Perhaps the most well known Peruvian dish, lomo saltado is both codified and constantly being recreated these days. Like so much else it is undergoing reinterpretation and redefinition. At the same time discussions take place about what its essence is so that its tradition can be maintained.
Lomo saltado arose in the woks of Chinese Peruvians. They also created other important national dishes, such as arroz chaufa, or fried rice, and introduced the sinicized siyao to Peru when everywhere else in Latin America it came later, most likely during the period of Gringo dominance and so is called salsa de soya, or soy sauce.
Lomo saltado developed in Peru around the time when mass migration began to the capital city of Lima. Popular eateries developed. The dish spread rapidly throughout urban Peru. It was even present in Cuzco by the forties and probably earlier.
It came to signify the creole and the mass, nationalist Peru that was developing in the half century after the disastrous War of the Pacific. It also stood as different from the food of Peru’s indigenous peoples who were urbanizing, Hispanizing and creolizing to an unprecedented degree.
As Peruvian food expanded outward from its Andean home, lomo saltado came to be found on every menu. This was before the boom in Peruvian gastronomy and its careful definition and promotion. The international reach of lomo saltado It was fueled by the migration of Peruvians outward looking for work during the difficult decades prior to and during the Shining Path and MRTA revolutions.
In the process, lomo saltado had become codified and that code widespread. It was a stir fry of strips of beef, preferably loin, that included tomatoes, Peru’s red onions, french fried potatoes, a splash of soy sauce and a bit of vinegar. It was obligatorily served to the side of a mound of white rice. This was the boiled white rice typical of Chinese cooking. It was not the arroz graneado, the pre-toasted rice rice of creole food. In addition the fried potatoes where mixed in with the stir fry and took on the flavor.
It was always impressive to watch people cook the dish, whether at street side eateries in Lima or restaurants in the highlands. In a burst of shaking and flame, the ingredients were rendered into your dish and then laid on your plate next to a mound of formed riced scooped from a large pot.
It was also unbelievably good, even when done in an ordinary fashion. The meat was filled with flavor and combined beautifully with the tomato’s semicooked acidity, the almost gone tartness of the onions and the nuttiness of the fries. The soy sauce and bare spurt of vinegar drew it altogether into an amalgam of taste.
With the push for development and promotion of Peru’s cuisine, lomo saltado became useful of an example of expanded mixing, or mestizaje, the great slogan of nationalist Peru and an ideal for its indigenous population. The model of Peru’s Chinese inhabitants seemed percfect. From their woks, their technique of stir frying, came not a Chinese dish, but a Peruvian dish as it joined Peru’s onions and potatoes with Chinese technique and ingredients. It somehow was less troubled than the mixing going on as Peru’s Indians struggled to fit into its Creole culture and yet maintain some sense of themselves and their culture.
In the recent rush to update and improve Peruvian cuisine, lomo saltado has been scrutinized in order to promote it as the banner of a new, proud Peru. This Peru would be argued to be as good as any nation both to its own citizens and as a worthy member of the international community. Its cuisine was held to deserve inclusion in the world’s repertoire of great cuisines.
People such as Gastón Acurio took the dish apart to think through the techniques used to make it. They did this to seek to improve it or give it just a touch of ingenuity and invention if not improvement all the while maintaining its essence that had to be defined. In the process, they looked one by one at the ingredients and asked about their quality and consistency, as well as their relationship to the whole.
As a result, lomo saltado in fine restaurants is no longer the same. It carries the moniker of tradition and Peru’s national pride, but is an individual work of art, often claimed by a named chef.
To see this, you need only look on Google for all the different recipes for this dish attributed to Gaston Acurio, or look in Google Images for pictures of the resulting dishes on one site or another. There you will see a witness to the ongoing reinvention of this staple of Peru.
Everything can change, except for involving meat and some combination of tomatoes and onions, and being sauteed or stir fried. It can be served on lettuce for a salad, or can have the potatoes on the side like the rice. You can even leave them off. You can use soy sauce or not, and so on.
Like Peru, lomo saltado is moving into the future with every cooking. Inevitably a winnowing process will occur as one recipe or another wins out and becomes more generally accepter. But now is a great time to try the dish, enjoy its history, and the breadth of recreations. It is likely to surprise and delight you, while always seeming fresh.