I probably should have researched Peruvian food a bit before I sat down at Latin Bites and read the menu, pretending to understand exactly what I was looking at.
I had no idea what aji was, but there was that word, an ingredient in nearly every dish. I didn't know what cancha was either, but apparently I ate it along with the ceviche (that word I know) the first night I dined on Peruvian food. I knew I liked aji and cancha, whatever they were, because I liked everything I ate at Latin Bites, the subject of this week's cafe review. But as a restaurant critic -- heck, as someone who appreciates good food -- it's not enough for me to just acknowledge I like something and move on without understanding how the individual components work together to create an interesting meal.
So I Googled. I Googled for hours, and when I was done, I had created a pretty handy glossary of Peruvian food terminology, and I'd learned a lot about why Peruvian food is the way it is.
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Aji, I learned, means pepper, and there are many different varieties of aji grown in the valleys of the Andes, but as far as I can tell, all of them are delicious. Corn is a big part of the Peruvian diet, but Peruvian corn isn't like North American or even European corn. Peruvian corn, or choclo (also called Cuzco corn) has massive kernels that are chewier and starchier than the corn to which most of us are accustomed. Cancha is choclo that has been toasted and salted. Cancha is like corn nuts for grown ups who don't like a side of chemicals with their snack.
These are the words I saw repeated most frequently on the menu, as these -- corn and peppers -- are key players in Peruvian cuisine. Something else I would have learned and understood had I researched Peruvian food before I ate it is that it's heavily influenced by the cuisines of other countries.
When the Spanish began colonizing in the 1500s, they brought with them rice and wheat. Conquistadors also brought African slaves with them, who imparted to the natives African cooking techniques and food combinations such as sweet potatoes and pork. Chinese immigrants settled in Peru in the 19th century to work as contract laborers and brought an emphasis on rice and stir fry to Peruvian food. These days, coastal cities like Lima are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Desserts are influenced by French and Italian pastries and Japanese sashimi-type dishes find their way on to many menus. Even American Cola has found a place in Peruvian restaurants.
In spite of this amalgamation of cultures, the most notable ingredients and dishes continue to be those that have been consumed in Peru since the Inca Empire. Peruvians have managed to embrace outside culinary influences while still maintaining a sense of self. This much is clear, even without doing any research.