Teresa Ocampo: The “Julia Child of Peru”

Peru gave the world potatoes. It also gave us ceviche, quinoa, and pisco, a high-octane brandy made from grapes.

Tinged with Incan influences as well as Spanish, Chinese, and Italian, Peruvian food reflects the Andean country’s multicultural past. It reflects the landscape too—mountains, coast, desert, and rain forest—and, because of this diversity, Peru is gaining recognition as the home of one of the world’s most important cuisines.

This comes as no surprise to a woman named Teresa Ocampo. A native of Cusco now in her 80s, Ocampo has spent her life making Peruvian food accessible to countless home cooks. She is a culinary icon in her country, so beloved that she is often referred to as “the Julia Child of Peru.”

Ocampo was born in 1931 and spent the early years of her childhood at the family’s hacienda, where her mother and grandmother—both Cordon Bleu graduates—taught her the value of preparing traditional Cusqueñan dishes with local ingredients and excellent technique.

At age 23 she left Peru to attend the famous Paris cooking school. “It was marvelous,” she says. “Paris has the best food.” Still, she occasionally made mistakes and remembers once being demoted to peeling potatoes—a sentence she found comical, given her heritage and innate love for the humble root vegetable.

When her studies abroad were complete, Ocampo returned home and married. But her culinary education was not over. Her mother-in-law, also a graduate of the Cordon Bleu, was so well known for her mastery of haute cuisine that when Charles de Gaulle came to town, she was asked to be his head chef. “My mother-in-law taught me to be impeccable,” she says.

Over the next several years Ocampo had three sons, and, along with her mother and mother-in-law, became something of a local celebrity.

But in the late 1950s she truly hit stardom.

At that time, television was becoming mainstream in Peru and a group of executives were interested in starting a cooking show. They approached Ocampo’s mother with the idea first, and she immediately pointed to her daughter as the better woman for the job.

It’s easy to understand why. Ocampo is sweet and charming and possesses just the right amount of sass needed for television. She is a self-described perfectionist, and her recipes are straightforward. She’s also full of advice: “Don’t cook when you are in a bad mood, because it will show up in your food. You must cook with love.”

She was the host of several cooking shows over the course of her nearly 30-year career, but her most popular program by far was one called “¿Qué Cocinaré? or, “What Will I Cook?” It ran for 28 years and, to this day, people thank her for teaching them how to cook good meals from basic ingredients.

Ocampo now lives in Dallas, Texas, near her children and grandchildren, and regularly travels back to Peru, where she is still widely adored and her many cookbooks are still in print.

As for cooking these days, Ocampo says she leaves that up to her sons. One of her favorite dishes is Chupe de Camarones, or Peruvian shrimp chowder. And, as any good teacher would, she has given instructions for how to make it. Don’t forget the love.

Photo of Chupe de Camarones.

A plate of Chupa de Camarones served at a restaurant in Arequipa, Peru. Photograph by Flickr user _e.t

Chupe de Camarones

Peruvian-style Shrimp Chowder – Traditional Cusqueñan recipe
Yields 6 servings

Before You Begin:

A “chupe” is Peruvian “chowder.” They are hearty dishes that are a classic comfort food – especially on cold nights high in the Andes. This is a traditional Cusqueñan chupe recipe; it has been slightly modified to include ingredients that are readily available in most supermarkets.

In cooking this recipe, remember three basic rules:

1)    Keep all the ingredients bite-sized and manageable—you only need a spoon to eat chupe.

2)    This type of dish is referred to as a “platillo”—everything cooks together in the same pot. Timing is everything on this dish, so you definitely need to pay attention while cooking, and add things in the right order.

3)    Don’t be afraid to taste as you go.

Ingredients:

2.2 lbs.          Shrimp (uncooked, cleaned, and peeled)
6                      Yellow potatoes (uncooked, peeled and “halved” until bite-sized)
3                      Eggs (well scrambled)
1                       Onion (finely chopped)
¾ cup            Green peas (frozen, be sure to thaw for the recipe)
½ cup            Corn kernels (canned)
½ cup            Rice grains (uncooked)
½ tbsp          Minced garlic
¾ cup            Queso fresco (cubed)
4 tbsp.           Olive oil
2 tbsp.           Tomato paste
1 tbsp.            Dried oregano
¾ cup            Evaporated milk
8.4 cups         Water
2 tbsp.            Peruvian Yellow Pepper Paste (“Ají peruano”), please note that this is spicy, so I also recommend you try the ají first and add to taste, before adding the full 2 tbsp.
Salt and pepper to taste

Prep:

1. In a large pot add the olive oil, onion, garlic, tomato paste, ají, salt and pepper (to taste), and ½ tbsp. of oregano. Cook for 5 minutes on Medium heat while stirring so that the ingredients are well mixed.

2. Add the 8.4 cups of water to the pot. Cook on High heat until boiling.

3. Once the soup is boiling, add the rice grains. After 1 min., add the potatoes. The potatoes and rice cook in the broth, which allows them to really absorb the flavors. Now here comes the tricky part of the recipe, once the potatoes are soft enough to easily pierce with a fork, it is time to add the shrimp. Please note that the cooked potatoes should not be mushy, or breaking apart.

4. Add the shrimp to the pot. As soon as the shrimp change color (to orange/red), turn down to Low Heat, and add scrambled eggs, thawed peas, and corn. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes while stirring so that the soup is very well mixed.

5. Turn off stove. Add queso fresco, evaporated milk, and ½ tbsp. of oregano. Stir and serve immediately.

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.

Comments