Monday, October 26, 2009

Taking the Heat: San Diego's Peruvian Markets

Chef Ron Oliver has a thing for Peruvian food. So, The Marine Room chef got in touch with me recently with an invitation to introduce me to a little place in Hillcrest that sells Peruvian groceries. I wracked my brain trying to come up with the place. After all, I'd lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. But, I shouldn't have bothered trying because the place isn't a market exactly. It's a travel agency: Latin American Travel & Services. It's in an office building on Fifth Ave. next door to Hash House A Go Go. Step inside and it's pretty much what you'd expect of a travel agency office. But then there's that large ante room, with shelves filled with all sorts of unexpected treats. Owners Tomas and Nelly Centurion basically have a little grocery store going--and even have a freezer and refrigerator in the back with still more products for the homesick Peruvian.

When you think of Peru, often the first food that comes to mind is potatoes--and you can find them at this little shop, so long as you like freeze dried--or dehydrated--canned, and frozen versions of them.

Above you can see chuno blanco and negro--black and white potatoes. Yes, they're freeze dried, but this is an interesting Peruvian tradition, centuries old, derived from the necessities of harsh living conditions. First, a frost-resistant variety of potato is alternately exposed to the low night temperatures of the Andes and then intense sunlight. This goes on for several days.

The chuno blanco is the result of washing the now dried potatoes, which are then dried once again in the sun and stomped on to remove the skins and any residual liquid. Chuno negro isn't washed, just sun dried. The potatoes turn black from oxidation. Once the process is complete, the potatoes can be stored for months, even years. They're used in soups and stews, even desserts. And they can be ground into flour.

Grains, another staple of Peruvian cuisine, are plentiful at Latin America Travel Services. There were wheat berries--both white and green--as well an Kiwicha Amaranto, a whole grain in the quinoa family but with more protein. You can use it as cereal and also add it to soups. And, they have quinoa as well. I also found several varieties of large dried corn kernels (similar to what's used for corn nuts). I've bought versions of these in the past. They're fun to toast in a little oil and salt for a snack or to sprinkle on a meat dish.

On a shelf nearby were jars of quite large purple olives. I bought the ones on the left below and have been enjoying their salty meatiness as a snack.

The Centurions have a full line of tropical juices and nectars, including chicha morada, made with purple corn and said to lower blood pressure. And, if you want to make your own, they sell bags of purple corn on the cob. Just boil it with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and cloves. You only need to use one cob, according to Tomas Centurion. A little goes a long way.

Related to chicha morada is chicha de jora, a fermented corn liquid which is tangy like a vinegar. In Peru, it's a beer-like drink but at Sr. Centurion's suggestion, I've been using it in marinades for meats.

Back in the room with the freezer Sr. Centurion pulled out a number of bags of frozen corn and potatoes, and caigua, an unusual long green vegetable that can be used for stuffing. Chef Ron shows you how to prepare it, and has a recipe for quinoa salad that uses caigua.

One of the products that got Chef Ron most excited was the Aji Amarillo, a yellow pepper paste with heat, but also an earthy aromatic quality that makes it sublime in stews. I bought a jar of that and Panca Pepper. This is aji panca, red chile paste from a chile that grows in the Andes. I recently used it in a braised lamb shank dish.

In the spirit of the morning, as we left Latin America Travel & Services I suggested to Ron that we have lunch at a little restaurant/market in Clairemont that also focuses on Latin America: Tropical Star. When we walked in, we both started laughing because on the shelves were many of the same products we'd just left.

Well, Tropical Star's focus is more about Puerto Rican and Latin American cuisine, but there obviously are overlaps. If you love Latin American and Caribbean cuisine it's a place worth visiting. Here, the focus is on the restaurant--tiny as it is--with a sideline in groceries (unlike many of my favorite ethnic markets, which also have small eateries). You'll find Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja, Cuban-style shredded beef seasoned with garlic, onion, and bell peppers served with white rice, black beans, fried plantains, and boiled yucca; and Picada Colombiana, a Columbian feast of chorizo, morcilla (black sausage), chicarron (pork rinds, of course), patacones (fried green plantains), papas criolla (yellow potatoes), yucca frita (fried yucca), and arepa (a cornmeal griddle cake). There are empenadas from Argentina, Salvadoran pupusas, Brazilian bauru, and Puerto Rican arroz con pollo.

And, the groceries. We saw many of the same items we Tomas Centurion showed us along with some other interesting products, like bags of delicious crispy yucca chips.

I picked up small tins of octopus and squid, a container of dulce de leche, and some homemade cookies that were thick and deliciously crumbly.

Finally, if you're looking for yet another shop for Latin American and Caribbean groceries, there's Andres Latin Market, attached to Andre's Restaurant on Morena Blvd. in Bay Park. It's got a lovely assortment of many of these same items, as well as fresh produce, sausages, sweets, and prepared foods.

Latin American Travel & Services is located at 3636 Fifth Ave., Suite 204 in Hillcrest. The phone number is 619-296-9579.

Tropical Star is located at 6163 Balboa Ave. in the Crest Shopping Mall in Clairemont. The phone number is 858-874-7827.

Andres Latin Market is located at 1235 Morena Blvd. in Bay Park. The phone number is 619-275-6523.

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