The chef is from Peru, land of ceviche. But his background is also Japanese. And he uses a Vitamix to make his ceviche, not to mention ingredients that go beyond the usual lime-seafood-chile mix. So, is the food he's preparing authentic?
Diego Oka is a culinary ambassador of Peruvian cuisine.
The question of authenticity came up time and again Thursday during the annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens symposium at the Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio campus. The annual get-together, which draws celebrity and international chefs, leaders in the food industry across America and food writers, dealt with whether it was authentic to make tacos using truffles, a mole with hazelnuts, a flan that mixed the corn fungus huitlacoche and leeks or mango mojito shrimp with a kale topping?
The issue went beyond one of mere fusion to the issue of whether these creations were authentic representations of the countries they're associated with.
The answers varied from speaker to speaker, as Southwestern food pioneer and educator Mark Miller explained in a wrap-up of the day. For some, authenticity means employing the greatest simplicity in preparation. Others see it as meaning a lack of industrialization in the food; little is processed, everything is fresh.
For celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Chicago, the definition of authenticity has evolved over time. Early in his career, it meant a look back at the traditions that formed the basis of his cooking. Then he learned that his food should "not look backwards only, but take the wisdom of the past" and allow it to evolve into cuisine that his customers want. Today, he believes that authenticity is simply food that rings true to him.
Rick Bayless stresses his own brand of authenticity.
But he readily admits that his choices are built on his foundation. Too many of today's younger chefs don't want to pay attention to the traditions or stories of where food comes from, said Rick Lopez, a San Antonio native who's now head chef at Austin's La Condesa, even though he appeared to be no older than the chefs he spoke of. "Tradition is great," he said. "It's where we learn."
That brings us back to Diego Oka, the Peruvian chef with a Japanese background. "In Peru, we eat more salty, more spicy," he said. So, both had to be cut down for sweet-loving American diners. To do that, he boils his aji amarillos, the spicy chiles at the heart of Peruvian cuisine, three times to cut down on the heat.
But his Cebiche Cremoso would work perfectly for American tastes, especially those in a hotter climate such as San Antonio's. "When you think of ceviche, you think of the beach and the sun," he said.
He seems to have captured that in the sun-colored sauce that's spread over the dish that also features scallops. Yes, lime juice is used, including in a traditional leche de tigre, which Oka said was the "base of all ceviches."
People don't know much about Peru, Oka said, so staying true to the heart of the ceviche is important.
"We show our culture through our food," he said.
Leche de tigre:
3 cups lime juice
1 cup fumet or light fish stock
1/2 rib celery
1/2 habanero, seeded and deveined
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup ice
1 cup raw fish, such as halibut
1/4 red onion
Salt, to taste
Creamy scallops leche:
4 tablespoons aji amarillo paste (see note)
4 tablespoons aji rocoto paste
5 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup iceLeche de tigre (recipe above)
1 red onion, diced small
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and diced small
1/2 habanero, seeded and deveined
1/4 cancha corn (Peruvian corn nuts)
1/4 cup choclo (Peruvian corn), boiled
1 tablespoon green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup lime juice
12 Alaskan scallops
Micro cilantro, for garnish
For the leche de tigre: In a restaurant-style blender, such as a Vitamix, put the lime juice, fumet, celery, habanero, garlic, fish and ice; blend it for 10 seconds. At the end, add the red onion and cilantro (if we put it at the beginning, it will turn the leche de tigre muddy, which is not desired), and the salt, to taste. Then strain and keep it cool.
For the creamy scallops leche: Put the scallops and ice in a blender on medium speed, the add the canola oil slowly; once it has a thick texture, add the aji amarillo and the rocoto paste. Season with salt and lime juice. Then add slow the leche de tigre to the mix.
For the chalaca sauce: In a bowl, mix the red onion, tomato, habanero, cancha, choclo, green onion, cilantro, lime juice and salt.
To serve: In a serving bowl, place the scallops and top with the creamy scallops leche. Mix them and serve 2 or 3 pieces in a cold plate. Top with the chalaca sauce and finish with microgreens.
Note: Aji amarillo paste and other South American ingredients can be found at Las Americas Latin Market, 6623 San Pedro Ave., if you can't find them at specialty supermarkets such as Central Market or Whole Foods.
Makes 4-6 servings.
From Diego Oka/Latin Flavors, American Kitchens