Food memory: Bananas, Plantains, and Peru
In 2011, I decided to let my visa expire and stay on in Lima, Peru. I was only supposed to be there for 2 months. The first month I would stay with my culinary school group from Johnson & Wales University (JWU). The second month I would visit with family and maybe try to get a cooking gig somewhere. My two month trip quickly and suddenly stretched into six months. I was determined to find work in a kitchen, if anyone would give this Peruvian American, almost 40 year old, woman a chance.
When I first began culinary school, I wanted nothing more than to participate in this program to Peru. It was actually the main reason I had applied to JWU. Once I found out I was accepted into the program, I came up with the idea that I might spend a little extra time in Peru to get to know my family a bit better, learn the cuisine more intimately, and, of course, Lima too. Before my scheduled trip in June, my ex-husband forwarded me a Craigslist advertisement for someone seeking an English translator for the website and marketing materials of a Miraflores-based hostel in Lima. After a few email exchanges, I was offered the job as a translator, as well as a receptionist, for the business in exchange for housing for the month of July. Once I secured this job I felt confident in staying the extra time and knew I had made a good decision. I was supposed to return to the U.S. in August.
I am a person who rarely does something on a whim. Yet, somehow, I knew I had found a great opportunity and, after my culinary program and training had concluded, I moved into the hostel at the end of June. One night, while chatting away with one of my fellow culinary students, who is also Peruvian and had stayed on to visit family in Lima, mentioned he had a cousin who worked at an Irish pub near where I was now living and they were looking for waitresses. After a few tries, I connected with his cousin, and then the owner of the pub, and was hired as a waitress for $40 soles a day (equivalent to $15 dollars a day), three days a week. It didn't pay much, but then I wasn't planning on staying for much longer. It would allow me to eat out, go dancing here and there, and be able to get around to visit family. It was an amazingly fun place to work.
A few weeks later, while I enjoyed working at the hostel and the pub, I was feeling a bit disheartened as it was nearing my time to go back home and I had not found any cooking gigs. The owner of the hostel had set up an interview for me at a great restaurant in the Barranco-area but they were not willing to hire someone with so little experience cooking on the line in Peru. The owner asked me about the interview. I told her I was unfortunately not offered a position. She then mentioned she had one more contact and would give it a shot. The following week I was interviewing for an internship position at this 4 Fork (5 Star) restaurant in Miraflores and agreed to work weekends. All I had with me was one suitcase with just a few articles of clothing, a laptop, my chef coats and pants, and my knives. I was broke as all get out, working 7 days a week, but I was in heaven. I got experience Peru in the most amazing ways, the cuisine from the inside out, and get to know my family better while also creating life experiences that would inform the future I didn't know was around the corner. I work all of these jobs until just a couple days before I returned home. Part of me didn't want to leave and part of me couldn't wait to get back to share with everyone my incredible experiences.
While I lived there, I made the same thing almost every day for breakfast because it was all I could afford: one fried egg, over rice, and half a fried platano de la isla (a pinkish banana that is AMAZING). On special occasions (when I had a few bucks to spare), I would walk down to the local bakery and order a cup of coffee with a beef empanada. While I savor that memory too, and that will be a future post, but it is this simple dish of a fried egg and fried plantains or bananas that bring me back to those special days. I ate plantains a million times before this trip in 2011 but today recalling the cooking of it and the flavors of different types of bananas holds much more meaning for me and it will always remind me of living in Peru.
You cannot find platanos de la isla here in the U.S., as they are grown exclusively in Peru, but yellow (ripe) plantains are a wonderful, and equally delicious, substitute. Below I share with you a simple recipe for making these sweet plantains fried. Plantains are a type of banana, used more in cooking than eaten raw and immediately. Like bananas, then, they are a great source of fiber, vitamins A, C, and B-6, and the minerals magnesium and potassium. They also add a wonderful dimension of flavor as an accompaniment to many dishes. Buen provecho, amig@s!
Maduros (Fried Sweet Plantains) - Serves 4-6
2 yellow (ripe) plantains, cut into 1 inch slices
2 cups vegetable oil
Note: Ripe plantains should be almost black for them to be at their sweetest. Green plantains are prepared and fried differently.
Heat frying oil on medium-high heat. You know it's ready if you stick the end of a wooden spoon in the oil and bubbles form around the tip.
Slice into one inch pieces, on the diagonal.
Once oil is hot, fry each side of the plantain slices for 3-4 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from oil and place on paper towel.
Serve quickly with whatever you'd like!