Three generations of fathers, one timeless Afro-Peruvian breakfast

One immigrant chef continues a family tradition that his grandfather started in Lima in the 1940s

Published June 17, 2021 1:14PM (EDT)

Prop stylist: Andrea Foti. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (James Ransom / Food52)
Prop stylist: Andrea Foti. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (James Ransom / Food52)

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Good food is worth a thousand words — sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

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I was born in Peru, but I've been an immigrant most of my life. Still, no matter where I've lived — Peru, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. — Peruvian cuisine has defined my identity.

I was about 10 years old when my mother began teaching me to cook Peru's comida criolla, or "creole food" — dishes she had begun learning in the oral tradition from her mother at age six. We'd cook side by side "al ojo," eyeballing the ingredients while listening to Afro-Peruvian music. Eventually, I became a chef and, until a few years ago, taught Peruvian cooking at a community cooking school in San Francisco. Now, I am developing a vegan Peruvian cookbook with plant-based versions of the recipes I grew up with. While it's my mother who taught me much of this, there are two recipes I learned from my father: pisco sours and tacu tacu.

Peru's comida criolla is a fusion of Inca, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Japanese culinary cultures that has evolved over a period of 500 years; tacu tacu is one of those dishes with strong Afro-Peruvian roots. Colonists brought African slaves to Peru's Pacific coast to labor on sugar plantations, cultivate rice, pick cotton, and mine guano. It was at coastal haciendas that slaves began to prepare some of Peru's first criollo dishes, using ingredients like rice, onions, and limes that had been introduced via Spain's colonial foodways. These Black women creatively combined leftovers or discarded foods, like frying rice in lard and mixing it with a stew of local canary beans over a wood fire. This was the humble beginning of tacu tacu, whose name comes from the Quechua word taku, which means "mixed." Over the centuries, this simple dish became popular among Lima's families — like my grandfather's — that were part of the city's working class of Andean, Asian, Italian, or Afro-descended heritage.

My grandfather was from Peru's Andes, and he spoke Quechua, Peru's Indigenous language. A policeman in the highlands of Puno and Arequipa, he patrolled Andean communities on horseback. My father believes that my grandfather first prepared tacu tacu when it was his turn to cook a meal for fellow officers at the local police station. Years later, when my grandfather migrated to Lima and started a family in the neighborhood of Barrios Altos, tacu tacu followed him. By the '40s, when my father was a child, my grandfather was cooking tacu tacu regularly.

My father recalls the kitchen in their single-story quinta well, with its large opening in the ceiling for ventilation (because Lima is a coastal desert, no rain ever came through). My grandmother would cook stews in a large cast-iron pot that she'd place on a metal grill over a wood-coal fire. Without a refrigerator, any leftovers remained in the pots and pans overnight. If these happened to include long-grain white rice and canary bean stew, it got turned into tacu tacu for breakfast.

Each morning, it was my grandfather who awoke early to prepare the family's breakfast — a pot of warm oatmeal cooked in water, spiced with a cinnamon stick, and sweetened with sugar — something he was accustomed to cooking in his barracks. But on weekends, my father would watch as he mixed and mashed leftover rice and beans with lard in a cast-iron skillet over the fire; how he fried the mixture until it was heated through and crisp. My father recalls waiting with joyful anticipation for the savory tacu tacu after having started breakfast with the oatmeal. From the skillet, my grandfather would scoop and serve his family of eight — my grandparents, my father, and his five siblings.

Three decades later, my father started his own family and moved to the Dominican Republic. Our family of four — my parents, my younger brother, and I — lived in a three-bedroom bungalow in a small mining town, where my dad worked as an engineer at the local mine. This is where I have my first memories of my father preparing tacu tacu for breakfast. On weekend mornings, he'd open the refrigerator, and upon finding leftover rice and beans he would joyfully announce: "Voy a preparar un rico tacu tacu!"

Our kitchen was a world away from the kitchen of his childhood. It was small but modern, with a large sink, refrigerator, and gas stovetop with an oven (instead of wood coals) fueled by two outdoor propane tanks. It rained a lot there, so there was no opening in the ceiling like in Lima. Dad cooked the dish in much the same way his father did, but the beans were different — in Caribbean food culture, red kidney beans are more popular than canary beans for stews, and my mother mashed some of these beans in the stew to make it creamy. Rather than a cast-iron skillet, my father used a nonstick frying pan; instead of lard, he used maize oil; and because he was an engineer, he carefully apportioned equal parts of rice and beans. He enjoyed having his tacu tacu with bread and black coffee, and he'd serve us each a few scoops of it. But only after our cold breakfast cereal.

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Making tacu tacu has an inherent simplicity — mixing two ingredients that are already cooked — and I think that my father and grandfather enjoyed it because it was simple enough for them, as inexperienced cooks, to prepare. But my mother and grandmother also appreciated the gesture, which gave them a break from preparing all the family meals.

Gradually, it wasn't just working-class families that cooked tacu tacu; Lima's creole restaurants made it a popular staple and offered single servings shaped and adorned in various ways. In Lima today, restaurants repurpose the day's rice and canary bean stew for tacu tacu, but they sauté chopped red onion with garlic, spices, and ají amarillo—Peru's native yellow hot pepper—to add to the mix and enhance the dish's flavor. A substantial savory topping on the tacu tacu makes it a montadito, or "mounted." Tacu tacu a lo pobre, or "poor man's tacu tacu," refers to a thin steak and fried egg topping, while tacu tacu con mariscos refers to an accompaniment of seafood, like calamari or shrimp. One of the most interesting variations I've seen is tacu tacu relleno, or stuffed tacu tacu. Creole cooks use a wok to fry the rice and beans into a pancake with a cooked seafood sauce, and with flicks of the wrist they toss, roll, and shape the pancake into an ellipsoid that is crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

As a chef, I've prepared tacu tacu differently over the years. Before I became a dad, I lived alone, so I cooked a quick single serving for myself with leftover rice and beans. I also experimented with different leftovers, and found my favorite combination: rice with red lentil in a 1:2 ratio, which I then folded like an omelet (I like the creaminess of the soft cooked lentils, and how they holds the rice together). But once I became a dad, I wanted to prepare tacu tacu in a way that yielded more than one serving at a time — for efficiency, but mostly for sharing with my family.

Today, I live in Oregon with my fiancée and our daughter, and to prepare tacu tacu I start by sautéing finely chopped onions seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, and ají amarillo in a nonstick skillet. Then, I add a homogeneous mixture of chilled leftover rice and red lentil to the pan, mix, flatten, cover, reduce the heat, and wait until a crust forms on the bottom of the tacu tacu. To serve it, I carefully invert the rice and lentil cake onto a flat plate, browned side up, and cut the cake into slices. Because we are a vegan family, I simply drizzle the slices with olive oil, top them with salsa criolla (pickled red onions), and garnish with cilantro.

Now, when I cook tacu tacu, I think about its history and Afro-Peruvian legacy, but I also feel a profound connection to my father and grandfather. My grandfather died before I was born, but I carry his name, as does my dad. Sometimes I am sad that my grandfather never saw us carry on the tradition he started; he never saw my father prepare tacu tacu for his family or me prepare tacu tacu for mine. But maybe that is not important. As family cooks, we may not see our children or grandchildren grow up to make our traditional foods. All we can do is cook for them, and hope that the recipes are passed on. And if those dishes survive generations, then the cooks who prepared them will continue to live on among us.

By Nico Vera


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Breakfast Fathers Food Food52 Peru Tacu Tacu