We’re often taught to see the value in moving on and starting fresh. But you can tell a lot about someone from what they choose to hold onto. London based Chef Martin Morales lived in Peru until immigrating with his family to Leicester, England under difficult circumstances. Growing up, he'd enjoyed Peru's diverse and vibrant food culture from an early age - superfood ingredients like avocado, quinoa and amaranth, eating ceviches on the beach, weekend excursions to the outskirts of Lima for pollo a la brasa, and encomiendas (large parcels) filled with ingredients his grandmother would send from her Andean village. It was not something he'd let go of easily.
A former music executive and DJ living in London, where Peruvian food was barely known, Morales found a blank canvas where he could explore his culinary roots. After testing the waters with a series of pop-up style events that incorporated food and music, he opened the firstCeviche in 2012. His award-winning book Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen, came out in 2013 and has since been translated into 10 languages.
Andina, inspired by regional Andean cooking, opened a year later. It was followed by Ceviche Old St., a restaurant by way of a contemporary Peruvian art gallery. Most recently, he launched a CevicheTV YouTube channel to showcase new recipes and traditional techniques.
Martin is also a big promoter of Peruvian culture through its music. His label, Tiger's Milk Records aims to put Peruvian old and new music on the map. Peru Boom, released on August 17, is a compilation featuring electronic artists from Lima.
We caught up with chef Morales when he was in New York City to prepare a dinner for the Peruvian Ambassador to the United Nations and cook at the James Beard House.
Q: What are your earliest memories of food and cooking in Peru?
A: My great-aunts lived in Lima and I used to cook with them. I started off by spending weekends with them in a neighborhood called Lince where I’d stay in the kitchen and just watch how they prepared different traditional dishes. I’d get involved in taking the stones out of the lentils and rice and just kind of junior prep kind of roles within the kitchen from the age of 4 or 5 until about 9 when I started really cooking in their house and helping them a bit more.
Q: What kind of impact did immigrating to the UK with your family have on you?
A: It was hugely disruptive as you can imagine. I was 11 years old when my parents split up. My father was being threatened by the Shining Path Guerrilla Movement, so we lived a tough life my last year in Peru. Then moving to England, it was coming into a cold country where I didn’t know anyone and my mother wasn’t with me. It was really tough because I suffered from racism for the first year I was there. I lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have multicultural ethnic backgrounds. It probably took me 10 years to get culturally acclimatized shall we say. I missed the food, I missed my mom, and I missed surfing, and I missed the culture.
Q: You were a successful music executive and DJ before opening the first Ceviche in Soho, London. What inspired your transition from music to food?
A: Miley Cyrus. I was working at Disney running their music business across Europe. We’d launched Miley, the Jonas Bros., Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and High School Musical, and I’d had a great time working with all those guys. Before that, I worked with Steve Jobs launching iTunes [in Europe]. I guess I’d felt like I’d done everything I could within that context of the music industry.
I really wanted to go back to working with my hands, to craftsmanship, to creativity, to cooking. Cooking has always been a really deep love. I wanted to go back to working with something much smaller that really represented my culture and my country. No one was doing that in the UK. The restaurant scene in London is fantastic but there was no great Peruvian restaurant. I just said that I have to fix that problem. I have to be the one that creates this because no one else will, and no one else had up to that point. That’s where I decided to put a line in the sand and cross it and give up my career in music and executive work. I sold my house and put everything on the line for our first restaurant.
Q: What misconceptions about Peruvian food have you come across?
A: Because there is no large population of Peruvian people [in London], there are no mom-and-pop style restaurants or humble sort of soul food restaurants shall we say. The only thing we got through the media about Peru were negative things or very unique, singular tourism things like Machu Picchu - which is an incredible world destination - but that’s where it stops. Paddington Bear has done something to talk about Peru as well. It’s cute but it’s not profound enough. It’s not deep enough for what a nation and a country and a cuisine and a culture really represent.
So we were starved, the country was starved. Whenever I met people, they would ask where I was from and I’d say Peru, and they’d say, “Beirut?”. They wouldn’t even know which continent Peru was in. So I just decided to change that. I said look - I’m in a great position here - I have the skills to talk about [Peruvian food] and be a great chef and to have a restaurant. Let’s see if it happens, let’s see if it can work. Let’s see if this experiment can really work.
And we started to get some great produce. It’s very difficult to get amarillo chiles and it’s very difficult to get choclo, a giant kernel corn, but it’s easier to get great avocados, great seafood and fish. By combining a strategy of importation for some niche ingredients that are native to Peru with the ones we already had - boom - we’ve got great dishes right on our doorstep. The seasoning and the preparation that I bring into this with my team of chefs, that’s one of the keys to our success.
Q: What are some of those key flavors and ingredients that define Peruvian cuisine?
A: Peruvian cuisine is very broad and that’s what sets it apart. The variety of flavors and ingredients is massive. We’re talking 492 national dishes. We’re in the Guinness Book of World Records for more national dishes than any other country in the world. You’ve got the indigenous cuisines that date back thousands of years and the traditions and ingredients that come from that. You’ve got 500 years of fusion and migration - of Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and African people - all of which have brought their own touch, their own techniques, and new ingredients and mixed them with Peruvian. It’s that variety and the health aspects as well. Our cuisine is really healthy if you pick and choose the right dishes. We’re a real powerhouse of superfood ingredients with more nutrients, and more vitamins, and minerals than other ingredients. Those are the things that make Peruvian [food] so special.
Q: Until recently, these superfoods were only found in health food stores so they were taken out of their cultural context in many ways. Now we’re starting to understand where they come from. How do you see that evolving?
A: Quinoa is now coming in and it is seen a little bit as a fashion or just a niche health food but it’s not. It’s tastier and better for you than couscous and rice so you can easily replace it. It’s about having the right ingredients and it’s about having the right recipes. They are very simple. A quinoa salad is so simple. An avocado ceviche is really simple - lime juice, chile, great avocados, great seafood or fish or asparagus, some amarillo chile or some red chile - and just mix those things together with a bit of salt and a bit of seasoning. It’s all in the balance of those flavors.
Q: As people have become familiar with traditional Peruvian food in the broader sense, how has it allowed you to focus on specific regional cooking?
A: We can still start with the basics, but of course regional cuisine is phenomenal and it’s part of our heritage. Every year I go to Peru on two culinary investigative trips. I’ve just come back last week from the Amazon. So I spent 5 days in the Amazon researching ingredients, many of which haven’t even been see in Lima, the capital city, let alone outside of Peru. I hope I’ll be able to take some of those internationally and include them in some of our recipes - when we come back to the US and certainly when I’m in London. We can start with an introduction to Peruvian food with some of the key ingredients. I still think there’s a job to be done there, but we have so much more in our Pandora’s Box.
A: Amantaní is a fantastic charity based out of the UK with three educational homes in the south of Lima in the Andes. In those educational homes, there are 22 children aged between 12-16 in each one. They had to walk for 3 hours at a time to get to their nearest school and three hours back. They were exhausted when they got there and that’s if they got to be there. There’s a huge level of rape between girls, between 12-16, that’s about 70 percent. There’s a huge level of alcoholism among men in that area. It’s one of the most deprived areas in Peru because it’s just below the rubbish dump in Cuzco where people go to Machu Picchu. It’s a world heritage site and all of that tourism creates rubbish. It’s below that where there are these wonderful villages that are full of incredible people that are just forgotten.
Six years ago, a gentlemen called Fred Branson, that I think is a bit of a living saint, a young man, a very humble kid from Britain said I want to help because these guys need our help. So he created the first boarding house. I met him a year later and just said, “Man you’re incredible, what can I do to help? I give myself to you to help.” When I started Ceviche three years ago, I made it a point to include it as part of our ethos to help promote and spread the word about Amantaní. We help through fundraising, and we help through doing creative projects together. We did an edible cinema event last year and co-produced films about food with the children of Amantaní. And so we’re involved in all kinds of ways to let people know what Amantaní is doing.
Q: In the past, you've spoken of "launching a culture”- how can this be accomplished through food?
A: Food is a language that’s got no words, but it’s governed by your taste buds and visually and your sense of smell. So with those different senses, we can excite people and communicate better than language which is so limiting some times.
Q: You offer masterclasses and workshops at both at Don Ceviche and Andina. How does education fit into your broader mission?
A: I think we do have a mission and that is to enrich people’s lives with Peruvian food and culture. We do it through fun. My style is to make our restaurants really hip, really beautiful, really stylish, really yummy, and really delicious, so people feel comfortable. They can come in high heels or flip flops. You can be 60 or 16. You can have 20 bucks in your pocket or 200. It doesn’t matter.
Q: Aside from food, you're still involved in music. When did you decide to start Tiger’s Milk Records?
We had customers at our restaurants asking us what the music was we played there. We also had other chefs and restaurants asking for our playlists. So we thought ‘why dont we start a record company?’. So we did. I’ve always championed Peruvian music. I’ve worked with bands like Novalima and Bareto and I collect Peruvian funk, punk, chicha, cumbia, criolla and more. So it made sense to do this.
Q: How have you used it to promote Peruvian culture and heritage as well as food?
Making a dish is just like making a song, and so they go hand in hand.
Here's one of Morales's signature recipes you can make at home:
Quinoa, Butter Bean & Avocado Salad
½ cup dried butter beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water, drained and rinsed
1 cup quinoa
1 Peruvian hass avocado, ripe, sliced very thinly on the diagonal
1½ cups cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 aji limo chili, seeded and finely chopped
½ red onion, finely diced
1 large tomato, seeded and finely diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 goldenberries, husks removed (tomatillos can be substituted)
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Juice of 2 limes
1 aji limo chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
To cook the beans, place them in a small saucepan, add water to cover generously, and bring to a boil. Do not season at this stage or the beans will toughen. Spoon off any scum or foam that collects on the surface of the water, lower the heat, and simmer the beans until they are cooked through. This should take 30 to 45 minutes but could take longer, depending on how fresh the dried beans are. Keep an eye on the beans, as you may need to add water. Drain the beans and reserve.
Wash the quinoa in cold water until the water starts to run clear. Put in a saucepan, cover with cold water, and add a pinch of salt, and set over medium heat. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the quinoa is well cooked and the grain has started to unfurl. Drain, cool, and set aside.
To make the coulis, put the golden berries (or tomatillos) and sugar in a saucepan and add water to come halfway up the sides for the contents. Cook slowly over low heat until the water has reduced by ⅔ and the berries are soft. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Transfer to a food processor or blender and blitz until smooth.
For the dressing, put the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
Add the butter beans, cilantro, and chili to the quinoa and mix well. Add 3 tablespoons of the dressing, making sure you don’t soak the quinoa mixture too much.
To assemble each salad, put a deep 4-inch/10-cm round mold on a plate (or use a large cookie cutter). Arrange a quarter of the avocado in the bottom of the mold, and using mold with the quinoa and butter bean, mix and press down well again. Remove the mold.
Pour a tablespoon of the coulis around the salad. Finally, mix together the onion and tomato and place a tablespoon of this on top. Add more dressing if you feel it’s needed.
Reprinted from Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen Copyright © 2013 by Martin Morales. Photographs copyright © 2013 by Paul Winch-Furness. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.