Chef Alex Dorros, 31, is still a mama's boy who spends most of his time in the kitchen with his mother, Sandra Marulanda. Together, the pair have woven their familial passion for food into the rich soil of Siembra, a Peruvian plates pop-up based in South Seattle. Alex and Sandra launched the business during last year’s pandemic summer. Alex, like two-thirds of all restaurant workers in the country, had just lost his job as a sous chef, while Sandra decided to stop teaching Spanish under the digital constraints of Covid-19.
Since their hodgepodge of early experiments in Sandra’s kitchen, Alex and Sandra have weathered many Fridays hustling their colorful chameleon menu of Peruvian signatures, like pasta smothered in huancaina, a spicy yellow pepper cheese sauce, or lomo saltado, a diasporic-Chinese (chifa) stir fry of red beef and tomatoes topped with tamari and served with a steaming side of white rice and French fries.
I recently got a chance to hang out with Alex and Sandra at their commissary kitchen (a few blocks from Beacon Hill's The Station) during a Friday in late April while they were slinging tacu tacu and shrimp.
As I stroll leisurely through the chrome-edged doors of Lunch Ladies Catering, I spot Alex, masked and scrambling to keep up with the rising tide of hungry customers. He welcomes me warmly, raising his voice to be heard above the fluorescent din. While Alex is preoccupied, I sneak behind his window counter to a large steel island in the middle of the kitchen, where an assistant sprinkles fat kernels of toasted Incan corn over a cucumber salad with enough vinegar to make my mouth pucker in surprise.
Sandra rummages around in the back, toiling with Alex’s dad Arthur (her ex-husband) at an industrial stove by the wall. Both are busy frying shrimp according to Alex’s directions—”Ocho camarónes, mom!” he calls from his front-facing stand. Sandra nods and tosses some shrimp into a large and serious-looking wok, while Arthur pokes about at two pinkish decapods in an egg pan of middling size. This is Siembra: a family operation in its full, bric-a-brac glory.
As she keeps a watchful eye on the shrimp, Sandra shows me how to make tacu tacu. The flat cake of rice and beans has a chewy middle, like mochi, and a crunchy exterior, like chicharrónes. The dish is distinctly Japanese-Peruvian (nikkei), which is both a hybrid offshoot of Peruvian cuisine and yet integral to its cohesive whole. The patties, spotted with purple pinto beans, sizzle merrily in their cast iron. “We flip only once on each side," she explains, "or else the texture is wrong.” After the tacu tacu is crisp, Sandra ladles on a spicy-smoky red sauce with a flavor somewhere between a marinara and a mole. She places a few tender camarónes along with some smashed avocado on top. A quick dusting of togarashi blend, a seven-spice seasoning commonly found with ramen, and the dish is ready for service.
As Sandra and I chat, I ask her about the family’s interest in Peruvian cuisine. "We're Colombian, but Alex through his travels in Peru and through my travels we love Peruvian food,” she explains, gesturing excitedly with her arms. “In general, the people in Bogota, where I grew up, like to cook with fewer spices compared to Peruvian cuisine. Indigenous culture was decimated in Colombia, but there is still respect for Indigenous practices in Peru. It’s fascinating, and the agriculture is so diverse. The Incans were advanced farmers, so even now you’ll go to Peru and find a hundred different varieties of potatoes at the market.”
Sandra and Alex intend to honor their southern-border neighbors' culture, while also highlighting Colombian classics, like arepas, on their menu. Alex spends time researching Peruvian foods and speaking to friends from the country about his recipes. Siembra’s vision also extends beyond simply sharing the culinary practices of Colombia and Peru. Alex and Sandra are in the process of getting involved in community kitchen and BIPOC youth farming programs local to Seattle. Alex has recently taken on a director role at Green Plate Special, where he will teach children the basics of growing and cooking their own organic foods.
Alex and I meet up a week later in Madison Valley to chat more about Siembra’s food justice and education projects. We discuss the histories of chifa and nikkei influence on Peruvian culture, and the urgency of representing each in their complicated entirety. We cover the broader points of Chinese and Japanese history in Peru, annotated from Columbia University sociologist Ayumi Takenaka’s “The Japanese in Peru: History of Immigration, Settlement, and Racialization.” And, of course, we eat, chowing down on fatty oxtail stew and creamy black-eyed peas from nearby Simply Soulful while remembering history.
Chinese immigrants first landed in Peru as “coolie” labor around the 1850s in post-emancipation Peru. They toiled on plantations, like their formerly enslaved compadres before them, farming cotton, sugarcane, and guano under the brutal conditions of colonial-era cruelty. The “coolie” trade was abolished in 1874. To replenish this pool of cheap labor, Peru approved the entry of Japanese emigrants after efforts to recruit “white” Europeans failed. The first ship of Japanese men arrived on Peruvian shores in 1898; over the next few decades, Japanese-Peruvians would become small shop owners, street vendors, and domestic servants.
Discrimination raged. Policies such as the 1903 Japanese Exclusion Act or the “80 Percent Law” of 1932, requiring businesses to employ 80% Peruvians, were meant to expunge Japanese influence on Peruvian life. Japanese assets were frozen and appropriated by national banks during WWII, later to be sold to the highest bidder. Soon after, 1,800 Japanese-Peruvian citizens were deported to an American internment camp in Crystal City, Texas. In May 1940, rioters systematically looted over 600 Japanese homes, restaurants, and businesses in downtown Lima. The riot is largely considered a cautionary remembrance of racial hatred for Peruvians today.
Now, chifa and nikkei cultures are integral to defining Peruvian cuisine, but are less proudly represented in its socio-political past. “Other marginalized groups like Afro-Peruvians have also faced rampant discrimination—still do—and have gotten much less recognition when it comes to their culinary contributions,” Alex adds. At Siembra, the delicious chifa roast chicken and nikkei seafood stews are the culinary legacy of these subjugated minorities. And, although food is a window to history, Alex understands that injustice can only be healed through the act of sharing and speaking.
Alex and Sandra have come a long way since taste-testing lomo saltado in Sandra’s kitchen. Condé Nast Traveler recently mentioned Siembra in their list of hottest new restaurants for 2021, worldwide. In the meantime, the goals that Alex and Sandra have in mind for Siembra—cooking for those facing food insecurity, running educational programs, and even creating a line of Peruvian marinades—suggest that there is much to look forward to from this small, family-run affair.
Alex Dorros wrote up this roast chicken recipe, special to Slog. The recipe honors the Chinese diaspora in Peru, whose culture is a pillar of Peruvian cuisine. In Peru, Chinese-influenced cuisine is called chifa.
Whole Roasted Chicken, Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) Style
1 teaspoon of cumin 1 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper ¼ cup soy or tamari sauce 2 teaspoons of ají panca 3 tablespoons pureed (or minced) garlic 2 tablespoons of minced ginger 1 tablespoons of finely chopped mint 3 tablespoons of Chinese black vinegar (red wine vinegar as an alternative)
1 small chicken, preferably 3.5 pounds each but up to 5 pounds
There are a couple things that make Peruvian chicken so famous: the balance of its seasoning, and the rotisserie style of cooking. The soy sauce adds salt so that there is no need for extra. You also don’t need a rotisserie grill to cook this version at home!
Combine and mix marinade ingredients, first dry ingredients then wet.
Split the chicken in half, slather with marinade, and leave in a bag overnight (a few hours minimum).
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in roasting pan, spread flat, breast side up, on upper 1/3 of the oven. Roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size or until tender.
*Can add potatoes, sweet potatoes, or your favorite root vegetables for the last 30 minutes of cooking.