As a young college student I met my friend Rodrigo, a native of Lima, Peru. We instantly connected and became lifelong friends. He always had a picture of the ruins of Machu Picchu hanging in his dorm room and would narrate stories of his vibrant culture and the food that held his heart. After graduation, we decided to relive those stories and flew to Peru. I instantly fell in love with the culture and of course its cuisine.
Photograph of Cusco, Peru.
During my time there, Rodrigo and I crossed much of the country. We beach hopped down the coast, sometimes digging trenches in the sand and sleeping under the night sky. We made eager attempts to master the fine art of body surfing and ate the most amazing ceviche made fresh at our side by the local fisherman and large banana leaf wrapped tamales and marinated beef heart kebabs called anticuchos. We eventually left the coast for the Andes, hiked the Inca trails to our goal of Machu Picchu. I remember a wonderful evening drinking warm honey wine and choosing our own guinea pig to become one of Peru’s most infamous dishes, Cuy!
The thing that truly resonated in my travel to Peru was the strong focus on food and gathering.
There is a sense of community around food. At one point we found ourselves in a small café. I was obsessing over my amazing dish of Peruvian Pesto Spaghetti and spinach and basil menestron soup when Rodrigo asked me where I would be in ten years. Without hesitation I exclaimed, “I’m going to open a restaurant and call it Café Cusco.”
Years later, my mother and I were inside Big Momma's Coffee Shop on Historic Commercial Street in Springfield, MO. The atmosphere reminded me so much of Cusco, Peru. People were shuffling in and out. Young professionals, business owners, artisans and others seemed to share in a sense of community with one another. There was something special about C-street that I hadn’t experienced elsewhere in Springfield. The thought passed my mind, “This is the place and this is the time to make my thought a reality.”
Leaving the coffee shop that day we bumped into the owners of the Savoy Ballroom practicing for their annual "Thriller" show and got an actual testimony from a business owner on Commercial Street. When it came time to sign, I knew that "C-Street" was the perfect home for Café Cusco.
Joseph and Claire in the kitchen at Cafe Cusco.
My mother Claire and I opened the restaurant in July of 2013 excited to share the food and experiences from my journey with our community and friends. Watching customers become regulars and bring their friends has been a rewarding experience. We located inside of one of Springfield’s oldest buildings, built in 1883. Our two story home features high coppered ceilings, amazing woodwork, columns and an antique bar and covered booths mixed with warm latin colors and contemporary lighting. Since opening we expanded to an upstairs lounge and party room and a beautiful outdoor patio with an 80 foot Peruvian inspired tile mosaic and mural by local artists, Christine Schilling and Gregg Grace. We have big plans for Café Cusco and Commercial Street. We hope to turn C-Street into a small getaway in Springfield, MO.
Of course, when visiting Café Cusco, you must begin with a plate of Ceviche. Ceviche is considered the national dish of Peru consisting of raw white fish cured in a combination of lime juice, garlic, salt, Peruvian yellow pepper, red onion and cilantro. Every family and region has their own small variances of preparing and presenting the dish, but the main ingredients and process is pretty similar. First of course is the fish. For a true Peruvian ceviche you would commonly use Corvina. This is in the Pacific Sea Bass family, but may be difficult to find in your area. Many times a simple Tilapia will suffice. You should begin cutting the fish lengthwise in strips and then cubes about ¾” x ¾”.
Cutting the tilapia.
Choose a nice shallow glass dish and begin the process of salt and garlic curing the fish. Don’t be afraid to be somewhat generous with the salt and garlic, since you want to rub the fish with it. Depending on the size of the filets about 1-2 tsp of both sea salt and fresh minced garlic per fish filet. These ingredients will actually kill any bacteria that may be on the fish and it is essential that this first step is adhered to. You will want to let the fish cure in the salt and garlic for at least 15 minutes before continuing the process.
Adding the salt to the tilapia.
The salt will cure the fish within 15 minutes.
After the fish has allowed to salt cure for the full 15 minutes, you will begin the acidic stage of your curing process. Like Stage 1, there are two ingredients to this stage, the lime juice and the chili pepper. If you are fortunate enough to find true Peruvian limes, I am jealous. The Limes in Peru are much smaller and potent than ones from the US. I have found that a good slightly pasturized Key Lime juice provides the closest similarity to Peruvian Limes.
The choice of chili pepper for ceviche is the most common difference amongst Ceviches across Latin America, but for Peruvian Ceviche you MUST use the aji Amarillo (Peruvian Yellow Pepper). You can find aji Amarillo in most Latino Markets frozen or as a paste. You can also purchase it online from amigofoods.com. If you buy frozen you will want to mince the pepper as small as possible.
For Peruvian Ceviche you MUST use the aji Amarillo.
The amount of pepper you use is completely up to taste and level of spiciness you prefer. For the lime juice it is essential that you fill the dish with enough lime juice to cover the fish HALF way. If you completely cover the fish, the lime will over power. With a spatula or gloved hand you will want to turn the fish several times to completely coat it with lime juice and yellow pepper. At this point let the fish sit while it finishes the curing process. You will know the process is completed when the fish turns a milky white color and begins to have a firmer texture. It will appear traditionaly cooked. The oils and juices from the fish will also mix with the lime juice and will actually rise and cover the fish when the process is finished.
The oils and juices from the fish will also mix with the lime juice and will actually rise and cover the fish.
Now that the fish is cured you will begin to add the red onion and cilantro. You will want to slice the onion very thin and the sliver it. Again, the amount of onion and cilantro are personal taste. I like to mix the onion and cilantro in with the cured fish, so that the acid breaks it down a little. Commonly in Peru the onion is layered on top and then finished with the cilantro upon serving. Again, this is all personal taste.
Your finished Ceviche.
If you experience Ceviche in Peru you will find many additives from Choclo (Giant Peruvian white Corn), steamed sweet Potato, salad greens, tomatoes, mango, avocado, etc. You can also mix it up with shrimp, squid or octopus. Have fun, be creative, and enjoy! And when in Springfield stop by Café Cusco and let us know you read our blog on the Springfield Convention and Visitors Page. Buen Provecho!