Peru Favorite Jalea Mixta (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Jennifer hovered delicately over us in the booth while we looked over the menus.They were long with numerous offerings and even some quite translations that made me smile.
“Tell me,” I asked in Spanish, “what are the dishes that are the most asked for?”
I had looked at the restaurant’s Facebook page, its Yelp page, and other internet mentions. Named Puro Peru, it was on a very unprepossessing strip of the wide street that traverses this valley from north to south, a state highway. Yet its fans called it “the best Peruvian in Utah”.
You could see them dining, dancing, and smiling. While the Yelp reviews were filled with Anglo names, the pictures on Facebook looked to me to be mostly middle or upper middle class Peruvians. Utah does have a substantial Peruvian community of that class with a different origin from the more working class community of people who came to herd sheep, originally.
With a delightful lilt that surprised me, since i expected the rattle and aspirated “s” of coastal, Peruvian Spanish, Jennifer said “The specials of the house are …”
I interrupted. “No, I was asking what is it that are the most ordered foods.”
“The specials are the most ordered,” she responded with a focus, discipline, and charm that were only matched by the smile dancing through her eyes. “The are jalea, ceviche, and lomo saltado,” she said while explaining each dish.
The first one surprised me.
I figured ceviche would be widely ordered, given the press it has gotten—not to mention the wonderful flavor of fresh fish with lime, onions, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes. It is a wondrous dish, to be sure, though, like sushi, it is often far better as an idea than as a rendering since fish of fine ceviche quality are rare, especially in landlocked states of the United States, like Utah.
But, jalea? A combination of lightly floured, fried fish and sea food, this dish is also a marvel, when well prepared, especially when the waves lap not far from your table and the strains of a Marinera Norteña can be heard in the distance. It is typical of Peru’s far north but is found elsewhere.
A mound of bite sized pieces, crunchy on the outside, while mouthwateringly juicy and flavorful inside, it has a strange name meaning both a means of conserving food (in this case traditionally drying it and salting it) and, even more, means to be “extremely affectionate, as someone completely in love.”
The popularity of the dish should not have surprised me. After all, I love forking the pieces and dipping them in Peruvian lime-based mayonnaise and a hint of hot sauce before their affections overwhelm my senses. But there is more, Utah’s Peruvian populations skews toward the north, especially to people from Trujillo, the largest city of the north.
And, lomo saltado, well that just figures. It is a classic and is the first Peruvian dish I had in the US outside of my great aunt’s home (she was from Lima). Puro Peru entitled them “jumping” beef. Oh my, that image of cattle jumping around on my plate made me giggle.
The term saltado is one I too have wrestled with in my translations for this page. I think I even used jumping at least once, for saltado.
If you have ever watched people cook this dish on Peru’s coast then you know they do so in large woks and skip the food around as the stir fry it. They make it jump. So, the translation makes sense, though the beef does not jump of its own will but is jumped. And when said that way, the term takes on very different meanings in English.
The better translations would be either “stir-fried” beef or “sautéed” beef. The verb saltado comes from, saltear, is the word for sauté in Spanish, as well as for stir-fry. I suspect trying not to fall into the delicacy of French sauté, while stir fry is just, well, too Chinese, makes one look for other ways of saying saltado in English.
Hearing Jennifer’s lilt, I asked her where she was from.
“Colombia” she said “Manizales”. Right in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, you would not have expected this city to produce a waitress in a Peruvian restaurant in Sandy, Utah.
More often than not, the waiter and waitresses in Peruvian restaurants here are from other areas of Latin America, besides Peru. I suspect this is not just because the Peruvian population is so small, it is after all the third Latino population in the state, after Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. I think it is because there just is no other Latin American country, besides Mexico, that has developed so many restaurants offering its cuisine in Utah, and in the United States.
I ordered a carapulcra ( a dish from the coast) and, after Jennifer checked with the kitchen was told it was not available, so I went with the most popular and ordered the lomo saltado. The stir fry was good and the rice, not bad. However the french fries seemed out-of-a-bag, frozen, pre cut and maybe pre cooked American fries. They were flavorless compared with the Peruvian style fries easily made from gold potatoes easily available in the US.
My friend ordered another another northern delight, a seco de res, beef stewed in a cilantro sauce and served with rice and creamy, savory beans. It tasted good, though the beef was surprisingly dry. The portion was just very skimpy.
As it turned out, the best thing about Peru Peru was not its Creole bragging or its food, which was good but not quite there yet. It was a charming Colombian waitress.