The first time you meet Lizeth Morales, you can’t help but smile! We’ve only had the pleasure to meet over Zoom (no surprise there! haha) but she has a contagious energy that’s pretty amazing. You start to wonder – how is it that someone running three restaurants can be this alive. It must be all that delicious ceviche! 🙂
Peru has been on my list for quiet some time – I dream about hiking Machu Picchu or drinking a Pisco in the grand plazas of Cusco – so I was truly super excited for this interview. Lizeth is a Peruvian native who immigrated to New Jersey from Lima with her family. Her mother launched the restaurant when Lizeth was very young…and now she has taken over the family business and immersed her customers in a true authentic Peruvian culture experience. Today she’s talking to us about her mission, her favorite travel spots in Peru and sharing her go-to ceviche recipe!
What is the mission of El Gordo restaurant and how are you looking to immerse Americans in your culture?
Our goal is to provide everyone who dines at our restaurants to receive a true cultural experience – where they can indulge in the succulent flavors of Peruvian cuisine all while feeling a sense of family.
How do you recreate the Peruvian experience at your restaurant for your customers??
I believe good food opens the door to culture, my goal when a customer visits us is to take them on a culinary adventure. Whether they are foodies looking for a cultural taste of something new and delicious or whether they are a native looking for a bite of home. Our dishes are curated to transport you to the feeling of “home”.
Can you talk to us about the Japanese and Chinese connection with Peruvian culture? How has it impacted the food?
In the mid 19th Century there was a large migration of Chinese immigrants. They arrived to work in railroad construction, sugar plantations and mines. This is where the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian food was born. They brought with them asian traditional ingredients such as ginger, scallions, soy sauce and mixed it with Peruvian cooking ingredients such as aji panca (a paste made from Peruvian Red Chilli Peppers), potatoes, etc.. The unique flavors that were a result of this fusion is referred to as Chifa (Peruvian Chinese Food). The Chinese also introduced the stir fry method used now in every Peruvian restaurant when preparing a Lomo Saltado Or Chaufa. Similar is the story of another known food trend in Peru referred to as Nikkei which is a combination of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. I believe that’s what makes Peruvian cuisine so unique, it proves that when we merge different cultures and traditions, great things or in this case delicious things are born!
For first timers, what is one Peruvian dish that everyone should absolute try?
Ceviche. If you are a Peruvian native most likely your love affair with Ceviche began at a young age, it either began in your living room on a hot Sunday morning when Mami got up early to make Ceviche to take to the beach or on your weekend visits to the Mercado with Mami or Abuela. Mercados in Lima are a destination of its own. Filled with different stands of vibrant fresh fruits and veggies and endless food stands. At the age of 5, my favorite stand was the Cevicheria, I don’t know if it was the pungent citrus flavor that my taste buds experienced for the first time, or the bite of freshly caught fish or maybe the fact that despite having very little money, Mami always managed to spoil my craving but there in a buzzling mercado in my beautiful native Lima, my love for Ceviche was born. That’s my favorite thing about traditional cuisine, every dish has a story and the root of that story is usually always family.
As a restaurateur and foodie, how do you choose restaurants when traveling to a new destination?
Through my travels! It’s important for me to dive into country cuisine from local mom and pop eateries to high-end restaurants. I typically do some research prior to traveling to a destination. I love reading different articles and blogs about the particular city I’m visiting from different travel and foodies enthusiasts like myself. I also use Google and Yelp reviews but I never let stars sway me on a new place. I have been to 5 star restaurants where I personally didn’t feel it was 5 stars and I’ve been to 3 star restaurants that I couldn’t understand why they weren’t rated 5 stars. Your experience at a particular restaurant is so personal and unique, for me food creates a certain emotion, the ambiance, the decor, the service….they will all create different emotions for different people, therefore I prefer to go with an open mind and zero expectations.
My preference is to talk to the locals…whether that is a taxi/uber driver, owners or servers of local restaurants. I find that locals enjoys talking about their native cuisine, Local’s always know the best spots.
Besides eating at your amazing restaurant, what are some other ways you would encourage people to learn more about the culture of Peru?
I would say Peruvian cuisine is now so well known so there’s no excuse to not visit your nearest local Peruvian restaurant. I’m sure no matter what city you live in, you can find one. While in Amsterdam I found 2. Every time I travel I always google Peruvian restaurants nearby and every time I make it a point to visit at least one, for me it’s fascinating to see how Peruvian food is represented in a completely different country. Food for me is always my main motivator to visit a particular country and I would say Peru is no exception. Get a taste of Authentic Peruvian dishes and you are sure to put Peru on your bucket list.
What are some ways that you believe people can travel better and immerse themselves in the culture of a destination instead of heading straight to the “Instagrammable” spots?
It’s as simple as walking around the local neighborhoods and getting lost in unfamiliar streets. For example, if you visit Cusco, yes everybody wants to head straight to Machu Picchu but walking around the streets of Cusco, being present with the locals, sitting down at a restaurant and just observing locals in their day to day hustle, eating at that little hole in the wall, visiting the local markets, shopping at the local stores, and speaking with locals if you speak the language. That’s how you really get a sense of culture. My Last visit to Paris, one of my favorite cities, I spend a day just walking around different neighborhoods and using the train to explore different neighborhoods. I felt I learned more about Paris that day than in any of my visits to the major “Instagrammable posts”. My traveling style is never how many places I can see, I rather see only 1 or 2 major attractions but fully immerse myself in them and fully take them in. I am a big fan of walking tours and food tours!
For those who want to try cooking a Peruvian dish at home – How do you make a classic ceviche?
A Classic Ceviche is composed of Fresh White Fish ( My personal favorite Fluke or Mahi Mahi) cut and diced in cubes, Limes, Cilantro, Red Onions, Fresh blended ginger, Peruvian Rocoto (Red Pepper) and Sweet Potato .
In your opinion what is an underrated area in Peru that you think more people should visit? Why?
Mancora. It is a strip of Sandy Beaches located along the pacific coast of the northern side of Peru. Since my dad lives in Peru, I visit Peru at least once a year and each time I visit I make it a point to travel to a new city. Two years ago, I rented a beachfront airbnb for my family and we had the best time! If you’re a seafood lover, Mancora is where you will find the freshest seafood and variety of ceviches. I don’t believe there are any big name hotels, mostly all hostels and airbnb’s. It’s a short 1 hour flight from Lima, I personally called it Peru’s version of Tulum before Tulum got discovered.
What is the one travel destination you would choose to travel to over and over again?
I love love Europe. I love the architecture, the rich history , the many cobblestone streets, the relaxed laid back vibe of living, the ability that you can hop to different countries via train and of course the food …like the delicious tapas in Barcelona to the exquisite taste of a simple baguette in Paris to seafood in Dubrovnik. My favorite destinations are in Europe!
Destinations on your travel bucket list?
Portugal 2021, I am declaring it!
Once we can travel to Peru, what are some places that can’t be missed?
For a true culinary journey you must spend at least 2-3 days in Lima, then head over to Cuzco and be amazed at the highlands and its greenery, Machu picchu will leave you in AWE but the rainbow mountains will truly transport you to a feeling of being completely speechless, you will realize then just how beautiful this world can be and why traveling is essential, it’s that kind of place that will remind you of just that and then end the trip in Mancora.
Name a favorite Recuerdo (souvenir) that you brought back from a destination you’ve traveled to and that holds a lot of meaning for you.
Whenever I visit Peru, I bring back chocolates. Something about a country’s native candy or chocolate just carries so much memory. Visiting Peru and eating Cua Cua (chocolate waffle Bar) reminds me of my school days and mami always making sure she packed one in my lunch box, therefore when I visit a country and buy a local chocolate or candy I feel that I’m bringing back with me a piece of someone’s childhood memory.