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The Latino edge

The next time you are served hot and spicy potatoes cooked in a gravy of tomatoes — a dish that takes different shapes in different parts of the country (from the thick aloor dom in the East to the runny rassey waley aloo in the North) — do raise a toast to a region which has enriched our kitchens. The potatoes and the tomatoes in your curry have come from South America. So have the chillies that have given the gravy that piquant flavour.

Indeed, the contribution of the region to our culinary heritage is immense. It is — I know, I know — a favourite topic of food writers. Whenever we get a chance, we like to tell our readers what came from where (love your vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce? Thank Latin America for both). What’s not as well known, however, is the Asian input that’s gone into the food of the region. Indian, Chinese and Japanese settlers — who travelled thousands of kilometres for a better life some 150 years ago –—added their own ingredients to the South American cauldron.

Chef Chiranjib Chatterjee has been studying the mix of traditions and the birth of new cuisines rather closely. The executive chef of Afraa has even planned out a special meal of Latin American dishes with Asian influences in his restaurant at City Centre in Salt Lake. And the menu includes some fascinating dishes such as the arroz chaufa, which has been described in some quarters as a Chinese Peruvian fried rice cooked with chicken, bacon and ham. “I find the concept of hybrid Latin American food very interesting,” he says.

When Chinese workers went to Peru in the late 19th century, they carried their cuisine with them. According to one estimate, 100,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru between 1849 and 1874. Not surprisingly, Peru has some 2,000 Chinese restaurants. El Chifa is a term that stands for both a kind of Peruvian-Chinese cuisine, and a Chinese restaurant which serves the food.

Chef Chatterjee points out that while these were two different food cultures there was a common ground — and that was in the natives’ and immigrants’ love for seafood and seasoning. “It is an incredibly diverse cuisine which has lots of possibilities,” he says.

The Japanese settlers in Peru also contributed to the fusion of flavours. Peru has not only been ruled by a Peruvian of Japanese descent, its food too has strong Japanese links. The ceviche, which is a very popular citric-flavoured seafood dish of the region, has a Japanese version called the tiradito. Here the fish is thinly sliced into fine strips like one would find in sashimi. The flavours of the ceviche — including the prawn ceviche that the chef has mastered — are strong, whereas the tiradito has a more subtle taste. Likewise, the tofu ceviche is a mix of Asian and Latin America cuisines.

The Indian influences in South America are more prominent in countries such as Guyana and Surinam, which have strong Indian communities. The food of Guyana has Indian, Chinese and Creole flavours. The shrimp curry — cooked with curry powder — is a popular dish there, while Surinam is known for its murgi tarkari, or chicken cooked with Indian spices.

But I think while all countries in the region have their own strengths and weaknesses — with some dishes that are worth writing home about, and some that need to be quietly buried — Peru takes the cake, and the ceviche — when it comes to food.

What makes Peru so special is the stream of influences that have gone into what is today known as Peruvian cuisine. A dish may have traditional Peruvian ingredients, Spanish influences of the colonisers and the flavours of the settlers — who came from West Africa and Italy, apart from China and Japan.

The outcome is a wonderful blend of flavours. You could say ‘‘Olι!’ to that — with a suitable Asian inflection.       

Prawn ceviche (serves 4)

Ingredients

• 400g prawns • 1 large tomato • 2 chillies • 2 red peppers • ½ roasted medium size onion • 150 ml fresh lemon juice • 50 ml tomato juice • 120 ml fresh orange juice • 1 tsp tabasco sauce • 2 tsp sugar • salt according to taste lwater for boiling

For the garnish: • 1 thinly sliced onion • 2 tbs chopped chives • 2 tbs chopped spring onions • 6 coriander leaves • 1 chopped tomato

Method

Peel and de-vein the prawns. Roast, peel and de-seed the tomato, chillies and red pepper. Boil the prawns in a pan for two minutes. Drain and immerse in a bowl of iced water. Drain the prawns and pat them dry. Blend the tomato, chillies, red pepper, onion, lime juice, orange juice, tomato juice, tabasco sauce, sugar and salt in a food processor. Pour this mixture over the prawns. Mix well, cover and chill for 6-8 hours or overnight. Mix the ingredients for the garnish and toss with the prawns before serving.

Braised pork belly (serves 4)

Ingredients

• 1 kg pork belly • 1 orange peel • 1 star anise • 10 g peppercorns • 10 g ginger peel • 1 halved onion • 6 peeled shallots • 4 carrots chopped into two lengthwise • 8 peeled garlic cloves • 2 chopped large leeks • 1 tsp chicken bouillon • 1 litre chicken stock la pinch of bouquet garni (parsley stalks, thyme, bayleaf, celery and leek) • 3 litres water

Method

Take a piece of thin cloth and tie it around the orange peel, star anise, peppercorns and ginger peel. Place this bundle in a saucepan with water. Add the other ingredients. Once it starts boiling reduce the heat. Let it simmer gently for 2-3 hours. Cool. Remove the pork from the pan. Put it on a chopping board and remove the excess fat.

Cut it into slices. Take the vegetables from the pan. Remove the cloth bundle from the pan and strain the liquid. Put the vegetables back in the liquid. Add the sliced pork to the liquid. Serve by placing the pork bellies in the centre of a plate. Surround by vegetables. Pour the sauce over and around the pork

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