Ode to Tacu Tacu
My love letter to a Peruvian rice and beans recipe.
When I first moved to Lima in 2005, I rented a room in an artist’s studio on Parque San Pedro in Chorrillos. It was once a quaint fishing village, but by the time I arrived, it had long been swallowed up by Lima’s urban sprawl. Usually, if you go to Chorrillos, it’s for ceviche, as there are dozens of classic cevicherias in the neighborhood—like Sonia, El Morocho, and Punta Arenas—which traditionally used whatever was available from the fishing pier and market down on the waterfront. Taking a break from writing, I grew to love stepping out of my house and finding a cevicheria during lunchtime. However, there were times I would go out in search of something heartier, something warm when the garua, that gray fog that blankets Lima for most of the year, grew too thick and cold. That’s how I discovered tacu tacu.
Walking along Avenida Huaylas, not far from its end where the Morro Solar, a cluster of dusty, brown hills, the site of the Battle of San Juan during the War of the Pacific, I noticed a small whiteboard with a single dish scribbled on it: tacu tacu.
Inside, the tiny shop had a concrete floor and a beer calendar on the barren walls. It sold just a few items like sodas, cans, and cups of gelatin. It was more of a bodega than a restaurant, and it was run by two people, an older couple, who lived in the back. They would sporadically serve simple lunches using whatever they had on hand and serve them on the two plastic tables they had set up. Homey things like asado (roast beef) with rice or tallarines verdes (spaghetti with sauce made of spinach and basil). Tacu tacu fits right in with this crowd.
The soulful mound of seasoned rice and beans was shaped into a teardrop with a spatula and then fried. It was served with some salsa criolla (sliced red onions and cilantro marinated in lime juice), a little bowl with some ají amarillo hot sauce, and a small glass carafe of olive oil. It always arrived hot, just out of the pan. While some restaurants serve it, tacu tacu is something that’s also cooked at home.
I would later realize just how basic that version of tacu tacu was, but at the time, it was everything I wanted. I had just moved to Lima on a whim, taking a gig to write a guidebook, but I knew very few people. It cost only a few soles and was made with humble ingredients, but it was cooked with love on a day when I was lonely and the gray winter had me down. The dish set me off on an exploration of Peruvian food beyond ceviche, a lifelong quest that has sent me to every province to research the country’s foodways, as well as into a much deeper dive into tacu tacu.
The origins of the recipe are mysterious. The name is derived from the Quechua word takuy, which means “to combine one thing with another,” though that happened with rice and beans in stew form since the earliest days of colonization. The first written record of it was in 1872, in the book Salpicón de costumbres nacionales, though it likely existed well before. Who transitioned the classic pairing into a frying pan is anyones guess. Some say it was slaves who worked on the coastal sugar and cotton plantations, while others state it may have been Chinese or Japanese immigrants that later worked in the same fields, and placed the rice and beans in a hot pan like you might do with a wok.
While tacu tacu’s typical setting is in a Peruvian grandmother’s kitchen, when it does appear in restaurants, it’s usually something worth making a detour for. I have made the pilgrimage to Tato in Barranca, three hours north of Lima, a convenient side trip if you are going to the ruins of Caral. The beachside eatery serves what might be the most iconic version of the dish, which is called tacu Tato’s there. First, it comes in several sizes, though even the smallest is enormous, the size of a Frisbee, a few inches thick, and able to feed three. It comes out a beautiful golden brown from the pan, while still moist on the inside. (There is nothing more disappointing than a dried-out tacu tacu.) Inside the kitchen stuffs it with bits of seafood—shrimp, squid, octopus, fish.
Usually called tacu tacu relleno de mariscos, seafood versions of tacu tacu are usually found in cevicherias, though a Nikkei restaurant in Chorrillos I frequented called El Encuentro de Otani does a good version, maybe better than Tato’s. Occasionally the seafood will just be slathered over the rice and beans rather than inside it, and it’s called tacu tacu con salsa de mariscos.
An hour south of Lima in Cañete, there’s a roadside restaurant on the Panamericana Sur called El Piloto, which has a legendary version that you can see in the photo above. It’s a mound of tacu tacu, served with corvina a lo macho, seabass covered in salsa de mariscos (a mixed seafood sauce). You can upgrade it to El Tanque and add a pizza-size bistec apanado (pounded steak that’s breaded and fried), some fried bananas, and a fried egg.
The version I make at home in New York is the basic version, like the one I ate the first day I had it. Usually I’ll use the mayocoba beans from Rancho Gordo in California, which are the same as the ones most often used in Peru. Cannellini, great northern, or even black beans will work just fine. What’s important is to make the rice and beans ahead of time, fry it until it browns, then slide it right out of the pan and on to a plate. A drizzle of olive oil really completes the experience.
Maybe it was the winter cold or the loneliness of being a new place, but that tacu tacu in Chorrillos is one of the meals that stand out among all my (ongoing) years researching Peruvian cuisine. It was one of the sparks that led me to this obsession with the food of this South American country. Whenever I eat tacu tacu, at least when it is made well, I’m transported back to that moment, and as much as it feeds my body, it feeds my soul.
RECIPE: Tacu Tacu
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