Rosario sits down to lunch with her chef and her two waitresses. It’s all slush and pudgy fog this early afternoon, and I’m sitting across the empty dining room from the group when I’m waved over.
On the table are communal plates of traditional Peruvian cuisine: lomo saltado, pollo a la parilla, chupe de camarones and tarralin verde. The table was colorful and vibrant with food, prepared from recipes brought to Longmont direct from a Peruvian cooking school, where Rosario’s mother is a teacher of Peruvian cuisine. Rosario and I don’t speak the same language, but she says a lot with her cooking.
Peruvian cuisine. It’s not clear when you’re looking at a menu, when you’re eating the food or even when you’re driving home with a belly full of noodles, fish and yucca, how to package this small South American country’s powerful and diverse culinary tradition. It takes as equally from Spanish and Italian as it does from Chinese and Southeast Asia. It bastes in local ingredients and revives Incan cooking practices and recipes.
What you get is food that’s vaguely familiar though you can’t quite put your finger on why. You can say, at least, that Peruvian cuisine is global and fun.
At the table, we talk about Rosario’s papa rellena. It’s essentially a loaded potato that’s fried, but due to the chef ’s meticulous and traditional preparation, I wasn’t entirely sure, before being told, that the creamy shell was starch — they had so utterly transformed the potato that it made the eternally familiar, unfamiliar.
The papas rellenas take about four hours to make. First, I’m told, potatoes are peeled and boiled. Then they’re mashed with cream, butter and spices, and left to cool. Ground, seasoned beef, diced onions and tomatoes, and sliced hard-boiled egg are bundled and rolled into the potato, which is rolled into plastic wrap and left, like ostrich eggs, to firm and incubate. The plastic is removed and the potato bombs are then lightly fried, so that when you put a fork through it, the shell cracks and reveals all the fun warm stuff inside.
But Rosario’s ceviche was the star. The fish and citrus dish is a staple of Peruvian cooking, and the origins of ceviche trace back to coastal populations in modern-day Peru. The country even celebrates Dia del Ceviche every June.
The dish is widely regarded in Peru as a hangover cure, and the juice made from ceviche (leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk) is also considered an aphrodisiac.
Ceviche varies by region, with fish, citrus and vegetables somewhat interchangeable. The ceviche at Rosario’s is typical of Peru’s southern coast and features white fish (in this case tilapia) “cooked” or marinated in lime juice (citric acid essentially replicates the cooking process in fish) and topped with red onions, hot pepper, cilantro, toasted corn and a polygon of cooked sweet potato.
It was bright, cold and fresh, which made it sort of an odd accompaniment to the papa rellena and a big plate of arroz haufa. Of the three, and a cup of a simple and tasty lomo saltado soup (sirloin steak, vegetables, tomato broth, quinoa), the ceviche was the best. The fish was tender and flavorful; a bite of fish, onion, lime and corn was remarkably bold and unique.
Unfortunately, the arroz haufa, made with chicken fried rice, scrambled egg, chicken bits and scallion, was feckless — a little too dry and a little too bland. I much preferred Rosario’s smaller, brighter dishes, of which I’ll include a revolutionary chicha morada soda — made of purple corn, cloves, cinnamon and sugar — that tastes like a more manageably sweet, thinner and more refreshing horchata.
A friendly staff, crooning Latin singers on the speakers, a simple and tasteful interior design and reasonable prices all help ease the uninitiated into Peruvian cuisine at Rosario’s. Though there were hits and misses on my trip, I’ll be back soon to try, and learn, more.