A Peruvian cookbook and what it feels like to be ‘at home’
I first read Central (Phaidon, 2017) by Virgilio Martinez before watching David Gelb’s Netflix documentary series ‘Chef’s Table‘ (Season 3, Episode 6). The series has introduced many interesting culinary adventurers to popular culture, but since I had come to the book without any previous exposure, my engagement with it was completely free of media influence.
Since I know nothing about Peruvian food, how it is cooked or how it should taste, the only deduction I can make for why I picked this title off the shelf was that it looked like an atlas on the cover, and on the inside, the pages read like a catalogue of things from the earth. The pictures also depicted items I had never seen before.
Huarango wood chips, Kiwicha leaves or carachama
Central is a book of recipes that cannot be cooked by almost all its readers. This, you might know by now, is the kind of cookbook I enjoy the most. Not saying that it is impossible to try to replicate one of Martinez’s recipes, but the likelihood of obtaining Huarango wood chips, Kiwicha leaves or carachama (an armored catfish) is just not feasible outside of Peru, and even then.
At his restaurant Central, Martinez serves food that is drawn from Peru’s ecosystem. They base their dishes on altitude and the ingredients are categorised by region. They grow their own food, but also have to scavage the landscape and sea for ingredients – some not even initially identifiable to them at point of discovery.
The priviledge of rediscovering heritage
When I read books like this, I think about how wonderful it for people to rediscover their heritage. Like many career chefs, Martinez set his knives down in several cities and countries; London and New York, Canada and Thailand, he even staged at The Four Seasons in Singapore. But in his story, Martinez comes to an awareness where he sees the depth of Peruvian food yet undiscovered, travels the country and reconnects with the land of his ancestry.
The result is food that not only contributes to a catalogue of indigenous ingredients, but a public awareness of the importance of preserving ecological systems and how much out in the world there is yet to find.
Reading Central, I find myself absorbed and transported like one does in good works of fiction. I want to feel what Martinez feels about his home, but for my home, though where that might be in my case is still yet to be defined. As a teenager, I asked my mother for an equivalent of a business card that explained where I was from and who I was, because I didn’t identify with where I was born, nor did I identify with any of places or cultures in which we lived – and trying to explain it to people just got too confusing.
Not having the privilege of experiencing that kind of “rootedness” myself, being close to people who do is so meaningful. I see it in some of the food experiences we have where people are serious about getting to the core of who they are and where they come from and what it means to them and others. Sitting with them at the table and tasting it is as close to experiencing someone else’s concept of home as a traveller can get.
Stopping short of shamelessly plugging some of my favourite NOSHtrekker tables, I do encourage food enthusiasts to search out particular kinds of food experiences to discover what it tastes like to be at home in a place. And you don’t even need to be a tourist to benefit from such discoveries. You could have lived somewhere for years and still find all sorts of curious flavours that have their roots in your own backyard.