It’s one thing to have a restaurant in the Pacific Northwest that serves locally grown food. It’s a little harder if you also want that restaurant to serve authentic Peruvian food.
Portland’s Peruvian restaurant Andina is trying to serve the best of both worlds. And it’s proving to be quite tricky.
“It’s really different for this restaurant because we’re not doing cuisine that’s local,” said Doris Platt Rodriguez, co-owner of the Peruvian restaurant Andina in Portland. “By the nature of our restaurant, we require ingredients that for this part of the world are difficult to get.”
Andina gets a lot of its food from the Pacific Northwest: garlic, scallions, herbs, potatoes … but there are four varieties of peppers that are absolutely essential to Peruvian cuisine: rocoto, aji amarillo, aji mirasol, and aji panca. They’re not grown in the Pacific Northwest. And without them, Platt Rodriguez said, you can’t make Peruvian food.
“Each of them generate dishes with distinctive Peruvian flavor,” she said. “We’re obligated to import those.”
Platt Rodriguez said she sees her restaurant as a way to merge the two cultures that have influenced her family; She grew up in Peru, where she met her husband, John, who is from Portland.
Andina is attempting to blend the local food movement in Portland with traditional agriculture of Peru by working with local farms to produce some of the peppers the restaurant imports. The effort has the potential to deliver authentic varieties of Peruvian peppers to the restaurant from 25 miles away – as opposed to more than 4,000 miles away in Peru.
But it still has a ways to go.
Farmer Anne Berblinger agreed to grow one of the pepper varieties – rococo – on her 9-acre organic farm in Gales Creek. The effort yielded a total of 5 pounds of peppers last year – a start, but nowhere near the volume Andina needs.
“Andina is really beyond our scale,” said Berblinger. “They would love to get 40 to 100 pounds a week.”
Berblinger said growing rocoto peppers in Oregon is different from growing them in the Andes. The temperature is similar, but the daylight hours are different. So, her farm is doing some selective breeding.
“What we did is save and dry out the best peppers and scoop out the seeds, and those are the ones we’re going to use next year,” she said. “So, hopefully we’ll be pushing this to be more suitable to our conditions as opposed to those equatorial high mountain conditions.”
By zeroing in on the best seeds for the climate here, Berblinger’s farm could then provide seeds to other farmers who could grow more volume, she said, “so somebody who really wanted to grow an acre or two of these – rather than 75 plants – would be able to do it.”
Andina’s head chef Hank Costello said the peppers grown here didn’t ripen as fully as the Peruvian imports, so the flavor was different. While the pepper-growing experiment continues, he said, other efforts to grow Peruvian ingredients here have been more successful. He found an Oregon farmer who was growing the Peruvian black mint, huacatay, as a natural pesticide.
“We thought for years the only place to get it would be the Andes,” he said. “Discovering that we could grow it here at a farm was a huge relief.”
Costello said local farms are expanding their crop varieties to supply restaurants with ingredients that used to be impossible to source locally.
That’s pretty much the mission statement for Veridian Farms in Dayton, where Leslie and Manuel Recio decided to devote their farm to growing European foods in the Willamette Valley. They grow more than 100 unique crops that are essential to French, Italian and Spanish cuisine – in part to create a sustainable food supply for local restaurants.
It’s another side to the local food movement that compliments the local, seasonal menus in restaurants, Costello said.
“Chefs are getting more adventurous and able to use what’s in season,” said Costello. “And farms are doing new things to branch out.”