When I first visited Lima – the sprawling capital of Peru – on a quest to try every possible interesting South American food, I quickly became a fan of lomo saltado beef dish. I was surprised to see that this dish, essentially a stir fry of beef and veggies (lomo saltado means ‘flipped sirloin’ in Spanish), is suspiciously East Asian in character. I mean, I expected South American food to have certain European and indigenous influences given its history. But a beef dish stir-fried in a wok and seasoned with ginger and soy sauce? Something irregular was afoot here.
As I learned more about Peru, I started to understand why this dish (as well as many other, less internationally famous ones from that country) are so reminiscent of the Chinese cuisine.
Let me explain.
In 1840, the Europeans learned of large guano deposits on Chincha islands, off the coast of Peru. At that time, Europe and the US were dealing with a rapidly increasing population that needed to be fed but lacked sufficient fertilizer production capable of sustaining exploding need to grow more food. For over 30 years, the nitrogen-rich guano was the fertilizer solution. Peru exported guano and experienced a short-lived, but memorable economic boom.
To work the deposits, Peru needed extra hands, preferably cheap. And since English and American companies played a large part in the guano trade, that extra labor was conveniently supplied from China and, to a lesser extent, from Japan.
When the insatiable Western appetites exhausted the guano deposits, the investors quickly left Peru. The happy days of easy money were over for that country. But the Chinese workers stayed. Little by little, they became integrated into Peruvian society and contributed to the already rich culinary palette.
Today, lomo saltado stands as an ultimate expression of this mix of cultures. Traces of Chinese cuisine are clear in the use of wok stir frying, the small bite-size pieces that the meat and the veggies are cut into, the use of soy sauce and the rice that it is served with. Steak comes from the Spanish love of everything cow. And the indigenous Peru comes through in the use of potatoes that, in addition to rice, lomo is served with.
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And now the recipe.
One of the keys to a great lomo saltado is steak. Stir frying means cooking all ingredients quickly, and it does apply to how you treat your steak. It will spend only about 3 minutes on your wok. So, for the best quality of the result that is juicy and tender, do me a favor and pick either sirloin or filet mignon.
Stir frying is all about applying high heat to food for a very short time. Everything will need to happen at the speed of light, and once you start going, you really can’t stop. But if stir frying is not yet your game, don’t worry. I will walk you though it step by step.
Step 1: Mise-en-place
I suggest prepping all of the ingredients ahead of time. This is a critical step, so please don’t wing it.
Cut your meat into stripes, always against the grain no matter what cut you are using. They have to be thin enough because cooking time will be very short, so flatten it a bit with the flat side of the knife if you must.
Now the veg. Cut the purple onion into rough chunks across the layers and separate the resulting petal-shaped pieces. Julienne aji amarillo or skip that step if you don’t have any. You can sub it for the aji amarillo paste that you can add to the sauce in the end.
Cut the tomatoes into 8 pieces each, lengthwise, and cut out the seeds. You don’t need all that extra liquid, just the fleshy parts. I suggest using Roma tomatoes because there is more flesh than liquid.
Arrange all ingredients: the remaining veg (the green onions) and the aromatics (grated ginger, garlic). The aromatics are not always traditional, but they do elevate the dish, so I like using the aromatics in my version. I take comfort that some Peruvian chefs do use aromatics, and that these add a very Chinese touch to the dish.
Get the liquids ready too. Whisk together the soy sauce, the vinegar and the oyster sauce (also not traditional but highly recommended to balance the sour with its sweetness). Add aji amarillo paste at this point as well.
Step 2: Stir Frying Meat
Heat up the wok to however hot it can get in your kitchen. The restaurant dish is always cooked at maximum as well, and I know that our puny home stoves won’t ever reach the desired flame power, but we work with what we have.
You can use a frying pan too, but a real wok makes a lot of difference. I used a northern-style wok with a helper handle to make mine.
Once the wok is piping hot, add vegetable oil and stir it around the sides of the wok with a ladle. You need just a tablespoon of oil or so because you are not deep frying, but stir frying. The oil should be smoking up at this point.
Throw in the meat. Make sure you do it in batches so that you don’t overcrowd the wok and don’t start boiling your steak instead of searing it. Press the meat down to the sides of the wok to sear it, leave it for about two minutes and then turn it around to sear it on the other side.
At this point, a professional Peruvian chef would flip the meat up and down (that’s the saltado part) and try to catch fire with the oil in the wok to give the lomo its characteristic smoky flavor. It’s very hard to do it in your home kitchen. I’m proud to say that I used my favorite torch to set the wok on fire, and of course caused fire alarm to go off. Oh well. The result was totally worth it.
Set the seared meat aside.
Step 3: the aromatics and the veg
Bring the wok back to the piping hot state, and add more oil if needed. Throw in the onions and aji amarillo, if you have it. Stir it around the wok for about a minute or so, and set it aside. The veg will have to retain its crunch.
Next, go the aromatics. Toast them in the hot oil for about 30 seconds and add the tomatoes. Stir everything around the wok for another minute.
Step 4: Putting it all together
At this point, throw the onions and the meat with all the accumulated juices back into the wok. Stir fry all of it for another minute and add the liquids, pouring them down the sides of the wok to bring the liquids to a boil quickly. Make sure that all the meat and the vegetables are coated with the sauce and take it off the heat. Done!
If you like your French fries not on a side but as part of the stir fry, drop them into the wok right after the liquids. Personally, I like dipping my crispy fries into the sauce rather than having them served soggy, but you do you.
Garnish the lomo with chopped cilantro. Serve with a cup of steamed white rice and the fries.
1 pound of steak (filet mignon or sirloin) cut into cubes or thin stripes
½ of large purple onion, cut into chunky slices and separated into individual petals
2 Roma tomatoes cut into 8 slices lengthwise, seeds removed
2 Peruvian Aji Amarillo peppers, julienned (if you can find them), or 2 teaspoons of Aji Amarillo paste
Oregano and cumin to taste
4 tablespoons of white vinegar
4 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 tablespoons of oyster sauce (optional, but highly recommended)
Salt, black pepper to taste
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of grated ginger
White parts of 2-3 green onions, cut into inch-long pieces
A cup of white rice
Home potato fries