Mother's Day is one of the most important days of the year. In Peru and for me this takes on many meanings. I have a great respect and appreciation bought about by my ancestral indigenous heritage which worshipped Mother Earth: Pacha Mama. As a cook and restaurateur, Mother Earth is tied to my life like the most fulfilling umbilical cord, supplying me with the most beautiful produce and ingredients which help me live, work and feed others. I respect her wholeheartedly and do my very best to make sure she is happy and proud of my achievements.
I am also lucky enough to have a human mum. Elsa Morales, lives in Peru and is a yoga teacher. She takes care of my brothers and sister and every time I see her when I travel back to Peru life feels complete again.
Alongside having a wonderful mother, I also had a grandmother, and many aunts and great aunts that I have considered and treated through the years as if they were my mothers too. My grandmother 'Mamita Naty' hailed from a remote Andean village in called Santiago de Chuco, in the province of La Libertad. She lived in a nearby village called Cachicadan, which is well known for its healing thermal waters. These waters careered their way right through her mud built house feeding two large mud thermal baths which we relished bathing in the few times we made the 18 hour treacherous bus trek to see her.
That bus would leave Trujillo early morning and travel all day, through dirt roads at 20 miles an hour driving along lanes cut out of cliff edges in mountains as big as anywhere in the world. The remains of buses that had fallen into the precipice 500 meters below were strewn across the journey; a gentle reminder of this treacherous road. Nevertheless, the journey was worth the wait. When we arrived we would be treated to some of the most delicious delicacies that Santiago had to offer. Hearty stews, delicious cereal soups, the sweetest prickly pears, tasty chicken, guinea pig, pork and lamb dishes; potato varieties like I'd never had before. It is a village where time stood still, and as a result the essence of the countryside was vivid and the organic flavours of the food and ingredients remained undiluted.
Her sisters, Aunts Carmela and Otilia lived in Lima and on a bi-monthly basis would receive a hamper from my grandmother with all kinds of goodies. Potatoes, cheese, jamon serrano, cereals, dried potatoes and cured meats would be relished as well as chancaca honey, bright white-green eggs with the deepest orange yolks and rosquitas; ring shaped savoury pastries. At Christmas time a starved and exhausted live turkey would also arrive in the hamper. It was quickly fed but soon after made to drink copious amounts of pisco in preparation for slaughter.
The local Lince market was always fun. I used to accompany my Aunt Carmela to the market and learnt how to smell, feel and buy ripe mangos, avocados and tomatoes. The smells, sounds and cramped environment made it an amusement ground for all my senses. We would choose a live chicken which was running at the feet of the stallholder in the market and then collect it a few minutes later once the chicken was prepared and ready to eat. We would try slices of watermelon, chirimoya, granadilla, papaya, mango and avocado just to ensure they were right and ripe for us. Parsley and coriander alongside cumin and cinnamon flavoured the air.
Upon returning from the market, Oti and in later years once Oti's health condition deteriorated, Carmela, would take over the kitchen with some help from helpers whom they treated like their own daughters. They never married but they did have children; Rosi was Oti's and the rest were my Grandmother's seven children whom were sent to Lima as children in the hope for an education and a better life away from the Andes.
By the time I was a young boy, my mother's siblings had all left Carmela and Oti's home and started families so my sister June and I were the new kids in the house. And we were treated with so much love by them. So much so that they called me 'mi rey'; my king, or a better more affectionate translation would be 'my little prince'. They would spoil me rotten and feed me the most delicious dishes. I would in turn just watch them cook, help them by cleaning the rice, peeling mangos or potatoes and separating peas from pods since the age of three.
I would be dipping my spoon halfway through the cooking process, tasting the guiso or juice of the stews, pinching off tasty but mostly unwanted bits of the cooked chicken like the parson's nose and claws; lovely. Here I quickly learnt how to make several recipes that are in my forthcoming cookery book Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen: Carmela's Chicken, Pollo Con Cola, Seco De Cordero, Tamales, various saltados, Aji De Gallina, lentil dishes, salsa criolla, and many more. And if they were tired on rare occasions we would get chifa or pollo a la brasa. Chifas are Peruvian-Chinese restaurants and chifa is also style of cooking uniquely Peruvian but brought about as a result of the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian cooking. And Pollo a la Brasa is Peru's own deliciously flavoured rotisserie chicken.
I owe my passion for cooking and entertaining to aunts Carmela and Otilia and my love for ingredients and the land to my mum and Mamita Naty. And I owe my health and my surivival to Mother Nature. And on this special day I pay homage to them by always preparing the most wonderful feast for my wife, the mother of my children, and for as many other mums we can gather together. Because all mums are special, human, or otherwise.
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