A few days ago Peru said the last goodbye to an exceptional woman, who some have called the “Mother of Peruvian Cuisine”. Teresa was one of the most respected and loved figures of our gastronomy, and she leaves fond memories of her lingering smile and luscious food, and many great recipes that will keep her alive in our kitchens for generations to come.
Despite her humble origins, Teresa always had the ambition to do something big. Her mother, a sought after cook in the rich houses of Lima, taught her how to cook at a tender age, with the recipes inherited from her grandmother. Her big test came one day when her mom got sick, and Teresa, who was only 8, took charge of the kitchen with fearlessness and determination. When she told me this story she still remembered exactly what she had to cook that day: rice and lentils, roast beef with salad, soup, and lemon pie. The meal was a success, as one can imagine, and she discovered her calling.
Many years later and already a mother herself, she decided to open the restaurant that made her famous: El Rincón Que No Conoces (The corner you don´t know). Interesting name for a restaurant, don´t you think? Her popularity was not instant, but she persevered, always keeping up the quality of her colonial desserts and traditional food cooked in clay pots, and soon the word about this little culinary gem spread all over the city. Politicians, businessmen, artists and journalists, were among her loyal clients over the years.
She gained presence in the media too, writing books, being interviewed all over the place, and becoming a household name. Even Rachel Ray, from the Food Network, visited Teresa´s restaurant and interviewed her for one of her shows. She used her new found celebrity to promote ingredients that weren´t well known or accepted in some parts of the country, such as guinea pig, which was eaten almost daily by villagers in the Andes, but was still a tabu for great part of the population. One of the walls of El Rincón is covered with pictures of all the famous people who had the luck to try her cooking. The place was even named national heritage, an honor that not many eateries can brag about.
I have very tender memories of Teresa, always loving and welcoming, greeting people with the warmest of smiles, like a mother does her kids. She would go out all the time to talk to the clients and make them try new things, charming them with both her food and loving personality. What she hated the most, she told me, was when food was left on the plate. When the dish was returned clean to the kitchen, the excitement made her want to go out and clap at the gourmands.
As it turned out, her mother had worked as a cook for my then husband´s aunt, so the familiarity with which she treated me was even greater. We were seated in a terrace on the second floor of the restaurant, and she brought out lots of dishes for me to try. I was delighted with the savoriness of her Tacu Tacu, prepared with canary beans, pancetta and rice; beans with Escabeche sauce was another dish that caught my attention. The Escabeche sauce was spicy and with a nice kick of vinegar, that combined perfectly with the creamy beans. Arroz con Pato was another of her many specialties. She used to serve the duck boned, and the rice was perfectly cooked, fluffy and al dente enough that you could count every grain, but at the same time it had soaked up all the cilantro sauce which made it juicy and bursting with flavor.
As the final touch, Teresa sent me Frejol Colado, a sweet concoction with a soft texture similar to dulce de leche, that is made of black beans but doesn´t resemble their taste at all. It´s a very old recipe from African origins in which beans are cooked, then peeled and cooked again with anise seeds, cloves, and sprinkled with sesame seeds at the very end. It´s a real treat if you have a sweet tooth, which I do.
But what I enjoyed the most from all this wonderful homey preparations, was a sweet made of a fruit called Nispero (an acidic fruit from Latin America). I loved it cause it tasted just like a sweet my grandmother used to make in El Salvador when I was a little girl. It was like having a flashback from family and childhood, which completely rounded up the experience of spending an afternoon in Teresa´s world.
(Thanks to Revista Gente for the photos of Teresa)