I hope you liked the quinoa soup I learned to make on my last trip to Cusco. Now we’re going back to Peru for another great recipe: Lomo Saltado – a stir-fry beef dish shared with me by Edilberto García, Executive Chef of Casa Andina in Puno.
Lomo Saltado is the quintessential Peruvian dish – a great example of the Chinese influence in the country’s rich culinary heritage. It’s cooked in a wok, it has soy sauce, oyster sauce, and it’s served over steamed white rice.
My trip took me down the interstate road that connects the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco, to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca – one of South America’s largest lakes and the world’s highest navigable body of water.
At an elevation of more than 11,000 feet above sea level, the road cuts through the Andes, offering breathtaking views of distant snow-covered peaks and nearby valleys.
Casa Andina is a fancy hotel perched on the edge of the lake. Imagine dark wood furniture, Inca tapestry, and a fireplace; a terrace of terracotta tiles and white parasols; a wooden jetty among the reeds and aquatic birds of all colors and sizes.
On my last day I was sitting in the lobby catching up on some work while I waited for my ride to the airport. It was mid-morning on a Saturday during low season. I saw a man wearing a chef’s uniform talking on a mobile phone and giving instructions the staff behind the bar. I caught a few words from a distance and understood he was ordering produce and delegating tasks to his employees.
I intercepted him as he walked across the lobby.
I told him about CookedInAllston and my love for Peruvian food. Would he teach me to make Lomo Saltado? And perhaps tell me a thing or two about his life?
We sat down for the following conversation over a steaming cup of coca tea.
Tell me how you became a chef.
I always liked to cook. My older sister had a small restaurant, and I loved sticking my nose in her kitchen. When I was 10, we were about to go on a school trip and I had to bring some food. I asked my sister what she’d make for me, and she said I could use her kitchen to cook myself whatever I wanted. I actually chose Lomo Saltado because it was my favorite dish. I now know I didn’t cook it well – I chose the wrong cut of meat and overcooked it. I also burned the onions and so on. But at the time I thought it was amazing. I even bragged about it and shared it with my friends.
It sounds like a pivotal moment in your culinary history, actually.
I’m the youngest of seven children. I grew up on a farm in a village not too far from here. I walked 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to and from elementary school every day. Because going to school was so taxing, my parents sent me to live with my oldest sister in the nearest town, Ayaviri. She was too busy working, so I had to cook for myself all the time.
What did you cook?
All local grains and vegetables: quinoa, potatoes, oca, olluco, wheat, barley – all of these grow well in the region. We also make some great lamb dishes in this area.
Then, what happened?
I wanted to be a veterinarian. I started vet school in the city where we lived, but I wanted to transfer to the program in Puno. It is a much better program. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. So I took a job as a dishwasher because I wanted to stay in the city and apply again the following year. While I washed dishes, I also helped in the kitchen. Within a few months, the owner promoted me to cook’s assistant. And a few months after that, I became line cook.
What type of restaurant was it?
Chinese. Then, I thought I should learn a different cuisine, so I got a job at an Italian restaurant. I worked there for five years and applied to culinary school. The program lasted two years. During my free time, I worked as a pastry chef at a coffee shop.
How did you make the jump from a coffee shop to becoming executive chef at this fancy hotel?
The owner of the coffee shop’s husband worked here. He was the hotel manager and needed help during breakfast service. I came here to make omelets in that cart you probably ordered eggs from this morning downstairs. After four months, I got promoted to line cook, making appetizers and salads. I did that for two years and was sent on a tour of the other hotels in this chain – Lima, Arequipa, etc. – to learn all the menus. Eventually, I became sous-chef.
Let me guess, you were promoted again.
No, I stayed as sous-chef for two years. At some point I was offered a job abroad that I couldn’t refuse, so I gave my resignation. When that happened I got an offer to become executive chef. That was three years ago.
What do you eat at home?
I live on a farm and still plant the same things I ate growing up: quinoa, potatoes, and so on. That’s what I cook for my wife and two kids.
Have you taught cooking lessons before?
Funny you should ask. Of course I teach my staff as much as I can. But I do teach classes at the same institute where I got my culinary degree. I teach regional and international cooking, cooking techniques, and food and beverage pairing.
Do you consider yourself ambitious?
No. In fact, I had wanted this job really badly but was too afraid to ask for it…Listen, I like to work. A job, for me, is the most representative part of a person. I tell my staff, ‘Guys, come to work to have fun. We have to enjoy what we do.’
Peruvian chefs are well-respected and admired. In fact, few people would disagree if you said Peru has South America’s best cuisine. What’s next for you?
I would like to compete abroad. I have competed nationally and won a few times. These were cuy [guinea pig] cooking competitions. I also want to start a culinary school with a friend – but we need capital for that.
This dish seems complicated, but it’s a breeze to make. Prep all the ingredients first, and then the cooking will take no time.
- 1 red onion
- 2 roma tomatoes
- 2 aji amarillo (also known as amarillo chilies. You can find them frozen or canned at Latino foods stores, such as Mayfair in Allston). You can substitute for a mild chili pepper, or leave them out altogether.
- 1 lb beef sirloin, cut into thin strips
- 3 garlic cloves
- 4 medium potatoes
- 1 cup white long grain rice
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 3 tbsp oyster sauce
- 4 tbsp soy sauce
- Fresh cilantro
- ½ cup chicken or beef broth
- 2 tbsp butter
- Dry oregano
- ½ tbsp cumin powder
- Salt and pepper
- Vegetable oil for frying potatoes
- Cut beef into thin strips (about ½ inch wide), rub them with salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, and minced garlic. Set aside.
- Cut onion in long strips (about ¼ inch wide). Set aside.
- Julienne chilies (thin strips). Set aside.
- Peel tomatoes, quarter them, and remove the seeds. Set aside.
- In a cup, mix the vinegar with the oyster and soy sauces. Set aside.
- Cut potatoes into thick French fries.
- Heat up oil in a frying pan and start frying your potatoes.
- In a wok, heat up about 3 tablespoons of oil until it begins to smoke.
- Add beef strips and stir. Lower the heat. Cook for just a few seconds.
- Add chilies. Stir and cook for a few seconds.
- Add onions. Stir and cook for a few seconds. The onions shouldn’t be cooked through. They’re meant to stay crunchy.
- Add the vinegar mixture.
- Add tomatoes.
- Add broth.
- Taste salt level.
- Add butter and some oregano and chopped cilantro.
- Serve with steamed rice and French fries.
Note: Once you get the wok going, the cooking should take about five minutes. The tomatoes can’t be overcooked; they’re supposed to taste like something fresh in your mouth. Likewise, the onions should be crunchy, not fully cooked.