Western Pennsylvania native, Katie Choy, masters the taste of Peru

Western Pennsylvania native Katie Choy might never have written a cookbook on Peruvian cuisine if her mother-in-law, Consuelo Choy, hadn’t decided to switch out some linens.

During a visit 10 years ago, the elder Choy fell off a ladder at her son’s home in Jupiter, Fla., while changing the top sheets on her grandchild’s bunk bed. She broke her leg and required surgery.

With limited mobility, it was difficult for the matriarch to cook the foods of her native Lima, Peru, for her extended family. But she could teach her daughter-in-law how to prepare beloved recipes such as Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-style beef stir fry, and Aji de Gallina, a shredded chicken dish made with peanuts and spicy aji amarillo pepper paste.

Learning to make her dishes, Mrs. Choy had a revelation: She should be writing them down for posterity, as she’d done with recipes gleaned from her Irish mom and dad’s side of the family. As she writes in “Family Secrets: Experience the Flavors of Peru!” (Lydia Inglett, 2015), “I wanted to have a memoir of Consuelo’s and [husband] Pancho’s creations” to keep them from being lost to the ages.

Over the next decade, she started compiling as many recipes as her mother-in-law could recall, testing and adapting them to the ingredients she could find locally.

This was no small feat, because not only was the former nurse a fairly timid eater into adulthood (she grew up in rural Fombell, Beaver County, where “the most exotic thing we ate was Mexican”), but she also knew nothing of Peru before marrying Rogelio Choy in 1995.

“I grew up with meat, potatoes and vegetables,” she said.

To taste her mother-in-law’s cooking, though, is to fall in love with big tastes and wonderful spices.

“Peruvian food has so much flavor, and a lot more flair than food in other South American countries,” Mrs. Choy said, in large part because of the aji, Peru’s somewhat spicy and ubiquitous chili pepper that’s the base for a colorful pepper sauce that’s key to so many dishes. In writing the cookbook, she hopes her fellow Pittsburghers will become equally enamored with spicy foods.

Home to thousands of varieties of papas, or potatoes, Peru’s cuisine is heavy on starches; you’ll also find dishes made with beans, rice, quinoa (which has been a staple since pre-Columbian times) and choclo, an Andean corn with large, bulbous kernels that’s used to make everything from pastries and beverages to jelly.

What makes the cooking of these traditional ingredients unique, said Mrs. Choy, is that Peruvian cooking borrows from other cuisines, including Spanish, West African and Chinese. (Peru is currently home to the largest ethnic Chinese population in Latin America).

Mrs. Choy is intimately familiar with the Chinese connection to Peru. Although he was born in Peru, her father-in-law, Francisco “Pancho” Choy, was raised by his mother until age 16 in Canton province, and Consuelo, who learned to cook from her Inca mother, blended many of his native Chinese dishes into her daily cooking.

Mrs. Choy said her husband is the one who persuaded her to publish the 50-plus recipes in “Family Secrets” after she’d been working on the collection for about five years. The project became not just her labor of love but also her entire family’s; her husband and daughter Francesca did the photography, while son Stefan helped with the writing, and her oldest son, Armand, turned it into an iBook. Her cousin Trudi Miklos of Rochester, Beaver County, did the editing.

There’s love, too, for her adopted country, where Consuelo, 92, still lives and cooks. Proceeds from the book, which you can buy on katiechoy.com, benefit the Peruvian American Medical Society, a nonprofit agency providing much needed medical care through permanent clinics and medical missions throughout the country.

“I’m over the moon,” said Mrs. Choy. ”It turned out better than I dreamed of.”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Papa a la Huancaina

PG tested

Served cold or at room temperature, this potato appetizer is a staple of everyday and holiday meals throughout Peru. The spicy cheese sauce is so good that I found myself wondering what else I could slather it on — tacos, perhaps, or maybe even pasta. 

You can find aji amarillo paste at Latin American grocery stores, such as Reyna Foods in the Strip District.  

5 to 6 Yukon gold potatoes

3 to 4 large eggs

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, diced

1 to 2 tablespoons aji amarillo paste, depending on taste 

Salt to taste

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 pound queso fresco or other fresh cheese

4 to 5 saltine crackers

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 (12-ounces) can evaporated milk

3 to 4 lettuce leaves

Peruvian olives

Sprinkle of paprika

Place potatoes and eggs in medium-size pot and cover with cold water. Place over high heat and bring to gentle boil. Lower heat to maintain simmer and set timer for 9 minutes. Remove eggs only and plunge into ice water bath. Continue simmering potatoes another 12 to 15 minutes until tender. Remove potatoes and set aside to cool.

In small saute pan, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Add aji amarillo paste and a sprinkle of salt and continue cooking until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another few minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Place onion mixture in blender with cheese, crackers, turmeric and ½ can of milk. Blend well until smooth and creamy, adding more milk and salt as needed. If it becomes too thin, you can thicken with more crackers.

Peel and slice potatoes and eggs in halves or quarters.

Create a bed of lettuce leaves on serving platter. Arrange potatoes, olives and eggs atop lettuce. Drizzle with cheese sauce and lightly dust with paprika.

Serve at room temperature with additional sauce alongside in serving bowl.

Serves 6 to 8.

— ”Family Secrets: Experience the Flavors of Peru!” by Katie Choy (Lydia Inglett; 2015)

 Aji de Gallina (Chicken Chili)

PG tested

This delicious stew is a must-try Peruvian classic. Peru’s famous aji amarillo peppers give it its bright-yellow color, and it’s made rich with a spicy cream sauce, which includes ground nuts. Leftovers can be used as a filling in empanadas. 

1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds), skin and excess fat removed, and cut into parts

2½ teaspoons salt, divided

1 cup pecans, peanuts or walnuts soaked in water 1 hour or more and drained

4 slices white bread, crust removed, and cubed

1 large yellow onion

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 to 4 tablespoon aji amarillo paste, depending on taste

3 cloves garlic, pressed

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 (12-ounces) can evaporated milk

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Hot rice

3 hard-boiled eggs, halved

Peruvian olives, for garnish

Place chicken and 1 teaspoon salt in large pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to gentle boil over high heat, cover; reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until no longer pink.

Remove chicken and let cool. Reserve water. Shred or cube chicken and set aside. (This can be done a day ahead and refrigerated.)

In a blender, combine nuts, bread and ¾ to 1 cup reserved chicken water on high until smooth. Remove and set aside. Rinse blender.

Blend onion and ¼ to ½ cup reserved water until pureed. Remove and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add pureed onion and cook 10 minutes, stirring as necessary to keep from sticking. Add 1 teaspoon salt, aji, garlic, nutmeg and ⅔ cup reserved water; stir and cook another 10 minutes.

Add nut puree and stir and cook about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in evaporated milk, cheese and chicken. Cook another 5 minutes, taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.

Serve over hot rice on warm plate, garnished with eggs and olives.

Serves 4 to 6.

— ”Family Secrets: Experience the Flavors of Peru!” by Katie Choy (Lydia Inglett; 2015)


Hot Topic