The tangy scent of garlic wafts from the kitchen to the dining room of Inka Mama’s restaurant and the conversation stops. A Pavlovian swoon takes hold. And though the effect is mostly intended for customers who’ll soon be arriving for lunch, it’s just as irresistible to sisters Angela Kishijara and Martha White. This was the aroma that filled their house growing up, where food was not just food, but a symbol of family and love.
A few seconds later, still enveloped in the fragrant cloud, the conversation resumes, though it never strays far from their mother’s kitchen. The sisters are just two of 12 kids raised in an apparently busy middle-class house in the seaside town of Chimbote, Peru, about 260 miles north of Lima.
White and Kishijara have come a long way to be successful restaurateurs in Orange County. They founded Inka Mama’s restaurant in Foothill Ranch in 2001 and the growing popularity of their Peruvian dishes led to other locations in Aliso Viejo, San Clemente and most recently Santa Ana. Their own restaurant started as an idea they had while working for their sister, who owns Inka Grill. Another owns Charo’s Peruvian Cuisine in Long Beach. The siblings have their own versions of their mother’s recipes since they all stem from their own memories of the all-day cooking sessions back home. Regardless, their mother made the most of what they had and it left powerful impressions.
“We thought ‘How could she do that?’” remembers Kishijara, still amazed to this day. “Everything she made was wonderful. We had a rich table. We didn’t have a big estate. We had something more than that.”
White, who Kishijara happily admits is the better cook, got very popular for the lunches she would bring to work for herself when she was a hotel housekeeper back in the 1980s. Requests flowed in for White to bring in food for the people she worked with and eventually, she was making and selling up to 200 tamales a week.
But starting their own restaurant was another thing. It took more time, more nerve and more money. White scraped together some savings and Kishijara took out a second mortgage. The restaurant business can be a tough one, but despite the risk, the sisters were confident.
“We were very happy, and we didn’t know how we were going to start but it was going to be good for us. That was all we knew,” Kishijara says. “You cook, I cook. We’re in the back and the kids in the front. For us, it was happy.”
For the inexperienced, Peruvian cuisine is a combination of Central and South American standards with Japanese influences. The sisters – who are part Japanese themselves – started with just a few dishes on their menu, but it has grown to include beef, pork, lamb, fish, and vegetarian meals that they work to improve on all the time. The menu is still many of their mother’s recipes, “With a little touch of us,” Kishijara says. And the occasional bending to American palates. Some of the more traditional approaches, White admits, “our kids don’t like.” So, things sometimes get tweaked.
Regardless, there is a theme that remains in every single dish served at Inka Mama’s. It’s the lesson the sisters learned in their mother’s kitchen so long ago that makes White smile. Holding her hand to her heart, she says, “Everything you do, do with love.”