The social media campaign begins one month prior to my arrival. I log onto Facebook and type in all caps the following plea: “Friends, Family, Fellow Patriots. Ask my mom to have mercy on my soul and make me a lomo saltado while I’m in Peru.” A cacophony of loved ones join in support via the comments. As for my mom? She’ll chime in with excuses. Quality tenderloin is too expensive. She doesn’t have the time to fry potatoes fit for a McDonald’s franchise. She’s too tired for the kind of strict adherence to steps that a good one requires. An appeal to her unconditional love goes ignored. There is no convincing guilt trip to be enacted. She gave me life and therefore owes me squat. She will not budge and I will continue my never-ending lament of not tasting lomo saltado, especially my mom’s.
Lomo saltado is a dish from my home country, Peru, a country that pops up on Tinder profiles as proof of an adventure-seeking personality. It’s also the country your most annoying, self-described foodie friend raves about. To its credit, Peru has always been a carnival of culinary delights, and lomo saltado is one of its finest examples. Simply put, it’s a stir-fry of beef strips, French fries, julienned tomatoes, and red onions, served over white rice. Most carnivores will already be enthused by the mere mention of seared tenderloin and crispy fries, but that’s not really where the genius lies. Its true depth is in the soy-based sauce used to toss the ingredients, a savory infusion that includes garlic, white vinegar, and ají amarillo, the fleshy, bright orange chili pepper that is a staple of Peru’s cuisine.
It can be argued that this last element is the ultra-Peruvian bind tying all these disparate ingredients together. I’m of the idea that the whole is more important than any of its individual components. It’s the harmony between the slightly charred beef and the red onion crunch, the slightly distressed tomato with the piping hot fried potatoes, and the irrefutable presence of the sauce in every bite that makes me hungry for more. And it is this precise unity that makes lomo saltado the most representative dish of a nation 32 million strong.
I can already hear the rage-induced tap of the keyboards of some compatriotas, and that one guy who spent a summer surfing in Máncora, as they rush to correct me by pointing out ceviche as Peru’s national dish. To them I say: nah. In my opinion, lomo saltado has a greater claim than a one-note, citrusy plate of raw fish. It is a divine fusion of flavors that hit sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and yes, umami. Moreover, it carries with it the weight of our history. It’s a study in the syncretic practices that made Peru the fusion country par excellence before fusion became a buzzword among overpriced restaurants and confused chefs.
Most experts agree that the dish is the exquisite result of Chinese influence on the Peruvian palate. In search of cheap labor to work the fields and the extremely profitable guano-producing islands, the Peruvian government looked to China. In 1849, the first group of workers arrived on Peru’s shores and another 90,000 followed over the next quarter century. Once they were released from their contracts, many of them opened up small grocery stores where they sold ingredients from their Asian homeland, as well as restaurants replicating their (mostly) Cantonese dishes with whatever Peruvian produce they could find. Peru’s food scene was forever transformed. The use of rice as a companion to the majority of our meals? Chinese influence. Using the term “kion” instead of “gengibre” when referring to ginger? Chinese influence. The ubiquitous presence of “chifas,” Chinese-Peruvian restaurants, in every single neighborhood in Lima? Chinese influence.
In terms of lomo saltado, the fingerprint is obvious. The best way to make it is with a scorching hot wok. You can’t prepare it without a generous pour of soy sauce. But what I truly love about it, as I once drunkenly declared during a birthday dinner in Brooklyn, is that “I can taste my whole country in my mouth.” With a representative of almost every major demographic group that makes up my country, lomo saltado surpasses all the class divisions, racial tensions, and embattled history to present itself as the ideal vision of what Peru could be.
At least that was my pisco sour-induced theory, which, though its sounds ridiculous in the stone cold truth of sobriety, may have some merit. The potato is a gift our indigenous forebears gave to the world after they domesticated it in our southern valleys. (You’re welcome.) Cows were brought first by the Spaniards and never really flourished in Peru, making it the rare beef dish in our culinary tradition. I prefer mine with Roma tomatoes, a nod to the Italian immigrants that also came to work the guano islands. Peruvians used red onion almost exclusively, a vegetable widely used by enslaved Africans who, in turn, had a big hand in creating criollo cuisine. They were the ones cooking the foods at the haciendas, after all. The dish also features the ají, the pepper that serves as the foundation for our entire culinary culture. Bursting forth from the walls of chifas to spread rapidly to every home kitchen, restaurant stove, hole-in-the-wall eatery, and even the occasional cart, lomo saltado is an immigrant success story at its finest.
It’s not surprising that my fondness for this dish turned into a full-blown obsession right around the time I left home for college. Because of my father’s career, I had only grown up sporadically in Peru and had spent large chunks of my childhood in Switzerland, the U.S., and Argentina. My nationalistic cravings are intimately tied up to my mother’s cooking, perhaps even more so than those who have stayed put in their country of origin. Nevertheless, Peru was still seen as the default setting for my family, the place we always returned to after my father’s posts abroad ended. However, when I landed in Montreal for undergrad, I had the overwhelming suspicion I would end up making a life very far away from Peru and from my mom. I was right.
I’ve been on a quixotic search for the perfect lomo saltado since then, a task easier said than done. You can’t just throw the ingredients haphazardly into a wok and call it a day. As with most things Peru, the reality is more complex. Ingredients are tricky to find. Peruvian cookbooks are less like orderly math teachers and more like the philosophy professor who ignores the assigned reading and spends the entire lecture in a stream of consciousness. Important prep is assumed but never explained, timeframes are approximate but rarely precise, and there is an over-reliance on “to taste.” It’s a dish that requires patience and order. Put in the meat too quickly and it gets soggy. Leave the tomatoes on for too long and they get soupy. Wet French fries are only good at the end of a meal, not at its start.
There is another insurmountable obstacle that can’t be pinned on the sins of Peruvian recipe writers. All the lomo saltados I consume are a desperate search for my mom’s and are, therefore, destined to fail. I could call her on the phone or send her an email to ask her for her own recipe but she refuses to give in to my CIA-level interrogation on the subject. Like myself, my mom prefers to cook in private and banishes everyone from the kitchen, with no witnesses to her techniques. I’ve sometimes spotted little flairs that might make all the difference like the pisco she uses to flambé the meat or the use of the Andean yellow potato instead of Yukon. It’s not enough to uncover the mystery.
At the end of the day, asking a dish to transport me back home is way too tall an order. What I can ask it to do is to indulge in my nostalgia and let me remember the country I abandoned via rose-tinted glasses. Or, in this case, soy-splattered ones. At the very least, I can take a pic of my efforts and send it to my mom. She might see the pitiful state of my own version and agree to make me one when I go home.