When it comes to Peruvian food — widely considered the most refined cuisine in Latin America — the Peruanos are not shy about expressing their cultural pride.
And no one takes more pride in that country’s cuisine than Olenka Orjeda of Santa Rosa, a recent Peruvian transplant who has made it her mission to bring her native country’s authentic home cooking to the North Bay, where she delights guests with pop-up dinners, private parties and cooking classes.
“We have a lot of creativity in Peru,” said the chef, who runs her own catering business, Olenka Cooks! “For me, Peru is like a big, melting pot of different cultures: Spaniards, Africans, Chinese and Japanese. Our cuisine has a lot of influences from these other countries and from our own people, the Incas.”
By melding New World ingredients like peppers, potatoes and quinoa with other culture’s spices and techniques, Peru has earned its place on the international gastronomic map, whetting appetites with its mouth-watering ceviches and potato dishes, seafood stews and tropical fruits.
The capital city of Lima is now a major destination for food lovers, playing host to Latin America’s largest food festival, Mistura, every September. And Peruvian chefs such as Virgilio Martinez, chef/owner of Central restaurant in Lima, are now riding a wave of popularity matched only by the foraging chefs of Scandinavia.
But just because Peruvian food is trending hot right now doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to the average home cook, and that is the message that Orjeda wants to get across to Wine Country.
“To people who have never experienced it, it may sound scary,” she said. “But if you can get a couple of key ingredients — the peppers for spice and the key limes for acidity — then most of it is very approachable.”
As a Third World country, Peru has developed a versatile but affordable way of eating that does not involve a high proportion of expensive meat. And carbs on top of carbs can often be the norm.
“We eat beans, quinoa, rice, pasta and potatoes, and we use a lot of vegetables,” she said. “It feels like comfort food.”
In 2012, Orjeda married Vintners Inn General Manager Percy Brandon, who is also from Peru, uprooting herself to move to Sonoma County. Although she had worked in the banking industry in Lima, Orjeda opted to switch to her true passion of cooking, at the urging of her husband.
“I love to cook,” she said. “That was my dream from childhood.”
She recently completed the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts Program in order to help her English and cooking terminology. Meanwhile, the couple is raising twin, 2-year-old boys, Vincenzo and Giacomo.
While growing up in La Punta, a peninsula connected to Lima’s old port of Callao, Orjeda first learned to cook at the knee of her grandmother, known as “Mamama” in Peru.
“My grandmother was an awesome cook,” she said. “I have always had a front row seat in the kitchen with her.”
The ingredients in Peru are as wildly diverse as the land itself, with the irrigated coastal plain yielding grassy vegetables such as asparagus, the Andes mountains providing 3,800 different types of colorful potatoes and the Peruvian Amazon offering succulent fruits like the sweet guanábana to the juicy passion fruit.