The so-called tamale queen Maria Zuñiga continues family tradition of putting her heart and soul into preparing Peru’s version of comfort food: comida criolla.
Meet Maria Zuñiga, owner and head chef of Tradición Barranquina, specializing in comida criolla. Warmth and courtesy are trademarks of Maria’s, as any chef in the Peruvian gastronomic scene will tell you.
The experienced chef once served up soulful dishes like olluquito con carne (slivers of root vegetable with meat) and seco de carbrito (goat stew) in Parque de la Amistad of Surco, and now operates via delivery under the name Casa Zuñiga.
No matter the name change, her savory tamales and sweet humitas have been of constant interest for locals and foreigners alike [see video below]. Served warm, these small packages are a fragrant and delectable exposé of Peruvian ingredients such as artichoke, chickpea, maíz morado (purple corn) and a blend of quinoa-kiwicha, a personal favorite.
Satisfying as her food is, Maria will often say that for her, the purpose of food is not just to fill the stomach but “to fill the soul” as well. Her passion for food began in the home, when her mother began the catering company Tradición Barranquina in 1955. Her mindset of carrying on a lineage is both personal and cultural; a mark of devotion towards her mother and also her motherland, Peru.
As Maria explains, the rich indigenous history of Peru and the immigration of Spanish settlers and African laborers brought forth the existence of comida criolla. As Peru began to experience a gastronomic boom at the start of the 21st century, a few top chefs (in addition to Zuñiga) stepped in to shine a light on traditional dishes passed down by generations, such as José del Castillo’s Isolina and Gaston Acurio’s El Bodegón.
In essence, criolla food holds up beautiful ideals of making the most of what one has and wasting nothing. This is observed in classic dishes such as anticuchos (cow’s heart), sangrecita (chicken blood) and even sesos de antaño (calf’s brain).
While utilization of ingredients is key, the foundation of Maria’s food is based on cooking with cariño (affection) so as to curate the life of the ingredients that Peru bountifully provides. The book Like Water for Chocolate played with the fantastical sense of transmitting emotions through food—but how does a non-literary figure pretend to add intangible ingredients?
“It may seem like a joke, but when I cook I think of my mother and I feel her there with me,” explains Maria. “Something she shared with me early on was the idea that a negative mindset only brings forth negative outcomes. If you consciously put forth positivity—not just effort or force—into what you do, you are going to have the results that you want.”
Self-described as curious, Maria admits she’s asked customers to “describe what they feel or sense” when they eat her food. One memorable response from a customer was that they got an overwhelming feeling of “affection, like a hug.”
Considering the time investment often required in preparing comida criolla, it is vital that chefs like Maria truly enjoy what they do. Patazca for example, a traditional soup of central Peru, cooks for an immodest eight hours. For this reason, Maria, a well-studied chef with experience in various international culinary arts, assures that comida criolla can be one of the most difficult cuisines to prepare.
Luckily, just as Maria transmits affection into her cooking, sharing the dishes with others energizes the cook to keep doing what she loves: preserving a tradition through heartfelt cooking.
To spoil the family with traditional comida criolla: follow Casa Zuñiga on Facebook and send a WhatsApp to (+51) 981 053 832. All tamales—garbanzo, serranito, traditional and piuranitos—are filled with chicken and cost S/6. There are two available humitas: corn filled with cheese (humita de choclo con queso) and a sweet version filled with raisins and manjar (humita dulce con manjar y pasas); each costs S/6.
Take a look at one traveler’s reaction to Maria’s cooking here:
Cover photo: Andina
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