Edgardo Rojas Prada: Amazonian flavors that we are missing
«I have seen paiches up to 90 kilos», replied Edgardo Rojas Prada when I asked him about the cooking techniques of this fish. More than 30 years ago he started in the restaurant business almost by chance, looking for financial funds for his pilot training. At that time, he organized a juaneada, a party to raise money by selling juane, a typical Amazonian dish made of rice and wrapped in banana leaves, and it was so successful, that his plan to study aviation turned out to be the start in the kitchen.
Edgardo Rojas Prada is a moyobambino, ambassador of Amazonian cuisine, a frequent guest on national television programs and, along with his family, pioneers in introducing Amazonian cuisine in Lima with El Aguajal restaurant. Today he has a total of eight El Aguajal restaurants located in Lima (four), Tarapoto, Chiclayo, Arequipa, and London, the latter run by his brother. And with Mishkina, his recent proposal in Lima, there would be nine.
The jungle occupies 61% of Peruvian territory. However, its regional cuisine is a great unknown, so much so that even many of the experts point out that in Iquitos, one of the main Amazon cities, there is no restaurant specialized in the regional dishes, so they recommend that those who want to get to know the variety, go to Lima.
And to the markets of Lima, products are arriving, unlike 30 years ago when Edgardo started, that there was practically nothing. The majority are fruits, but also some fish, and in this interview with the chef, we concluded that people do not know how to prepare them, starting with the little depth of knowledge of the subject that cooking schools have and the waste generated by lack of awareness.
The green banana, mandioc, beans, fish and wild fruits, chili peppers, insects, the list is innumerable when talking about Amazonian cuisine.
By Fabiola Gálvez
What are we missing from the Amazonian flavors?
In the flora, we can have a diversity of fruits such as arazá, caimito, zapote, many fruits that the coast does not know and in the jungle are easy to find, it does not come, it does not come here because of a matter of distance, or simply ignorance.
Maybe because the market doesn’t demand it?
They do not demand it because they do not know it, there is also one thing that we have to clarify, that in all the cooking schools that exist in Lima and nationally, the Amazonian cuisine is not well focused, it does not have much content, it is only based on 2 or 3 products and they say that it is the jungle food, then, I think that it is also necessary to develop the Amazonian gastronomy through the institutes, in such a way that it is known how it is prepared.
Have you introduced any insect typical of Amazonian cuisine to any of your restaurants’ menus?
I am from Moyobamba, which is from the Altomayo Valley and in my area there are the famous Siquisapas ants. It is a delight that very few can share or dare to put it to cook. We are quite careful with this issue so as not to generate controversy, I do not put it on the menu, nor does the suri or the chicharra that are edible insects but I work in some way by request, if there is someone who wants something special.
Maybe Lima inhabitants’ palate is not ready?
Even the green banana, they don’t eat it here, so I have to do some fusions to make the cuisine more friendly with the audicence from Lima.
And as for the green banana, how would it be used?
The green banana is normally used fried and in tacacho but there are infinite versions: it can be made boiled, in chifles, in patacones, and even panatelas, like Quaker with banana that is very nutritional, for children. The panatela is for drinking, it’s like to enrich the oatmeal. That’s right, let’s say it’s like maca made with banana flour. The panatela is a hot beverage that is drunk in the jungle, in the morning or in the afternoon, when it rains.
With regard to chili peppers in addition to ají charapita, what other chili peppers do we still need to know?
Speaking of charapita, the same chili pepper has many varieties according to the weather, to the land, I prefer the ají charapita from Tarapoto, it is a very aromatic chili pepper, it has perfume and does not have, say, much spiciness, the chili peppers also have the misquiucho, the tábano, a lot of peppers, colorful with different types of flavors.
ABOUT THE RESTAURANTS
Regarding Aguajal, you are the pioneers, did you imagine having all this success when little was known about Amazonian cuisine?
Let me tell you that I was embarrassed to say that I had an Amazonian restaurant because people made fun of, they said: “Sure you will have monkey, snake”. There was a lot of mockery of the jungle food, then it did not encourage the audience. Even when I used to go to television at the time of technocumbia, of Rosy War, Ruth Karina, Gisela, they said to me: “Edgardo, bring your food” and I was happy because I was going to go on television, but the dishes were given to those who lost in a contest, then I had to change those concepts, also with the productions, that with my meals they enjoy there on the screen, it is not a trophy or any loss and more with the support of Gastón, he has been the promoter of all this change.
And now there is Aguajal in London, is it very exotic?
My brother told me that there is a lot of African products that resemble Peruvian cuisine a bit, so there, it doesn’t have much difficulty. This is aimed at a local audience or perhaps the Peruvian community. I have a concept that the gastronomy we have, is not aimed at the audience of the jungle but at an audience who does not know the jungle and this is their first experience, we are introducing them to the Amazonian cuisine in a more subtle way. We can also find the products or preparations mentioned above in your restaurant. Yes, now I am working with some suppliers, who are already bringing the fruit directly. For example, this Sunday I was lucky to bring arazá, azaí, ungurahui, products that are arriving for the first time to the palates of Lima inhabitants.
And so all people can know a little more about the jungle?
I believe that foreigners know more than Peruvians themselves. That is also an issue, which must be worked on.
I tell you about an experience. I always go on different television programs, so I was happy that I had found in Plaza Vea [supermarket], aguaje and camu camu, and I was happy to promote it myself, but a lady called me and said: «Edgardo, I bought the aguaje that you have told me and I am already boiling it for 3 hours and so far it does not soften, how many hours do I have to do it ». And It is there that I realized that the work is not only to go shopping. And when the supplies arrive in Lima, people do not know, 80% goes to waste because of ignorance.
To eat a banana the normal thing to do is to peel it with the hand, but in the case of a chef, you do it with a knife. There are several types of bananas, you can peel the cavendish banana by hand, but bananas that are for cooking, for frying, is another type. It also happened to me, a lady called me and said: «I bought the green banana, I am making my tacacho». It is impossible with that banana, it will be gummy, it will stick, it will not be fried, you will have another sensation. Then education and information. I say a very important phrase the Amazonian cuisine: there is a lack of decency and teaching to be able to communicate something.
What is the difference between the Mishkina restaurant proposal and the mythical El Aguajal?
It is a more personal proposal. Today I found that thing in the market and I can create a dish, or I can have chefs from different places, and we make some dishes and I put that on the menu. The idea of Mishkina is not to have a fixed menu but we work with all the products of different regions, with the best cecina of Tarapoto, the best beans of San Martín, the manioc of Pucallpa, because of the logistics it is difficult for me to do it in all ”The Aguajales”.
Do you have any patarashca of paiche in Mishkina’s menu?
Of course, we have paiche, doncella. Now, SERFOR [National Forest and Wildlife Service] is providing us with products that were in the process of extinction, I have been fortunate that they are bringing me bush meat – majaz, sajino – now I can have those dishes that were in the process of extinction, thanks to the reforestation.
Returning to fish, when working with the paiche, the largest freshwater fish in the world, does it have any special cooking techniques or is it prepared like any freshwater fish?
Paiche fish is very delicate but versatile, the important thing is that it has very good resistance, in the sense that it is difficult to go off. When I tell you to treat it with delicacy it is because each part of the paiche has a different flavor, there are cuts of the paiche that are for grills, cuts for ceviche, for broths, for chilcanos. They are big fish, I don’t know how much a paiche can weigh. I have seen paiches of up to 90 kilos but I work with paiches of 20 kilos because it is easier to work with. We close the interview with Edgardo’s definition of the jungle, nothing better than asking him
«A continent of new flavors, it is an unknown world that has a lot of wealth, an extraordinary pantry in each region, that I will find products totally different from others. The Ucayali bean is very different from the San Martín bean, the cassava from one place to another is more sandy, each time the flavor is more intense and the difference is according to the land. The taste of orange that comes here and the taste of orange from there, it is incredible».
Thank you very much, chef, for this brief introduction to Amazonian cuisine! We still have a lot to learn. Here you get his new recipe.
To taste the chef’s delicious Amazonian food, we leave the contact information.
Facebook: @MishkinaPERU @ElAguajal / www.aguajal.com / Fanpage:@EdgardoRojasPrada(OFICIAL)