For chef Carlo Huerta Echegaray, the best way to understand a culture is to savor its food. The 33-year-old Cuzco native believes that when the flavors of a dish are done right, it can draw out some of our fondest memories and show a glimpse into a nation’s history.
Echegaray began his career in the kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu in Peru before moving up to helm some of the best Peruvian restaurants around the globe. Though his love for cooking began as a childhood hobby, his passion eventually became a platform to celebrate the role of Peru in the global culinary scene.
In 2016, Echegaray moved to the Philippines, where he currently serves as head chef of Samba at Shangri-La at the Fort. Here, he brings Peruvian culture to the fore by romancing the Filipino palate with authentic Peruvian dishes. Bearing similarities with the local fare, each dish prepared at Samba is a colorful melange of Peru’s culinary influences—from Italy, Spain, China, and Japan. Yet to us Filipinos, it bears flavors that are surprisingly, and comfortingly, familiar.
Can you tell us more about Peruvian cuisine and what sets it apart from other South American cuisines?
CARLO: Peruvian cuisine is important worldwide because of our biodiversity. Peru has more than 3,000 types of corn, 4,900 types of potato, and 700 types of chili. Before [Christopher] Colombus arrived in my country, nobody knew about tomatoes; you didn’t have potatoes or kamote. That, I think, is the pillar of Peruvian cuisine. I’d say without us, other countries won’t have their cuisine.
So, Peruvian cuisine was made possible through globalization.
CARLO: The Spanish arrived in Peru and brought with them Moroccans, Africans, and Chinese [to cook food for the soldiers and work on cotton farms]. This globalization from 500 years ago was what enriched our ingredients, and [enabled] our food to go around the world. We have a mix of cultures also. For example the lomo saltado, one of the most emblematic dishes of Peru, is a Chinese fusion. The arroz con mariscos, which to some looks like a paella, is actually a mix of risotto and fried rice. [In food influences], we have Italian and we also have Japanese. The Japanese modified the ceviche, though it has been eaten in Peru 5000 years prior. Ceviche now is more refined; it’s not marinated for a long time, only for two to three minutes. It’s fresher and [the seafood] cuts change.
When the flavors of a dish are done right, it can draw out some of our fondest memories and show a glimpse into a nation’s history.
Speaking of ceviche, the dish is one of your bestsellers at Samba. In the Philippines, we have a similar version, kinilaw or kilawin, which is cooked in vinegar or calamansi.
CARLO: Actually, if we talk about ceviche from 100 years ago, it was more similar to kilawin because of the long-time marination. But if you have top–notch fish like a grouper or a Lapu-Lapu with its tender taste, why should you marinate it for hours? With influence from the Japanese, we stopped marinating [our fish] in long hours. We also don’t use vinegar to marinate, we use lime.
We also have specific types of chili for ceviche. The one we use is called aji limo–[the flavor] is more on the aroma. The spiciness kicks you differently; it’s only in the back of your mouth and it won’t burn your lips like labuyo. Labuyo would burn your lips but when you swallow it, you won’t feel it anymore. So the capsicum effect of the chili is very different. If you look at both dishes, they look the same. What’s different is the process.
Is there any merit to teaching Filipinos about the nuances between the two?
CARLO: If you suddenly eat kilawin like that, you’ll appreciate it more because of the quality of fish we have here in the Philippines. In Samba, all my seafood is sourced locally because it’s the best. We’re surrounded by ocean and I think we shouldn’t import anything. Everything is local. What we only bring from Peru are the chili, corn, some potatoes, the corn beer to cook—and me.
The only thing that we changed to adapt to the locals is the way of serving. But none of the flavors. It’s as authentic as it is in Peru.
Right. And since everything in Samba is sourced locally, how were you able to balance that with keeping traditional Peruvian flavors?
CARLO: Filipinos and Peruvians have similar cuisines, so I didn’t have to alter my food. The moment you change flavors, you will be losing authenticity, and we try not to lose that part of Samba. We make Peruvian food as it is eaten in South America. For us it’s easy because the local palate is very similar to ours; you eat yema, we eat suspiro. You have estofado, we have estofado. You have kaldereta, I have adobo (in our own way). You have chicken inasal, and we have the pollo a la brasa. So it was not hard to adapt, to be close to each other.
One more thing: [What we do here] in Samba has to transmit a feeling to you [through the food], wherever you are eating. [It leaves an] impression, like warmth, or you remember your grandmother’s cooking. Well, we have the same grandmas, so [our food is] quite similar.
Was there anything you altered at all?
CARLO: What we did [change] a little bit is more on the serving size, because [in the Philippines], people like to eat family-style where we order a lot and we all share everything. In Peru, that doesn’t happen too much—you order yours, you eat yours; I order mine, I eat mine. The only thing that we changed to adapt to the locals is the way of serving. But none of the flavors; it’s as authentic as it is in Peru.
What makes food the perfect way to share your culture?
CARLO: The only memory in your brain that will never be erased is flavor. (The second is the smell.) You can experience the flavors and smells that you had 20 years ago and you will remember the place, the person, and the moment you were living at that time. That’s why I think the best way to share a culture wherever you are is through food. In my case it’s like that; I show the best of my country through my food. It’s also the easiest way. If you eat my adobo, you will be traveling directly to Arequipa, a city in the south of Peru. If you eat my ceviche, you’re eating in a beach in Lima. Or if you have the canilla de cordero, the lamb shank, you’re traveling to the north of Peru.
If you go to my country and eat [the food in different regions], you will remember everything–everyone you talked to, [the place] where you tasted that thing [when you next eat it]. That is why, to me, the best way to share the culture of a country is through food.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Book a table at Samba here.