Quechua: Bringing cultures together through culinary arts in Taos

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Kenyi Abe was thinking of a special present he could give to his fiancée, Yessenia Garnique. He opened the restaurant Quechua, which they co-own, the day before her birthday, on April 29.

"It was the best present I could come up with," he said. "We are all part of an enthusiastic team that wants to introduce the Peruvian cuisine in Taos."

The team members are co-owners Abe and Garnique; Trotsky Barreto and his wife, Gloria Hidrogo; and chef José Ruiz McPherson.

Abe and Garnique worked as hotel and restaurant managers in Peru. When they came to Taos three years ago, they decided to stay.

As for Barreto, also a Peruvian, he is a classical musician who has played the trumpet in several symphonic orchestras. After living for 25 years in California and a couple of years in Europe, he and his wife settled in Taos.

"There is something special about this town," Hidrogo said. "The moment we came here, we just knew it was the place for us."

Many Taoseños are already familiar with Hidrogo's work -- she just had an exhibit of her "tortilla art" at the Farmhouse Café. Last year, she was honored in Mexico as a national artist. She has also taught art at schools in California and Mexico.

"Our goal is using the culinary arts to bring cultures together," Barreto said. "Quechua isn't just a restaurant, but a cultural integration project. We have llamas and alpacas that we plan to take to the local schools. We will also invite a professor of Quechua culture and language to Taos."

Chef Ruiz learned the secrets of the trade with his father, who worked at Banco Central de Reserva Club in Peru. He graduated from Cenfotur (Centro de Formación en Turismo) in Lima, Peru, and has been cooking for more than 20 years.

Ruiz plans to open his kitchen to the public and teach Taoseños how to make Peruvian-style ceviche.

"I like to make authentic Peruvian food," he said. "No fusion, nothing too complicated. Just bring in the aromas and flavors of our beautiful land. That is why I created a menu that could represent our country with pride."

Peru is also represented on a huge blackboard that features prominently a llama drawn in bright colors. Patrons have written comments and messages such as, "Good food," "Will be back" and, "Qué yummy."

"We were happy to find out that many Taoseños had traveled to Peru, particularly Machu Picchu," Abe said. "Now they are delighted to have authentic Peruvian cuisine close to home."

Abe and Ruiz grew up near the sea. Abe is from Chorillo (a Spanish word that means "trickle of water") and the chef is from El Callao. No wonder one of their signature dishes is ceviche -- marinated raw fish cured with citrus juice and spiced with Peruvian ají (limo and rocoto).

Ají amarillo, also known as Peruvian yellow pepper, is another key ingredient of their native cuisine.

"Ají dates back to the times of the Incas," Ruiz said. "We use it in a variety of Peruvian classic dishes from ají de gallina to arroz con mariscos. It is often pureed into sauces as well and gives a special piquant touch to everything."

Ají de gallina consists of chicken cooked in a bright yellow sauce made with ají amarillo and walnuts. As for arroz con mariscos, this is a Peruvian-style seafood paella, moist and creamy.

As we all know, "Red or green?" is the official question of New Mexico. But the Quechua team is trying to add a third color to it.

"We want people in Taos to start asking, 'Red, green or yellow?' from now on," Hidrogo chimed in. "And we are confident that they would like our ají amarillo so much that it will become part of their diet, too."

One of Quechua's most interesting appetizers is their crunchy fried yuca, served with cream. This yuca is not to be confused with yucca, the perennial shrub that grows in the Southwest. Yuca, a major staple food in Central and South America, is a root vegetable, like potatoes.

Ah, yuca frita! I hadn't tried it since my last trip to Miami. But when I asked where I could buy it here, Ruiz said, "No hay aquí. There is no yuca here."

"We import most of our ingredients directly from Peru," Abe explained. "That makes all the difference in the world."

Carlos Unzueta, a Zumba instructor who is also from Peru, describes Quechua's food as "delicious, amazing and yummy."

"Their chicha morada and maracuya [passion fruit] juices are the real thing," he said.

And a word about desserts: There is arroz con leche, rice pudding; leche asada (the Peruvian version of crème brûlée); and mazamorra morada, a pudding made with purple corn, spiced with cinnamon.

"This came directly from the heart of our country," Ruiz said, showing the purple corn cob. "Just try la mazamorra, a traditional Peruvian dessert. You won't be disappointed."

On Friday (May 12), Unzueta will offer an Afro-Peruvian music class and demonstration at 7 p.m.

"We will be serving food in one room and dancing in the other," Barreto said. "Come to eat our good food and learn more about Peru."

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