Commentary, Peruvian Cuisine, Recipes

A Lomo Saltado for When Chilly Weather Comes

Peruvian Lomo Saltado (David Knowlton)

The weather is changing. A chill rain falls where I am in the US.. The leaves in the valley are on the edge of becoming a miraculous gold and my street will seem a tunnel of bright color.

With the hint of cold in the air, I want something heavier than the light fare of summer, something with the weight and nutrition to sustain as days grow shorter and new colors appear.

My thoughts turn to a dish I have not had for awhile, though it is a classic of the Peruvian cuisine that increasingly occupies me, lomo saltado. A stir fry of tender beef, red onions and firm tomatoes served with french fries and rice, it is just dark enough, colorful enough, and savory enough to satisfy me as fall flirts.

I could just go to a local Peruvian restaurant to satisfy my urges, since this dish has become a standard on their menus, but I find it highly varied from restaurant to restaurant. I want something really good and not just so so.

For years I ordered lomo saltado regularly whether in Peru or the United States; it is such a singular and symbolic dish. But that was years ago. I do not know when this iconic dish and I split paths nor when we first met.

It must have been the first time I went to Cusco, young and filled with excitement to be in my great aunt Lola’s country, a place she talked about and whose food she made whenever we visited her, though I do not remember her ever serving us lomo saltado. It must have been that time in Cusco, when i was twenty-one and had just come with friends by train, steam-ship, train from La Paz, Bolivia where I had been living.

The orange tiled roofs and white walls of the then compact city of Inca monuments and distinctive culture captivated me, though I had lived in colonial cities with their architectural treasures in Bolivia. I am sure that it was either on Plateros Street or in the San Pedro market that I ate my first lomo saltado.

At the time, Cusco was not a center of fine cuisine. There were restaurants along the plaza, the main square, that offered international cuisine for local elites and tourists, but Plateros and most every other street where people gathered had restaurants much like those in Bolivia whose offerings were the fixed sequence menu of ordinary cuisine offered at various prices.The courses were a soup, a main course, a dessert, and a refresco (a fruit water or room temperature tea).

I do remember eating lomo saltado later in Lima, my aunt’s city, on another trip. I sat at a bar that surrounded an out-door kitchen. In the middle men worked with huge woks to make up instantly whatever people ordered.

The sounds of scents of pre-sliced meat and vegetables hitting an intensely hot, curved steel surface stays with me as does my surprise at seeing the cook add, at the end, soy sauce and black vinegar (though I did not know what the latter was then) to the barely cooked dish to heat right before serving.

He ladled it out of containers of rich, dark sauce, and kept stirring, jumping all the ingredients around, before opening a vat of steaming rice. He mounded an ample amount of rice on the plate, scooped the fragrant meat and vegetables from the large wok, dusted the dish with minced parsley while quickly stuffing a small sprig of gleaming cilantro into the rice.

Suddenly it was before me and I sat there for an instant, slowly lifting my fork, while letting the perfumes wash over me.

Color, scent, and intense flavor. That is the first well formed memory I have of lomo saltado. It burst fresh from the wok, where I saw it cooked. That was as good an introduction as any to Peruvian food well-prepared.

I wanted to recreate that first experience of memory, sharp sounds of sizzling meat, black vinegar, fresh vegetables, french fries with flavor and all. Looking online and in various cookbooks was an exercise in frustration. They vary from a simple sautée to adding bell peppers and other ingredients. Some called for soy sauce and some white vinegar, but none used the black vinegar I remembered.

Gastón Acurio´s new cookbook in English, simply and boldly titled Peru: The Cookbook, had arrived with its colors like a rainbow over Cusco. His recipe called my attention, both for its straight forward simplicity and for what promised to be its depth of flavor.

With fresh and good ingredients straight from the farmer’s market, and a few things from my nearby Chinese store, I made it up.

Oh my. The flavor was far better than that of most restaurants and quickly transported me to that bar in Lima, watching, hearing, and smelling a lomo saltado miraculously appear from an intensely hot wok, one of the first woks I had ever seen.

Here is Gastón Acurio’s recipe along with notes in brackets and italics because no recipe makes its way without comment from page to plate.

Lomo Saltado (Beef Tenderloin Stir-Fry)

1 3/4 lb. beef tenderloin cut into 1/2 x 1 1/2 inch strips.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus extra for deep frying [I used peanut oil for the stir-frying and a good vegetable oil for the deep frying.]

14 oz. potatoes, cut into batons. [Potatoes are a problem. French fries in Peru are rich and flavorful, often with a light nuttiness because of the variety of potato used. To try to get some of this I did not use the russet potatoes most favored for French fries in the US and instead used two fresh-harvested yukon gold potatoes. They worked very well and had the flavor I wanted.]

1 red onion sliced. [I got my onion fresh from a Mexican vendor in our local farmer’s market. It had that intense bite you want. I sliced it in half and then into what in Spanish are called plumas—half inch wide, slightly arched strips—by cutting it lengthwise.]

2 yellow chillies, seeded, membrane removed and sliced. [I used cristal peppers from a friend’s garden. These are not the right ones, but come close. You would need fresh escabeche peppers from Peru but outside of some farmer’s markets, such as in the San Francisco Bay area, those are difficult to find. The frozen peppers of canned ones in Peruvian markets no longer have the right texture, so I substituted the cristal peppers. I suppose you could also use lemon drop, though they are fiercely hot. I did what Acurio called for and then, remembering how the dish is served in Peru, laid each half on my cutting board and julienned it in roughly 1/16th inch wide strips.]

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped. [I relied on a flavorful garlic from the farmer’s market and then used smallish cloves since garlic is not one of the strongest flavors of this dish]

5 tablespoons white wine vinegar. [I love the flavor of this vinegar, but found the amount in the recipe to be too much. It gave the dish more of a vinegar flavor than I liked so the second time I made it up I cut back the vinegar to four tablespoons and used Chinese black vinegar one time and then white wine vinegar. I love the muskiness added by the black vinegar but think, surprisingly, I prefer the richness of a good white wine vinegar.]

4 tablespoons soy sauce.

3 tablespoons oyster sauce [Acurio’s is the only recipe I found calling for oyster sauce, but I think the result is spot on.]

4 tomatoes skinned, seeded and sliced into half moon crescents. [I neither skinned nor seeded my tomatoes, remembering the many versions of this dish I had in Peru. I used fresh paste tomatoes from a friend’s garden and then added them, skin, seeds, and all at the last moment to barely heat through while retaining texture and shape. I think the skin adds to the aesthetics. But if you want to cook the tomato a bit more you might want to follow Acurio so that you do not end up with separated skins in your dish.]

1 scallion cut into 1 3/4 inch pieces [Oops. I forgot to buy scallions and so used fresh chives from the garden—sorry Gastón Acurio.]

1 tablespoon chopped cilanto leaves [I also forgot to buy the cilantro and only at the last minute remembered so instead I used some Mexcan pápalo from my garden. It gave a wonderful herbal note to the dish and I actually think I liked it better than the cilantro, though to be honest it is less authentic.]

2 cups, Peruvian-styled Cooked White Rice [Acurio’s recipe for the rice seems to have an error; I believe it confuses teaspoons for tablespoons. It will turn out way too salty if you follow it. To make it you basically sauté garlic in a fair amount of oil, add your water and bring to a boil, toss in the rice and salt, cover and let cook down for around ten minutes. It the rice is cooked through add a bit more oil and mix. Then let sit covered until ready to serve.]

Season the meat with salt and pepper and set aside [lightly since your soy sauce contains salt].

[Make your French fries and set aside.]

Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a very hot wok, add the meat, and stir fry in four batches, until browned and medium well done, about 2 minutes. Remove from the wok and set aside.

Clean the wok with paper towels and return it to the heat, adding 1 tablespoon oil followed by the onion, yellow chilies, and garlic. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then add the pre-cooked meat, vinegar, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.

Stir-fry the ingredients over high heat for another 30 seconds and finish by adding the tomatoes, scallion, and chopped cilantro (coriander) leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste. [I did not need to add any additional salt or pepper given the natural saltiness of the soy sauce and, as noted above, used chives and pápalo leaves instead of the scallions and cilantro].

Serve on plates with the potato batons and the rice. [The traditional way of making this is to add the French fries to the dish at the same time as the tomatoes, to quickly heat them through right before serving. Today people tend to serve them either on the side or below the lomo saltado. Either way is good, although each has proponents. In Peru they generally mold the rice onto the plate with a cup. You can serve it that way or simply mound it as you wish.

Oh, and do not forget, like I did, to stick a small sprig of cilantro (a couple of leaves) or parsley in your rice to liven up the presentation.

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7 Comments

  1. I remember being offered cacao in Moscow 15 years ago–dry mix with shelf milk–and thinking, my god, this is the best hot chocolate in the world. Bitter and rich, it was the perfect counterpart to the pastries my host family kept throwing at me. Next to the chocolate, I’d say my host mother’s fried potatoes were the most delicious food I ate in Russia.

    When I left for home, I brought a container of the cacao to make in my own kitchen, but it wasn’t the same. The potatoes were a disappointment, too, but I realized years later that cooking them in the right oil helped improve their taste. Still, not the same.

    I’m impressed that you could recall your initial encounter with lomo saltado in a dish you made here. For me, be it borcht, bratwurst or schnitzel, the soul of a culture’s food seems to stay with its hometown, no matter how many times I make it here.

    Then again, I suppose it’s not the culture we want to remember, but the conversation–a dialogue of nourishment, of give-and-take, a cosmic wave to who we were, when and where we were–that carries with it a peculiar witness in a dish like lomo saltado.

    Now there’s a thought: raise your own ghost every time you set wok to flame. No wonder we remember so vividly.

    1. Thank you, Renee. Food speaks beyond the stomach to the soul and so many are the memories and even ghosts when woks are set to flame. I will never forget the fried potatoes of Bolivia I had when young, their nuttiness and texture never to be repeated in my experience outsidde the Andes. When I try to make them in the US, though my efforts are doomed (wrong potatoes, oil, and climate) nevertheless it does bring back to me memories (ghosts) of people I have loved and who have given so much of themnselves to me.

  2. You comment begs the question, then: What is food?

    I’m not being asinine, just contemplating your reply to my initial comment. “Food speaks..” you said, but that’s an observation of what food DOES. Is food like water to electricity, then? Or paper money to material assets? (In other words, a conduit, an abstraction, something to convey a message or carry a meaning; without intrinsic purpose or identity.) You recall your memories of potatoes in Bolivia, but it’s more than just the potatoes that you emphasize. Love, you said, and the people who have given much of themselves to you.

    A profound sentiment that begs a moment of serious thought, and another question: Is food an extension of us?

    Certainly, food can be a language, but is that all it is? Food seems by nature prediscursive, but is it, really? We are bound to food by survival, but I’ve heard you mention before the our primal urges are about more than just satiety. (I agree) And yet, we must satisfy our urges if we’re to continue as individuals and as a species. Seems like Pandora’s Box to posit that even our most literal, material, biological needs are symbolic. A rabbit hole, that.

    If food is an extension of us, I would say then that it speaks to the best and worst of who we are as humans. Power, control, bondage, hatred; abundance, freedom, camaraderie, love. Years ago a friend of mine told me that cooking is a form of alchemy. I didn’t really take him seriously back then, but I think about it often now.

    More questions: if food is an extension of us, does that mean that the conditions for which food can be produced (ultimately encompassing the entire planet) are also extensions of us? Seems a bit hubristic to me. Where does the earth (natural world) end and humankind begin? Is there really a separation to begin with, and if so, what role does food have to play in our lives and our language?

    When it comes to food, I really have to wonder: who (or what) is actually doing the talking, and what is the message?

    1. Hi Renee,

      Good questions. I, obviously, so not have the answers however I am up to some conversation on them. My phrase”food speaks” was a simple anthromorphization. I do not think food “is” or “does” or “speaks” in and of itself, rather it is something created by desire, hunger, need. From our earliest days stuff is put in our maw and we demand stuff too, such as the breast from which milk comes. Food may well be a primary vehicle for human relatedness. It is an appropriation of stuff for our devouring and for our social ends.

      So, when food “talks” it is obviously not just symbolic (because we as a kind of interpretant make it so), it is also indexical and iconic in the Peircian sense and we can follow those chains of signification. As a result, yes food is prediscursive, just as most of human interaction and culture is as well. Discourse is there, chained into it from the beginning, “eat your food dear” if nothing else, though despite its intentions discourse is only a small part of it.

      Food is an extension of us humans since as we live we appropriate the world around us, including other people, into our needs and wants. Fortunately we cannot make them into simple existences as manifestations of that want or desire rather we draw them into relationship with us as they may also do the same to the degree they have wants and needs. If by extension, you mean simply relatedness, I am with you. If you mean becomes transformed by us, I do not completely agree.

      Food is drawn into the best and worst of us and becomes a manifestation of us in our complexity since it is there from that moment of first satiation. I heard that we humans have unusually aggressive and invasive placenta. I do not know how our hunger compares, since that is what makes food and that is then institutionalized, but it does strike me as aggressive, even if we are vegans. We do have politics and ethics of more and less aggression, however.

      Oh well, those are just some middle-of-the-night-and-I-can’t-sleep sentences.

      See you,

      David

  3. I do mean relatedness when I say “by extension.” True, the concept of alchemy implies transformation, but what I think I meant was that cooking as alchemy creates a relationship where there was none before. Or, perhaps more aptly stated, I believe that cooking has the potential to transform relationship itself, particularly relationships between people and cultures. There’s something about a shared meal that invites relationship.

    I’m inclined to take this dialogue about food towards an observation of humanity in general, since you made some remarks I’d like to respond to (“politics of more and less aggression” is an idea I’d like very much to unpack, for example), but I’m conscious of this platform–a food blog–and I’d like to respect it as such and stick to the subject matter. Unless, of course, you’re fine with talking about appropriation and institutionalization and hunger as more encompassing concepts, in which case I’m all for it. I tend to make a move towards broader (or deeper, if you prefer) concepts and their implications no matter what the subject matter is, but that’s just the way my mind works. Heh, for better or for worse, my brain is always reaching for more.

    (One wonders how intellectual hunger translates into the languge of food, and further, if there is such a thing as epistemological satiety.

    Whoa. I think I’ve just stumbled upon a question I don’t want to answer. Great…now I’m going to be up all night contemplating the end of knowing, the morality of curiosity, and worrying about being stricken with (or bringing upon myself) some sort of mental famine.)

    Of interest, however, and in closing: your mention of breastmilk as first nourishment and my immediate response upon reading that part of your reply. I had completely forgotten that our first taste of food comes, by nature, from the breast. Food = the supermarket. An “instinctive” association. Talk about disconnect. Geez.

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