When somebody around me mentions Peruvian food, there are a lot of wonderful things that should pop into my mind. I could, for instance, think back to my first taste of tiradito, a refined take on ceviche that features nearly transparent slices of milky-white fish in an addictive chile-laced marinade. I could also remember Peruvian potatoes and their spectrum of shapes, sizes and colors, or the hot ears of corn with kernels the size of walnuts I would buy from the women who boarded trains in small villages, selling all manner of homemade snacks from large baskets. I could think about anticuchos, I suppose, the famous beef-heart kebabs I was too chicken to try, or the enormous Peruvian tamales stuffed with chicken, olives, raisins and hardboiled eggs. I could even think of sushi, considering I had some of the best of my life in Lima. But I don't. Embarrassing as it is to admit, my memories of Peruvian food are almost completely dominated by longings for the best granola I ever had.
I'll tell you the story. Seven years ago I went to Peru to conduct research for my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Although my main base was in the Andes (I was ostensibly researching Quechua language survival), I also did some traveling with an old friend whose visit to Peru happened to coincide with mine. As she had a particular interest in ruins, I agreed to accompany her on a long bus ride north to visit Chan Chan, the ancient mud city of the pre-Incan Chimu Empire. According to our guidebook, the best base for visiting the ruins was a sleepy little beach town a few miles away called Huanchaco.
Huanchaco was a nice enough place, quiet and easygoing by Peruvian standards, though it had gloomy overcast skies and the kind of lonely vibe of a beach resort off-season (it was the start of winter in the southern hemisphere). The guest house we chose, like the town itself, was also pretty dead; apart from us there was only a solitary Dutch backpacker and the owners, a local man, his petite French wife, and their toddler son who ran around waking everyone up with his screams at six o'clock each morning. The husband seemed perfectly nice on the one and only occasion we saw him; his wife, on the other hand, couldn't have been more unwelcoming if she tried. Not only did she watch our every move like a hawk, she complained about everything we did, from talking too loudly in the courtyard at night to not hanging our wet towels properly in our room. When she had nothing to complain about, she just glowered. And then there were her lips. I don't know if they had anything to do with her foul temperament, but they were at least three sizes too big; our speculations ranged from birth defect to Botox treatment gone wrong. In any case, though I'm fully understanding of the fact that hospitality is a tough business, that seeing different faces parade in and out every day can be exhausting and that any number of personal tragedies may have befallen her shortly before our arrival, this woman really should not have been let loose near paying customers. To us, at any rate, she was just plain hostile, and to exact our revenge (and, well, because she never told us her name) we started calling her the Lip Lady.
As much as we disliked her, though, I probably would have forgotten about the Lip Lady entirely in the intervening years—I mean, she wasn't that memorable—if it weren't for her granola. You see, apart from rooms, the guest house ran a casual café on its terrace, and along with the usual backpacker pizzas and omelettes they served the world's most delicious homemade granola. "What's in this granola?" I remember asking the young girl who waited the cafe's tables, but she had no idea. I could make out sliced almonds—or so I thought—bound together into light, crisp clusters with some sort of grain, but the rest was a mystery. I scrutinized it for days, trying to read its crumbly topography for clues, but in the end I realized there was only one way I was going to be able to reproduce this remarkable cereal at home. On the day of our departure, as I settled our bill, I took a deep breath, put on my brightest smile and asked the Lip Lady for the recipe.
To my complete surprise, she had only three words for me: "It's a secret."
Instantly I could feel panic swelling in my chest; I needed that recipe. "But it's the best granola I've ever had," I pleaded, searching her face for any shred of compassion. Surely she didn't think I was going to take her secret recipe and open up a competing café down the street, did she? I forced a smile again and said in my most polite Spanish, "Can't you just tell me the ingredients?"
She eyed me without expression for a long moment before shrugging. "I don't give away my recipes. All I can tell you is that I make it with oats, and that the recipe comes from Germany."
I was sorely tempted to grab her by her overgrown lips and shake the recipe out of her, but instead I paid my bill, cursing under my breath, and made a mental note of everything she had said. Surely if I looked long and hard enough I would eventually come across a recipe that yielded similar results... wouldn't I?
I didn't. For seven years I scoured every cookbook I ran across, spent hours typing search terms into google and quizzed every German I knew on their baked-cereal knowledge. I baked batch after batch of granola and tried every combination of ingredients and techniques imaginable, but none yielded exactly what I was looking for. There were plenty of good ones, of course, full of oaty wholesomeness and warm spice, but they were all lacking something, some elusive combination of flavor and texture I couldn't quite put my finger on. I started to question whether my perfect granola even existed. What if my memory had been playing tricks on me? What if Lip Lady's granola wasn't actually as good as I remembered it? What if I had romanticized it to the point where every granola I ate for the rest of my life would disappoint me?
But of course I wouldn't be telling you this story if it didn't have a happy ending. As it happened, one night a couple of weeks ago, on the fifth straight batch to come out of my oven in as many days, I finally cracked the code. It was a remarkably small thing that did it, actually—just a change in the type of oats I use—but it was enough; before it had even finished cooling I knew this was the one. I delivered a handful to Manuel to get a second opinion and was met with astonishment. "This is the best granola you've ever made," he exclaimed, and quickly inhaled half the batch. It certainly was, possessing every quality I have been trying to recreate for seven years: large, irregular clusters that retain their crunch to the bottom of the bowl; a light, crisp texture; a heady blend of vanilla and spice that conjures up oatmeal cookies and fragrant spice cakes. I'll be the first to admit it may not be an exact replica of the granola I tasted in Huanchaco—heck, even my tastebuds don't have that kind of memory—but knowing that actually makes it taste even better. It's my recipe, after all, not the Lip Lady's. And of course it's yours now too, because the last thing I would ever dream of doing is keep it to myself.
Okay, so what exactly makes this granola different? I'm no kitchen scientist, but I can point out the things that seem to have the biggest impact. One thing is the addition of oat flour, which helps the grains and nuts stick together into those much-coveted clusters. Another is the use of sugar; as much I like liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, they seem to produce a tougher, chewier granola. Finally, the right kind of oats are essential. For years I only baked with regular rolled ('old fashioned') oats because that's what recipes called for, but as soon as I switched to the smaller, thinner 'quick oats', the changes were remarkable—clusters formed, everything baked faster, and the texture became exquisitely light and crunchy. If you can't find quick oats where you live—and I have lived in a few places where oats come in one variety only—here's what I would do: pulse rolled oats in a food processor a few times to break them down to about half their original size. It won't be exactly the same but it will come close.
Yield: about 8 cups
1 lb. (450g) quick oats*
3 cups (750ml/about 300g) coarsely chopped raw nuts and/or seeds (I usually use a mixture of almonds, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds, but use whatever tickles your fancy)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground mace (or nutmeg)
1 cup, packed (200g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (115g/1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (80ml) water
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
dried fruit, at your discretion
*if you're not familiar with the difference between quick and regular (also called 'old fashioned') rolled oats, take a look at the pictures here
Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. In a food processor, coffee grinder or blender, grind half the oats to a fine powder. In a large bowl, combine the whole oats, ground oats, nuts, seeds and spices. In a microwave-safe bowl (or in a saucepan over medium heat), combine the brown sugar, butter and water and heat just until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbly. Stir the mixture together until smooth, then stir in the salt and vanilla. Pour this mixture over the oats and nuts, stirring well to coat (I usually do this with my hands). It should be uniformly moist - stir in another tablespoon or two of water if it isn't. Let stand for about ten minutes.
Spread the mixture out on a large baking sheet, separating it into irregular clumps with your fingers, and allowing space between the clumps for the hot air to circulate. Slide into the middle of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and stir, gently breaking up the mixture into small-to-medium sized clumps. Return to the oven and bake another 15 minutes or so before stirring again. Repeat the bake-and-stir until the mixture is a uniform golden brown and completely dry; this usually takes 1-1 1/2 hours. Cool completely, then stir in any dried fruit you want to use.
Store in a covered container at room temperature. Serve with milk or plain yogurt and fresh fruit as desired.