Food Culture, Recipes

Tacos in Peru from a Northern Eye

Tacos are folded simplicity that, when well prepared, are sublime. They are not traditional food in Peru, Mexico takes that honor. Yet, they are appearing more and more throughout the country.

Many neighborhoods now have simple taco restaurants with an offering of different meats, some guacamole and salsa rolled in a flour tortilla.

I enjoy trying them, from time to time, though I must confess I am ruined by my life-long connection with Mexico and its food. Of course the flavors are different. It is almost impossible to get things exactly the same in a different country using different ingredients. Furthermore, Mexican food—as it has everywhere—will adapt to fit the expectations and demands of the local communities taking it on, in this case Peru and specifically Cusco.

The tacos I have eaten are served full to overflowing with a mixture of ingredients, the chosen meat and sauces. I am reminded more of the taco árabe, the Arab tacos of Puebla, Mexico, with slices of meat rolled in pan árabe, a Mexican version of Arabic flatbread with which the flour tortilla is probably closely related. The cousin of the taco árabe is the shawarma or gyro, often called rollos is Peru. They are also filled to overflowing, not unlike the burritos of Sonora in the Mexican north, Arizona and California from where they then travel to most of the US.

In Perú, for my tastes, these overstuffed tacos can be rather muddy in flavor and conception, although sometimes they are delicious.

Tacos in Cusco (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Tacos in Cusco (Walter Coraza Morveli)

I have to pull myself back and stop comparing them to tacos with corn tortillas that I love. You almost never find corn tortillas in Perú, a fact I lament. I do not know why. There is wonderful corn there and Peruvians already carry out the process the Mexicans call nixtamalización, that is to say slaking the corn in lime so that it can be used. They even grind the resulting corn. One of these days, I am just going to the market, buying the fresh, ground corn, taking it home, and making tortillas of corn, because I, as someone from the border with Mexico, just need them.

It is not only the tortilla that is different. The esthetic of presentation also varies from what I grew up with on the US Mexican border or what I have had in Mexico (with the exception of the Arab taco).

To show the difference, I made up potato and beef tacos, a homey kind that immediately took me to childhood and brought memories of scents, tastes, and light from El Paso and our kitchen racing back to my mind. The ground beef mixture is savory and rich, with ground red Nambé chile, cumin, coriander, and oregano. Yet, the small cubes of yellow potatoes contrast with their mildness and bring a depth to the dish.

As most Anglo families we had a maid from the other side of the border who lived with us five and a half days a week and spent a day and a half in Ciudad Juarez with her family., this is the kind of quick dish she would make up for my brothers and me and sooth us with happiness and satisfaction while my mother was busy teaching piano and my father was still at work

Tacos like this can easily be made in Peru with their base in a kind of picadillo, a flavorful hash, involving potatoes (native to Perú) and ground beef.

A smallish amount of filling, depending on the size of the tortilla, is placed in the center of each. In my case it was about a couple of tablespoons.

I do not measure, but know from practice and habit how much is enough and how much too much. You do not over fill the tortilla, because the taco is also composed of a variety of other ingredients, the dressings, the additions that when layered in a combination of raw and cooked make a taco sing. To this you can add grated cheese (although North Americans tend to overdo this last with cheddar instead of the aged cotija cheese of Mexico) as well as a hot sauce, or guacamole. Debates can rage about the appropriate sauce for each kind of taco.

And, you can squeeze drops of lime juice on the taco right before eating it. Lime juice is the ever-present condiment of Latin America.

The end is a folded pouch of layered, multi-note ingredients, that zings on your palate. Its combination in distinctness is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It should not blend but keep individual characteristics to challenge and thrill your palate.

The tacos I made had perfect notes of hominess and nostalgia in the seasoned beef mixed with boiled, cubed potatoes. I loved them and share with you here my recipe.

A warning, though. I did not learn to make this following measurements, but by doing. Though I measured so I could write, I know I would vary the amounts according to the flavors of everything and the weather to get the right outcome every time.

When in Peru, I shall make these tacos to share. My friends, you have my promise.
Picadillo, or Beef and Potato Filling for Tacos

Beef and Potatoes for Tacos (David Knowlton)
Beef and Potatoes for Tacos (David Knowlton)

(Make somewhere between 8-12 tacos, or more, depending on the size of your tortillas)

1 lb. quality ground beef.
2 medium sized golden potatoes (about 12 ounces)
1 heaping tablespoon of Nambé ground red chile or other New Mexico or California ground red chile without other flavorings added. (In Peru I will use ground ají panca, either as a powder or as the liquid sold in the market). You can use more if you wish a stronger chile flavor.
1 clove of garlic, finely minced.
1/2 tsp fresh ground cumin
1/2 tsp coriander (preferably freshly ground)
salt to taste.

Peel, and cube into quarter inch cubes the potatoes and cook in water.

Brown and crumble the meat in a frypan over medium high heat, add the garlic and let it soften as the meat takes on a cooked color. Season with the ground chile, the cumin, coriander, and salt. stir to mix thoroughly.

Add the cooked potato cubes and a small amount of the cooking water (a tablespoon or so) to soften the chile and cook the seasonings into the meat. Boil off the water and yor beef and potato taco filling is ready to use.

Tacos (David Knowlton)
Tacos (David Knowlton)

For my tacos, I had previously minced a white onion, although the Peruvian red is good as well, or the American Spanish onion. I had cilantro leaves, sliced strips of radish ready, crumbled cotija cheese, and quarters of lime. I also made up a quick table sauce (tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and cilantro, and salt blended in pulses to maintain texture) and had crumbled cotija cheese.

To assemble the tacos, I softened my commercial corn tortillas (handmade are so much better) over a flame, although you can also do so in a fry pan with a little oil and kept them warm in a clean kitchen towel. To each tortilla, I added the appropriate amount of filling, about two tablespoons, and then dressed each with a bit of minced onion, cilantro leaves, radish, cotija cheese, and sauce. I served the tacos with the lime eigths so people could squeeze the right amount of juice they wished, and placed a roasted jalapeño on each plate.

The tacos pleased the eye and then delighted the palate.

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