My Family Recipe

When We Fled Peru, My Mother Took "Green Noodles" With Her

December 25, 2018
"Her green spaghetti shed light on some of what she'd experienced." Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

My mother may have been a white woman who grew up in Texas, but she could talk your ear off in Spanish, sprinkled liberally with Peruvian colloquialisms such as regio (awesome) and huachafo (tacky). She'd moved to Peru in the early 1980s to be with my father, but things didn't go as planned. She didn’t plan for her new country of residence to be plunged into one of the worst economic and political crises in its history, for one. When I was 4 years old, we left Peru and returned to the United States, where my mother also did not plan to experience a messy divorce, or to raise her three children almost single-handedly. But she was with us through all of this.

She never spoke much about herself, unlike my father, who took any chance to tell my siblings and me about the heroic acts of his youth, like when he confronted the neighborhood witch by rubbing chile peppers in her eyes, or the time he used a clever trap to rid his block of a menacing dog. (These tales may not have been entirely true, but we believed them.) Perhaps she considered her life unremarkable, or didn’t want to bore us with the details. The story of her green spaghetti shed light on some of what she'd experienced.

Her life in Peru was very challenging. There were food shortages. The inflation rate saw the price of basic necessities like canned milk and rice multiplying every day. My father believed he existed in a machista society, and thus was not expected to concern himself with domestic tasks; my mother, broke and alone, reached out to her neighbors for support. Another young mother in our building offered her regular childcare tips, including recipes that were always qualified with the words “muy nutritivo” (very nutritious). They'd chat together from open doorways in our building, where our neighbor gave my mother advice on Peruvian home economics.

Is it just spinach pesto? Not quite... Photo by James Ransom

One recipe she shared was for tallarines verdes ("green noodles," literally), a pasta dish attributed to Lima’s prominent Italian community. It is said to be a Peruvian adaptation of pesto Genovese using local ingredients, although it really is a thing unto its own. My mother had never had this dish before, but it sounded appealing to her, in part because it could be dangerous to go out and she already had most of the ingredients at home: dried pasta, onions, and garlic, along with evaporated milk, which she diluted with water for my infant self’s bottle.

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Top Comment:
“Carlos, this is a lovely story - and while I grew up in the US, my mother was from Mexico and now with my own family, I've shared sooo many traditional (forgotten?) recipes and ways of making things that they now love too. Can't wait to try this one of yours! With one question - can I use fresh spinach rather than the frozen? Looking forward to it. ”
— steph M.

There was just one ingredient that stumped her: albahaca. Our neighbor, who didn't speak English, explained that it looked like spinach but had a strong, distinctive flavor. Since my mother regularly kept spinach at home to make our baby food, she decided to use it in place of this mystery ingredient. She figured that spinach’s mild taste might be better for us kids, anyway. What she ended up making for us wasn’t quite the traditional tallarines verdes, but it came close enough to deserve that title in our home.

At the time, Alan Garcia was the president of Peru. He came into power the year I was born, and his tenure was marked by social unrest and a devastation of the Peruvian economy; it took nearly 20 years for the country to recover. During that period, several terrorist groups, including the militant communist group the Shining Path, wreaked havoc.

My father didn’t just use his gift of the gab to tell his children stories; he spoke out against this terrorism on a political radio show. He began to receive death threats, one of which detailed the location of my preschool. Supplies had become so scarce that my parents could no longer find essentials like medicine. We fled to Miami soon after.

Perhaps she considered her life unremarkable, or didn’t want to bore us with the details. The story of her green spaghetti shed light on some of what she'd experienced.

Back in her home country, where my mother could turn to the foods that comforted her as a child, she ceased to put tallarines verdes on the dinner table. Instead, she served us Spaghetti-O’s; it felt almost as if she were trying to feed us an accelerated assimilation.

In her understanding, the United States she'd left was not friendly to foreigners, especially Hispanic ones. She thought that if she could emphasize that her children were half-Caucasian—by fighting with my teacher to remove me from ESL classes, by insisting we speak more English at home, by enrolling me in tee-ball instead of soccer, by feeding us Spaghetti-O's—she could save us from discrimination. At one point, she even entertained the idea of having me answer to Carter, my middle name, instead of Carlos.

Thankfully, the city we'd moved to was nothing like the Texan town my mother had grown up in. Miami was overwhelmingly Latino, and Latinos held considerable sway in its politics, economy, and culture. Soon enough, my mother realized this, especially after she returned to the workforce post-divorce, where most of her clients only spoke Spanish. She relaxed, loosened the reins, and let me be as Peruvian as I felt, which meant tallarines verdes made a welcome comeback to our dining table.

In revisiting her already-tweaked version of the dish, my mother made some American modifications: Fresh milk, which was always in our refrigerator, replaced the evaporated milk that was common in Peru. For extra richness, she added cream cheese. This would mimic the queso fresco that appears in “real” tallarines verdes, without the gritty texture that my mother did not like.

The end result is a dish whose vibrant hue instantly catches your eye. The sauce is creamy without being too rich. The flavor is subtle enough for a toddler to enjoy while possessing enough nuance for an adult to appreciate. (You can make it more adult with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and a dollop of my mom’s nutty aji amarillo hot sauce.) The best part, though, is that it is quick and easy to make, and doesn’t require you to source any special ingredients.

Years prior, my mother had discovered that albahaca, the original dish's mystery ingredient, was actually...basil! But even at that point, it was too late to go back—she'd made it dozens of times with spinach—and she never included it in her recipe. She also continued to call the dish tallarines verdes, keeping the name as a reminder of the place where she learned how to make it, complicated as her time there was, and the kindness of her neighbor. As I see it, the recipe is a record of our family's journey.

I have since tried to experiment with my own recipe for tallarines verdes that recreates the “authentic” version. I’ve substituted the cream cheese for queso fresco and the spinach for basil, but no matter how much I try to go the traditional route, it's never as satisfying as her version. After all, her tallarines verdes were the ones I knew for most of my life. While they may remind her of difficult times, they remind me of her love.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for the chance to be featured.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mary Pat Allen
    Mary Pat Allen
  • BoulderGalinTokyo
  • sexyLAMBCHOPx
  • Ashley B
    Ashley B
  • FrugalCat
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.


Mary P. July 18, 2018
I grew up overseas as well, Germany in my case, so your story was so evocative I've kept it open in my phone's browser for over a month.
While weinerschnitzel regularly made it to our dinner table, it's the homemade pasta sauce my mother learned to make during a stay in Genoa that reminds me most of that time...and I never had to eat Spaghetti-Os!
I've found growing up overseas makes you a little different, in beliefs, attitudes, and tastes, finding others who are a little different is always a welcome surprise!
Very touching story. Having raised 2 children in a foreign country I knew what you experienced--only here everyone assumed I fed my children Spaghetti-os.
sexyLAMBCHOPx April 28, 2018
Great read and recipe.
Ashley B. April 18, 2018
I love tallerines verdes with bistec and the green aji amarillo sauce! I’ll definitely have to try this one. Are scotch bonnets the same as aji Amarillo peppers? I’m experimenting with that sauce myself and have used jalapeños and cubanelle peppers since I haven’t been able to make it to the Hispanic market for aji Amarillo paste. Never thought of scotch bonnets!
Carlos C. April 19, 2018
My mom uses orange scotch bonnets because the color looks like aji amarillo. It is definitely not the same. scotch bonnets are hotter and don't have the same flavor. But use any chiles you want.
FrugalCat April 18, 2018
I made it with yellow onion, whole milk and penne. (I don't twirl pasta). But the aji sauce has me baffled. I live in Miami and can find almost any latin item at Sedanos or Presidente supermarkets. What are some good brands?
Carlos C. April 19, 2018
Hey there. I am also based out of Miami. You can find aji amarillo paste almost anywhere. The brands really vary from batch to batch. Look for a jar that is bright tangerine color and smooth. It shouldn't look rusty or deep orange. Inca's Food, Dona Isabel, and Belmont are usually pretty reliable, but there may be other brands. And if you live in Miami, definitely use aji amarillo instead of scotch bonnets.
Linda S. April 18, 2018
I hope to make this dish soon. I have to admit that the story behind it was lovely. Life had to have been challenging but your mother sounded like a great mom.
Catherine April 18, 2018
I very much enjoyed reading your story, and am looking forward to trying your mother's version of tallarines verdes this weekend! Thank you for sharing with us :)
susan April 18, 2018
you know usually i skim through a lot of these posts and save recipes based on the title and photo of the dish on whether or not it looks like my family would eat it. I read this one and I loved it! i'm korean and my mother used to make us this cold noodle dish called nengmyun. and i know she put her own spin on it because whenever i try it at a restaurant it never tastes like my mothers ever. I hope to make your mother's recipe for my kids soon. thank you for sharing your story!
Carlos C. April 19, 2018
I love naengmyeon. I can imagine the disappointment when you have it restaurants.
susan April 19, 2018
the same disappointment when you eat someone else's tallarines's just not like mom's. : (
Rhonda35 April 18, 2018
Thank you for sharing this lovely story, Carlos (as well as your family recipe.)
Elizabeth F. April 18, 2018
I can't wait to make this recipe. I make a Mexican Green Spaghetti that is similar to this in the sense that I use poblanos, cilantro, and, milk and sour cream for the thickness of the sauce but this recipe is on a new level of flavor. The aji sauce intrigues me and I hope this becomes a party staple at all the holiday parties just like my Mexican version.
Carlos C. April 19, 2018
i'm intrigued by the mexican recipe. i may have to try that one.
Elisabetta C. April 18, 2018
I loved your story. Food has so much more to do with places and experiences then with ingredients and recipes. And always with a full immersion in the culture we live in when we start thinking about cooking dinner. Thank you!
Diana April 18, 2018
Hi Carlos. My Mom also makes green Spaghetti that she learned while in Lima with all the women in my Dad's family. She uses quest fresco. The whole family loves when she makes it! That lady could have been one of my Aunts or my Grandma who has now passed. Do you remember the neighbors name?
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Hi, Diana. Tallarines verdes is actually a very common Limeno dish. It is considered an emblematic dish of Peru's Italian community. That being said, there are probably a lot of families who make it, but if one of your female relatives lived in Lince, then there might be a chance that there is some connection between our families. Click on my profile and reach out to me.
Annada R. April 18, 2018
What a beautiful story, Carlos! Makes me fall in love with the idea of how intrinsic food is to our lives and intertwined with politics, culture, economics, emotions and nostalgia.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you
Isabel L. April 18, 2018
Very touching story Carlos. I'm sitting at my desk ready to cry. I think it's it beautiful how you honor your mother and keep her version of tallarines verdes. I'm definitely going to try this recipe.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you
Chelsea S. April 18, 2018
I loved reading every word of this post! & Love the ingenuity of the recipe :)
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you! It is pretty ingenious
Marcia April 18, 2018
Very engaging story, beautifully written. Will most definitely try this soon! Do you have a blog I can follow? Best wishes to you and your family.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you. No blog, but definitely social media. Click on my profile and you'll have the details
steph M. April 18, 2018
Carlos, this is a lovely story - and while I grew up in the US, my mother was from Mexico and now with my own family, I've shared sooo many traditional (forgotten?) recipes and ways of making things that they now love too. Can't wait to try this one of yours! With one question - can I use fresh spinach rather than the frozen? Looking forward to it.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you for the kind words. You can definitely use fresh spinach, but you will have to use a lot since it reduces to practically nothing. Make sure that the cooked weight of the spinach is at least 10 ounces.
steph M. April 18, 2018
Perfect - thank you!!
Suzanne D. April 18, 2018
Carlos, just wanted to chime in and say how much I enjoyed this piece. Thank you for writing it for us.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you, Suzanne
ninastrauss April 18, 2018
very engaging story. made me miss mayukh sen’s writing. now see he is at vice. food 52 launched him...
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
Thank you! I also love his writing and have looked up to him for quite some time.
Cecilia April 18, 2018
I've always been fascinated by how traditional recipes, when used by expats, evolve based on what is available locally--especially when the alterations make the dish even more delicious to the family and later generations! In this case, I love how the dish evolves both within the country of its origin, where its recipient is an expat herself, and then when she moves back to her home country--and then even further when her child attempts to recreate it based on the original! What a wonderful story, and a reminder that "authenticity" in food, so often the source of bitter internet comment-section arguments, is a shifty and unreliable concept.

I'll certainly try the recipe! Thank you for the lovely writing.
Carlos C. April 18, 2018
I am glad that this story got that point across about authenticity...and that you enjoyed reading it.