Cooking for My Mom
Recreating the comida criolla that Mom cooked for us
My mom has been cooking for almost 80 years, first with her mother since she was 6 years old and eventually for our family. Now, it’s my turn to cook for her.
My Mom’s Culinary Heritage
My mom grew up in a 19th century quinta, a tenement building in the working class neighborhood of Barrios Altos in Lima.
There, it was families of Andean, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, or Afro-descendant heritage that shaped the city’s creole food culture.
Her home was near Barrio Chino, Lima’s Chinatown, and her family frequented San Joy Lao, Lima’s oldest chifa restaurant, on special occasions.
When Mom was six years old, she awoke at 5 a.m. and walked to Lima’s central market with neighbors. She brought a grocery list to buy fresh ingredients for the meals my grandmother would cook that day. And slept on a blanket in queue waiting for the market to open. Mom tells me that she stood on a stool in my grandmother’s wood fire kitchen to help cook. And the first dish she made was steamed rice.
Learning to Cook
In Peru, we say that a cook “tiene buena mano,” meaning that she has a good hand, or touch, or instinct for cooking, much like an artist. My mom’s cooking is what inspired me to become a chef. When she taught me to cook a dish, I was amazed that she knew all the recipes by heart, and she never measured anything. So I’d always ask about how much seasoning to add, or how to tell a dish was done.
Quite simply, cooking brought her tremendous joy, and that is something you can taste. Even today, when I ask her to remind me about a dish, say arroz chaufa, Chinese-Peruvian fried rice, our conversation begins something like this:
Me: Mom, how do you prepare arroz chaufa?
Mom: Arroz chaufa? Easy! First…
And with her exclamation she would smile and clap her hands for emphasis. Then, she’d begin enumerating the steps with her fingers. Mom found so much happiness in cooking that to her it was truly effortless. After cooking for more than four decades, I don’t follow recipes anymore and I’ve almost achieved that elusive effortlessness.
About a decade ago, my mom visited me in San Francisco, and we participated in a Storycorps project—I interviewed her about Peru’s comida criolla, growing up in Lima, early food memories, family traditions, and her favorite dish. You can listen to the interview’s audio or read the transcript.
In one of my favorite stories, my grandmother prepared tallarines rojos and papa a la huancaina that she’d pack for a beach picnic. They rode a trolley from Barrio’s Altos to Agua Dulce beach that was lined with blue and white striped tents that upper class families would rent. But my grandfather would bring broomsticks and bedsheets to set up a makeshift tent to enjoy shade for their picnic lunch.
Decades later, my mom continued the tradition of preparing tallarines rojos for our beach outings. I think there’s something special about eating food at the beach or as a picnic. Somehow it tastes better, my mom tells me.
Mom, Culinary Storyteller
For the better part of a decade, I taught home cooks to prepare Peru’s comida criolla at 18 Reasons, an award-winning cooking school in San Francisco. On several occasions, I cooked a pop-up dinner and my mom was the guest of honor.
She’d pick the menu, I’d prepare the dishes, and she’d share stories about the food culture of her youth in Lima with the dinner guests. Everyone at the communal table was enthralled by her storytelling which imbued the dishes with more meaning.
Like her cooking, storytelling came naturally to my mom. Perhaps because it’s an important element in the Indigenous culture of our ancestors, where recipes are passed down orally across generations. As are the stories about people and place.
The last time we collaborated on a dinner and stories event, my mom selected this menu, which didn’t surprise me, and which everyone loved:
Arroz con Leche
Recreating Creole Dishes, the Vegan Way
Recently, I had the opportunity to cook for my mom, dad, aunt, and uncle during a family visit at our home in Portland, Oregon. They’ve eaten and cooked Peru’s traditional food all their lives, so I planned a creole menu for every day of their visit. But since I’ve been vegan for almost 4 years now, I used only plant-based ingredients to recreate some of their favorite dishes for lunch and dinner.
In Lima, lunch is the main meal of the day. So I’d prep the night before then cook a hearty lunch like a vegan arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood), or in this case arroz sin mariscos (rice without seafood). I used a ready-to-bake plant-based frozen fish and shrimp that I’d cook a la plancha with garlic, salt, and lime juice. And they loved it. The goal here was not to trick them into thinking they were eating seafood, but rather to make a dish with all the flavor and textures of the original, and it worked.
In the evenings, I’d make piqueos, or small bites, like empanadas or causa. One evening we got vegan sushi take out, and I made vegan yakitori with plant-based chicken that I cooked, skewered, then seasoned with a home-made tare sauce.
During the visit, I kept thinking about my mom’s life trajectory. How she’s been cooking for almost 80 years and how she’s gone from daughter to mother to grandmother. And now, it’s my turn to cook for her.
When I interviewed my mom for Storycorps a decade ago, she offered some important advice: learn to cook, because through food you’ll preserve your culture. One day, when I begin to teach my children to cook, I know I’ll say:
“Abuelita taught me to cook this dish, and this is the story she told me about it…”
Love this picture Nico. Congratulations and lots of success. 👏👏👏🍽🎼
Ok. You brought tears to my eyes. I can’t wait for little Rio to start cooking with us. We had a wonderful inter generational time with you in Portland. Thank you for your delicious food. Besos. Aunt Gabby