A couple months ago, Jose, my best friend’s brother who lives in Australia, sent me a link to a Peruvian restaurant in Sydney he had heard wonderful things about. The place was called Morena, so I think you don’t need an explanation of why I was immediately drawn to it, and had to write about it. I sent an email to co-owner and chef, Alejandro Saravia, and was more than pleasantly surprised when he showed me pictures of what he did. I didn’t need any more proof that this interview was meant to be. And here it is.
We love the name of your restaurant! Why “Morena”?
Morena is a term to describe a dark Latin woman – but is also often used to describe a Latina in terms of personality – sassy, but down to earth; elegant and sophisticated yet fun, warm and friendly.
The restaurant captures the essence of the Morena woman in a culinary sense: we want it to be accessible to everyone who appreciates great food and a good time, and to encapsulate everything that’s great about the Latin American culture, including its cuisine.
There is a big South American food movement happening these days. People here are very open to experiencing new flavors and cooking techniques. But at the same time, the Australian customers are very interested in where the food is coming from, so the key point is to keep educating them: where is Pisco coming from, how should a cebiche taste, why are Peruvian ajies (chili peppers) so unique and important in our cuisine.
What’s your story?
The dream started 6 years ago when I arrived in Sydney, and found there was no Latin American food in the market. The lack of knowledge of our gastronomy was a big issue for me, and that’s when I decided to start introducing Modern Peruvian Cuisine in Australia. I worked in different hatted restaurants, studying the different influences in the Australian food market, in order to understand the complexity of the local palate and also the seasonability of the ingredients, and then I started a “pop-up” dinner concept and a hands-on cooking class 4 years ago. This all set the bases for Morena, which is the first fine dining Modern Latin American restaurant in Australia.
My first step was setting up high standards in presentation and quality of the ingredients. I hate to see people taking advantage of the current popularity of Peruvian cuisine, without taking care of the quality of their food and service. After 1.5 years of working on how to grow our aji amarillo in Australia, and sourcing other key ingredients, Morena opened on October 1st, 2011.
Coincidentally, that year the Sydney International Good Food Festival was focusing on Peru and Latin America, and I had the great opportunity to present one of our staple dishes in the Sydney Magazine Gala dinner next to Gaston Acurio, Ricardo Zarate and other great chefs.
What are Morena’s most popular dishes?
I have to say that our Alpaca dishes are the most popular mains, as we are the only restaurant in Sydney working with this unique meat. We explore and develop very interesting dishes out of the Alpaca, like our “30 days cured Alpaca pastrami” or our “48 hours Alpaca shoulder, Huatia-style“.
In the entrees we have our “Andean garden“, which presents a new perspective on how versatile potatoes are when you understand their different properties. For that dish we use 3 different varieties of potatoes, and use 3 cooking techniques.
On the sweet side, our take on the traditional Tres Leches has won a permanent position in our menu.
Have you had to adapt your dishes to the taste of your clients there?
As in any other foreign country, it’s really important to understand the local palate and the ingredients in order to introduce a new cuisine. People like to be adventurous but at the same time, to enjoy their dining experience, they need to recognize ingredients and flavors.
For us it’s really important to provide a complete dining experience and that starts from the way we explain each dish and ingredient. Our front of house staff helps our diners enjoy these new flavors, by sharing with them all the knowledge they have about the food we serve.
What are your top 3 Peruvian dishes?
Cebiche is always the first on my list. There is more than just a perfect balance of flavours and textures behind a cebiche; there is a story to tell and a nostalgic feeling in each bite.
Seco de cordero, is a dish that surprises, as the main ingredient is coriander, which is usually a very strong herb, difficult to enjoy. The cooking technique in this dish helps to decrease this strong flavor and to embrace it completely.
Adobo Arequipeno, is another interesting dish which contains powerful ingredients, but once you put them together they become perfectly balanced.
What’s your favorite Australian chef / restaurant?
I had the chance to work with a few of the best chefs here, and I have to say that it’s a bit difficult to choose! But if I have to pick one I will probably recall my time at Pier Restaurant where I learned all about local ingredients working alongside Grant King. His passion for perfection, and energy in the kitchen, were a great start for me to understand the local food culture.
Why do you think people should pay attention to Peruvian food?
Peru is well established in the food world as the “potato country”, with its more than 5,000 varieties of potatoes. But Peru is so much more than that! We have the most diverse ingredients in the world, like ajies, citrus fruits and sweet tropical fruits from the jungle, fish and seafood both from the rich Pacific Ocean and from the rivers of the Amazon, super grains like quinoa, purple corn and Peruvian giant corn, powerful herbs like coca leaves and huacatay (black mint). It’s an incredibly rich world for people to discover.
Do you have any recommendation for people abroad who want to cook Peruvian?
The best advice I can give a home cook is to get the proper ingredients. Don’t replace that aji amarillo in the cebiche, for example, and always try to use the best quality ingredients in the market, especially if you are going to introduce this food to foreign friends (first impressions are important!). Pay what you have to pay for that aji amarillo or rocoto, because it’s worth it. If you’re Peruvian, stop comparing the prices to Peru; remember you are far away and someone is working hard to bring the best ingredients close to you.
We fell narcissistically in love with its name at first sight, and now we can’t wait to try the fairy-like food at Morena! We have many friends and family in Australia, and now… yet another reason to visit!
Morena Restaurant: 15/425 Bourke St., Surry Hills, Australia 2010 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Phone: 0405 902896