and flavours.

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6. What do you think of Australian food?

Australia has a lot to offer in terms of fresh high quality ingredients, and I think that chefs here are using that to build strongly an Australian image in the world food business.
I discovered Kangaroo and other ingredients like Balmain bugs and Crystal Bay prawns that I am always happy to work with and give the opportunity to Australian’s to try this local ingredients with a great result.

7. What do you normally cook at home after a long busy day working in the kitchen?

As a chef I have a really busy schedule so it is almost impossible to maintain a eating schedule as other people could do, so after a busy day working in the kitchen I usually enjoy a fresh and light meal, fish, salads, antipastos or some roasted vegetables wrap, also cereal and quinoa is in my daily diet.

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8. It must be difficult to find Peruvian ingredients like Aji and Quinoa here in Australia. Where do you get your fresh produce from?

I am really lucky finding my ingredients around the world, Quinoa is now in every health store in Sydney so its not difficult to find quinoa but be careful with the quality of it, I do recommend Olive Green Organics, which is the brand that I use in all my recipes.

Aji and other Peruvian ingredients you can get them from a Latin Deli located in Fairfield “Tierras Latinas”

Now a days there is more and more delis and restaurants that are interested in Peruvian cuisine so that is making a better market for companies that want to imports our Ingredients.

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9. Being part of the SIFF events, you are doing the Peruvian dinners at the Sheraton on the Park Hotel, how are you going to introduce the Peruvian cuisine to the Australians and what can we expect from this experience?

Being part of the SIFF, has given us a better opportunity to share Peruvian cuisine with a big audience and the chance to work next to some amazing chefs. We’re proud that the SIFF, accept our event and believe in us and in the cuisine, that shows us that Australians are looking for something new in the food business and in my opinion that would be, “Peruvian Cuisine”

The night will be introduced with a Peruvian inspired cocktail followed by gastronomy with a fusion of Andean organic ingredients and local Australian products, the tasting event “A taste of PERú – Andean flavors” is a five course modern Peruvian Andean Cuisine dinner matched with Australian wines.

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10. Lastly, is Coy, guinea pig on the menu? (I’ll eat it, if you cook it!)

Guinea pig is not in the menu this time due to food legislation and quarantine. In Europe some Peruvian chefs have guinea pig on the menu, however it takes time to introduce this ingredient in a different country and there is a process of education and understanding, hence we are starting first with Alpaca. That doesn’t mean that in the future we won’t be introducing guinea pig though, so may be I’ll cook it for you another time!

Some of you may know by now that I am an adventure eater. So long it is not endangered or will kill you, I definitely will give it a try no matter whether I like it or not. Squirrel is right on top of my “exotic food I’ve eaten” chart currently. As much as I would like to add a cute fluffy guinea pig on my chart, I’ll just have to settle with alpaca for now (tasted just like beef actually).

‘A taste of PERú – Andean Flavours’ will run for two more nights on 27th & 28th October at Sheraton on The Park.

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[Competition is now closed, and winners are announced.]

As being a loyal ATFT’s readers, you will have the chance to win one of three delicious hampers with organic products from Olive green organics that Chef Saravia uses in his menu.

The Prize:

The Olive green organics hamper consists of:

  1. Organic trout
    These certified organic Trout grow in the pristine waters of Lake Arapa in the Peruvian Andes at 3820m altitude, while preserving the highlands ecology. The result is a pure product very high in Omega‐3 and Omega‐6 oils. This version, ‘In Olive Oil’, is made with the best organic olive oil in Peru. Its taste is well balanced and the texture is soft.
  2. Royal Quinoa & Rice Spaghetti
    This gluten free pasta stands out for its quality and purity, it is very nutritious and pure, no starches or vegetable gums are added to it. This pasta cooks well, it stays firm and doesn’t fall apart like others.
  3. Royal White Quinoa ‐ Grain
    Although no single food can supply all of life’s nutrients, quinoa comes close. Quinoa is the “mother grain” of the Andes that has been keeping the Incas strong and robust. We have selected only Royal Quinoa, the variety still prized today for its higher protein content and larger grain. Quinoa is suitable for those avoiding gluten or seeking a safe source of vegetable protein. It is a highly digestible nurturing food for people of all ages, especially recommended for vegetarians, vegans, children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Quinoa grain can be cooked just like rice, even mixed with rice to any proportions.

How to enter the competition:

Option 1:

Leave a comment on this post by answering this simple question: What is the weirdest/most exotic food you’ve ever eaten?

(note: you can enter as many times as you like, limit to one comment per day.)

Option 2:

Step 1. Sign up Twitter if you haven’t already, and follow Atablefortwo on twitter by clicking on the Follow button that appears under my profile.
Step 2. Copy and paste the line below, fill in the blank with your answer and tweet it:
@atablefortwo The weirdest food I’ve eaten is [your answer]. Tweet & Win, competition details here: http://bit.ly/1Xim3T

(note: we will double-check whether you are a ATFT follower on Twitter along with your answer to be eligible for the competition. You can enter as many times as you like, limit to one tweet per day.)

The “A taste of Peru” competition opens to Australian/NZ residents only. The competition closes on Thursday 12/11/09 at 11.59am AEST. The winner will be announced on Friday 13/11/09. Winners will be notified via emails and prizes will be posted out by Illapu Peru to the mailing address provided. This competition is a game of skill. Chance plays no part in determining the winners. All entries will be judged individually on their merits based on product understanding and creativity. The best entries as determined by the judges, will win a prize.

Buen Provecho!

A taste of PERú - Andeans Flavours 
Cost: $130 (with matching Brown Brothers wines)
When: Tues and Wed Oct 20th, 21st, 27th, 28th
Where: Times on the Park, Sheraton on the Park hotel,
161 Elizabeth Street, Sydney
Bookings: 0420 553 960
For more information: www.peruvianconcept.com
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