As many of you may know (if you’ve read our “About” section), my mother started a culinary magazine several years ago in Lima. Back then, she had the great idea of interviewing Susana Baca, -our barefoot Afro-Peruvian music diva who was named Minister of Culture in July 2011, but resigned in December-, on the subject of food. My mother already knew about Susana’s strong link to the kitchen, (her mother was a cook of traditional Peruvian dishes), and so she went to Susana’s beautifully restored, and cozy house in the neighbourhood of Chorrillos, to talk about everything food-related. There she learned some interesting facts, like for example, that she fed her dog quinoa every day to keep him strong and healthy (I love this fact!). Here’s the interview, but I just want to add first, that despite her huge knowledge of Peruvian cuisine, I’m very glad that Susana didn’t follow her mother’s steps, and decided to become a singer instead. Her music is breathtaking, and I wouldn’t change it for any plate of food!
Your mother was a cook…
When I was a kid, she worked as a cook in rich houses, and was also hired to make big banquettes, and she took me everywhere with her because I was her youngest daughter. I was always amazed by the preparation process to make those meals; by the amount of detail she put in every step. She would go to the market and touch and smell every single thing she bought. She would spend hours there, trying to get the best ingredients, and nobody could rush her through this ritual. If she didn’t find the perfect ingredients for a certain dish, she would simply not do it. That’s how strict she was with the quality of her food. She grew up in Lima, surrounded by aunts who spent whole days preparing a meal. Talk about slow cooking! I learned a lot from her, and she especially taught us the love for good food, but unfortunately, she also took lots of beautiful culinary secrets to her grave with her. If she had lived in these days, when chefs are so highly appreciated, I’m sure she would’ve been a very respected figure in the culinary world, and would’ve made a good living out of it.
What dishes of hers did you like the most?
I was passionate about her causa filled with shrimps. That was pure madness for me. When she made it for big dinners, she would always save some for us. She also did it with fried fish and salsa criolla. When I remember these images I go crazy. She always advocated eating well, even if everything else in your life was lacking. She also made a divine chicken or fish escabeche. Her secret was to make it the day before, to give time for the fish to absorb all the sauce.
I love our creolle dishes in general, they make my mouth water. But I’m very open minded about food and have tried everything in every place I’ve been to. My husband thinks I’m going to die of food poisoning because I never stop trying weird things out of curiosity. I’ve eaten the strangest fishes in Norway, cold cabbage soup in Russia, all kinds of raw fish in Japan. I adore Japanese cuisine, I find it extremely sensual. I don’t say no to anything when it comes to food, except to eating frogs. I feel sorry for them. One day, in Cerro de Pasco, in the Andes of Peru, where I worked as a school teacher, I was in a restaurant and a friend ordered a plate of frogs… I had to move to another table.
A favorite drink?
Pineapple water. When I was younger my mom and I made lots of different waters. We went through the hassle of grating apples and straining them, and that concentrated water that came out would be our drink. Imagine the hard work! This is because back then, juicers didnt exist! When we had celebrations at home, my mother -who never allowed anyone to drink alcohol in her house- made a macerated drink with the skin of pineapples, apples, quinces, mangos… even bananas. She added cinammon, cloves, and some other spices to it. I saw everyone enjoy it and be really happy, and it wasn’t until I was a grown up, that I read somewhere that making boiled banana skin water was even forbidden at some point in history, because it produces a slight hallucinogenic effect. No wonder we were all overwhelmed with happiness in those parties!
What about sweets?
I love traditional sweets, especially the Afro-Peruvian ones. I have a place in the neighborhood of La Victoria where I go when I crave my honeyed sweet potatoes. They are made by cutting the sweet potatoes in chunks, and cooking them and covering them in orange-infused honey. My mother used to make them too. I love these old sweets. I even created, with some friends, a kind of celebration that we called “The Black Moon Night.” We went to a house and served only Afro-Peruvian food, and listened to Afro-Peruvian music. We ate so much, that I had to stop eating for 2 whole days after that!
Are you a good cook yourself?
Believe it or not, I’m losing my touch, because just like singing is a craft that one learns and improves onstage, cooking needs to be done by spending actual time in the kitchen. I used to cook for my husband, to make him smile. I felt like a character from Laura Esquivel’s book “Like Water for Chocolate” when I did. I made colorful rices, covered in a scallop sauce, for example, that was not only delicious, but extremely aphrodisiac! Ricardo gained around 30 pounds when he married me. We weren’t rich, but I made sure to make delicious food with the simple ingredients we could get. And we always shared our food with friends. My friends love my pastelito de choclo (corn pie), which I actually learned from Ricardo’s mother in Bolivia, but we eat it in Peru too. I add several slices of cheese on top to broil in the oven. This is what I gave David Byrne when he honored me with a visit to my house, and he was crazy about it, he asked for the recipe. I should practice it more often so I don’t lose my skill.
I find that most people who like cooking, are addicted to cookbooks. Does that happen to you too?
If you could only see the amount of cookbooks I have! I buy them all over the world. French, Caribbean, Greek…I love one that I have about traditional Peruvian sweets from cloisters, that says that to make the arroz con leche, the nuns had to pray the rosary three times (they didnt have clocks back then! Imagine those times!).
Do you miss Peruvian food when you travel, like every other Peruvian does?
Since I became an international music diva (she laughs playfully) -god, that sounds so funny to me!- I spend only about 4 months a year in Peru. I come home, rest a little, and then travel again. I always come craving, desperately, corn with cheese. I also go religiously to my friend Cristina’s cebicheria, to eat one of these extraordinary cebiches that one can’t find anywhere else in the world. I don’t care if they say that in Cuba, Mexico or Ecuador cebiches are as good as ours; the one I miss and love is the Peruvian.