My favourite dish: Robert Ortiz
Chef Robert Ortiz chats to Tony Naylor about his favourite dish, Peruvian beef estofado.
The chef who helped popularise Peruvian food in the UK shares the recipe for his grandmother’s slow-cooked stew and reflects on his childhood in the Amazon.
Try his Peruvian beef estofado recipe.
As a teenager, Robert Ortiz was sold on cooking professionally as a glamorous way to see the world. In the 1980s, his native Peru was in bad shape economically, and, after winning a school cooking competition, a teacher who’d worked on cruise ships advised him that if he wanted to travel, eat the best food and meet great people, he should become a chef.
That journey would take him to Britain. But, in the last decade, it’s also drawn him closer to home. When Lima restaurant launched in London, heading a new wave of Peruvian restaurants in the capital, Robert was head chef. He played a key role in popularising Peruvian food in the UK and now, at 49, he continues to do so at Birmingham’s Chakana.
"Maybe some people say we’re a country of rice, beans and chicken. But we have a lot more to offer," says Robert, whose food bagged Lima a Michelin star. The distinct eco-systems and food cultures of Peru’s coast, the Andes and Amazon regions, and the influence of Spanish colonisation and immigration from east Asia (hence the Peruvian-Japanese nikkei cuisine) have all combined to create Peru’s complex culinary topography. "If you really look," says Robert, "you find something new every day.
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"I was born in Peru’s Amazon region near the Marañón River and, until I was 10, lived with my grandmother in Camporredondo. Later, I moved to be with my parents in the nearest town, Lonya Grande, which, as there were no roads, took 12 hours to reach by mule. People from Camporredondo would transport produce to sell there and buy salt, oil or rice to take home. That’s how the region worked.
"For a chef, growing up in the Amazon with its different foods was very interesting. I’d climb into orange and mango trees with my cousins and eat maybe 20 oranges – our chests all different colours from the juice – drink still-warm milk from our cows and help my grandmother pick wild arabica coffee. The beans were dried and ground, and after they’d been toasted, my grandmother added spices, barley or nuts. The love they put into the product is amazing.
"My family worked in the fields picking coffee, cane sugar, papaya and avocados, and in the early morning, my grandmother and I would take massive bowls of soup to them, similar to my recipe for beef estofado. These estofado stews combined root veg, plantain, rice, beans, lots of coriander and different meats, from beef and wild boar, to chicken and local venison. The stew gave the workers the energy they needed for the five hours until lunch was delivered.
"At home, my grandmother would sometimes prepare more elaborate estofados with fermented corn beer and a range of fragrant herbs. They cooked extremely slowly in clay pots (she’d start cooking them the night before) and were so comforting, especially during the rainy season when we children felt down about spending so much time at home.
"In Lonya Grande, my parents ran a bakery that my dad’s father had started. They still have it, although my dad, who’s 76, bakes very little now. My mum also ran a restaurant and was a great cook. I loved her amazing combination of plantain and soft cheese for breakfast. In the restaurant, she’d do a lot of empanadas, fish fried or escabeche, adobo stews and a creamy, chilli chicken dish called ají gallina.
"I remember my dad’s ceviche, too. Living far inland, this was made with semi-dried salted mackerel and served with Amazonian tree tomato, tamarillo, and distinctive local chillies and coriander. People would also use a tropical fruit called tumbo (known as the banana passion fruit) as well as limes. The preserved mackerel would be wrapped up and kept in the house – sometimes I’d snatch a piece of it to eat when my parents weren’t looking.
"There were only 2,000 people in Lonya, but there were 18 bakeries. I guess people consumed a lot of bread. At weekends, customers would come from all the small towns around Lonya to buy food. My parents’ bakery was considered one of the best. Bread was quite basic then, but my father was progressive. He used local cereals to make bread, bake cakes and sweet buns and even knew how to make a kind of brioche that people travelled a long way to buy. I had to help out around schoolwork. There was no television then, but you were always a busy child."
Feeling inspired? Have a look at our top 10 foods to try in Peru guide.