Within three hours of landing at Jorge Chavez International Airport, I've visited two acclaimed restaurants – the casual Le Red in the La Marina plaza in San Miguel and the more formal Huaca Pucllana, set within the archaeological site of a fifth-century adobe-and-clay pyramid in the Miraflores district of central Lima.
I've eaten fried guinea pig (tastes like rabbit), several versions of ceviche – seafood marinated in lime juice and one of Peru's claimed 491 national dishes – and drunk pisco sours, the frothy cocktail created in the city in the 1920s that's made from Peruvian grape brandy, egg white, lime juice and sugar syrup. And all before we've even checked into the hotel.
That I've already become acquainted with the thrilling food scene of Peru's capital is entirely down to the human whirlwind that is Martin Morales. Formerly a pioneer of world music in the UK, a DJ then high- flying music executive for iTunes and Disney, the Lima-born Morales turned his considerable energies to food in 2011, and is now chef-proprietor of the wildly popular Ceviche restaurant and pisco bar in Soho.
Morales left Lima in the mid-1980s aged 11, following threats to his business-executive father from the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla insurgent group that terrorised the city and surrounding villages until its leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992. For the past 20 years, k Morales has been making regular visits to the city to visit family and research the fast-developing food scene and I've been lucky enough to be invited to tag along on his latest.
"Peru is in blossom, like a beautiful flower opening up and saying, 'Look at me' – and Lima is at the heart of that," says Morales. "Peru has the fastest-growing economy in South America, which has helped create a boom in eating out centred around our own national cuisines."
That boom has drawn international attention. Lima has three entries (Astrid y Gaston, Central and Malabar) in the World's 100 Best Restaurants list, and the city will host the inaugural Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in September this year. Lima dominates the North/South America listings in the recently published Where Chefs Eat guide with 14 of the 23 entries, including La Mar, a seafood restaurant in Miraflores chosen by Joan Roca, head chef of the current World's Best Restaurant El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona.
Chef Javier Wong has also won international recognition for his idiosyncratic take on ceviche and is widely recognised as a master of the art. The walls of Chez Wong, his simple reservations-only restaurant that's actually the front-room of his house in the densely populated La Victoria area of the city, are plastered with magazine front covers and articles.
"The last time I was here, [former El Bulli head chef] Ferran Adria was at the next table," says Morales, who calls Wong "The King of Ceviche". With a table directly in front of Wong's work-station in the dining-room, we have front-row seats to the pure theatre that is lunch at Chez Wong (the restaurant opens only during the day). At 1pm on the dot, Wong strides into the room. There's a palpable sense of excitement in the room, as though a famous actor had walked on stage. k
There's no menu and you eat whatever Wong prepares on the day. He expertly fillets then dices the flesh of a large and very fresh sole (the only type of fish he serves), adds octopus, salt, lime, red onion and a twist of black pepper and the dish is done. Served with a pot of diced Peruvian aji chillies on the side, the flavour is revelatory – the taste of the firm, clean-tasting seafood is brought vividly to life by the Peruvian lime that has a uniquely sweet-sour flavour. A sole tiradito (a variation of ceviche, where the fish is thinly sliced like sashimi) topped with chopped pecans and spring onions, and sole saltado (stir fry) with seaweed, mushrooms, pak choi, melon and chilli, prepared in a special long-handled wok over a roaring flame, are equally unusual and delicious.
Although he's a one-off, Wong is Peruvian-Chinese and so technically could be said to be cooking Chifa, or Peruvian-influenced Chinese cuisine. It's one of many fusion styles particular to Lima. "The variety of dishes you find here comes from a couple of thousand years of indigenous Inca cuisine but also the migration of Spanish, Italian, African, Chinese and then Japanese that settled in Lima," says Morales.
At Maido restaurant, chef Mitsuharu Tsumura is one of the leading exponents of Nikkei – Peruvian-Japanese cuisine. He's so renowned that Albert Adria (pastry chef brother of Ferran) sent his head chef to train at Maido for two months before opening his own Nikkei restaurant, Pakta, in Barcelona earlier this year. "We've been open for four years. When we started we were much more Japanese in style and now we're much more Peruvian," says Tsumura, who offers a 16-course tasting menu that blends the two cuisines in a way that's as fascinating as it is delicious.
Traditional Peruvian dishes are the inspiration for many of his nigiri sushi preparations, including "a lo pobre", or poor man's style, made with sushi rice topped with a slice of blowtorched steak, quail's egg and chalaka (onion salsa). He transforms the typical pan con pescado fish sandwich, usually made with tiny whitebait-like silver-skin fish, into an Asian steamed bun stuffed with deep-fried local rockfish served with a spicy creole-tartare sauce.
In a little over three days, we've eaten in a dozen restaurants and poked our heads into many more, eaten street food and visited three markets – but Morales is far from satisfied. "There are so many dishes you haven't tried," he says, his frustration palpable. In fact, I've had an incredibly privileged initiation into one of the most exciting and nuanced food scenes in the world, guided by Morales's in-depth knowledge, enthusiasm and appetite. Morales has drawn inspiration from the trip, too.
"Lima is the city I love, it's home to me and as an ex-pat and migrant it's a love that's grown stronger," he says on our last day in the city together. "Presenting the beauty of Peruvian culture in Britain through my restaurant seems completely natural to me and I'm in the happiest period of my life because every aspect of my work is positive."
Journey Latin America's five-day Lima Gourmet City break, including flights, a stay at the Hotel B and a tour of local markets, pisco taverns and top restaurants costs from £1,511 per person. For more: 020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk. Recipes extracted from 'Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen' by Martin Morales (published on 4 July by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, hardback; £12.99 in e-book). Available now to pre-order on Amazon.
CHOROS A LA CHALACA
This colourful dish was invented in Callao, a busy port north of Lima. With its hustle and bustle, Callao is a fascinating place. It's worth exploring the variety of food on offer, even if your ears are ringing with the sound of loud salsa music.
100g sweetcorn kernels (used in place of choclo corn)
1 star anise
1 x 2.5cm cinnamon stick
1 tbsp white-wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
For the mussels
24 large mussels, cleaned and debearded
250ml white wine
½ red onion, cut into wedges
2 garlic cloves, crushed but left whole
2 tsp black peppercorns
For the salsa
1 portion of finely diced Salsa Criolla (see right)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salsa criolla
As finely as you can, slice 1 red onion, 2 cored and deseeded medium tomatoes, 1 deseeded hot red chilli and 1 deseeded red pepper. Soak the red onion in iced water for 10 mins. Drain thoroughly and then mix with 1 tbsp lime juice, 1 tbsp olive oil and 2 finely chopped coriander sprigs. Season with salt and pepper.
First, cook the corn. Put the kernels in a saucepan with the star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, vinegar and sugar and then pour over enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, cover and then cook over medium heat for 10 minutes or until the corn has softened and has a sweet flavour.
While the corn is cooking, wash and pick over the mussels, scraping off any large barnacles, pulling off the beard and discarding any that don't immediately close when you tap them sharply against a hard surface. Put the mussels in a large saucepan with the wine, onion, garlic and black peppercorns. Put the lid on, bring to the boil and cook for 2 minutes, shaking the pan a couple of times. Drain and discard the liquid and any mussels that haven't opened.
Gently pull the mussels from their shells. Discard one half of each shell and place the mussels back on to the remaining half shell. Leave these to cool.
Make the salsa by combining all the ingredients in a bowl.
To assemble, spoon the salsa over the mussels, garnish each shell with corn and serve immediately.
CORN, BEAN & CHEESE SALAD
Butter or lima beans are used interchangeably with fresh or dried broad beans in Peruvian cuisine. If you would like a greener salad, use fresh broad beans here, blanching and peeling off their skins before adding to the remaining ingredients.
1 tbsp olive oil
100g smoked bacon lardons
1 x 200g tin of butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 large red onion, cut into 1cm dice
4 large tomatoes, deseeded and cut into 1cm dice
¼ of a rocoto (or use hot red chilli), deseeded and very finely chopped
200g feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the dressing
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp red-wine vinegar
A pinch of sugar
A squeeze of lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a saucepan of water to the boil over medium heat and cook the corn until tender. Drain and plunge into iced water to cool down and then cut or break off the kernels from the cob.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and sauté the bacon lardons for a few minutes until they are crisp and brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
Put the corn, butter beans, onion, tomatoes, chilli and cheese into a large bowl.
Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a bowl or jug and pour into the bowl of salad. Gently toss everything together, trying not to break up the cheese.
Divide the salad between 4 shallow bowls and sprinkle over the bacon lardons and the finely chopped parsley.
CEVICHE DE MANGO
It may sound like an unusual combination – mango, onion and lime – but the flavours and textures really work. It is one of my favourite summer salads and is best made when mangoes are perfectly ripe.
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 large ripe mangoes, peeled and cut into 2cm dice
Juice of 4 limes
¼ tsp salt
1 limo chilli (or use scotch bonnet), deseeded and finely chopped
2 coriander sprigs, leaves finely chopped
Put the red onion in iced water for 10 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
Place the diced mangoes into a bowl and add half the lime juice and salt. Taste the balance and add more of both if necessary; you don't want it to taste too sour.
Add the chopped chilli, then drain the onion and add it along with the coriander leaves. Stir everything gently to combine and then leave in the fridge for 5 minutes to chill and marinate. Serve in individual large glasses or bowls.
SECO DE CABRITO
LAMB BRAISED IN BEER WITH CORIANDER
A classic dish from northern Peru that has a delicious combination of flavours. The sauce has a little heat and the coriander dominates, but this is tempered perfectly by the sweetness of the peas and potatoes.
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1kg lamb (mixture of leg and shoulder), cut into large chunks
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 amarillo chilli (or use orange scotch bonnet), deseeded and chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime or Seville orange
250ml beer (Peruvian Cusqueña or other premium lager)
500g new or small waxy potatoes, peeled
1 red pepper, deseeded and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large saucepan or flameproof casserole over a medium heat.Add the meat, and brown well on all sides.
Remove from the casserole. Add the red onion and sauté until soft and then add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
Return the meat to the casserole along with the chilli and the cumin. Season with salt and pepper.
Put the bunch of coriander and the citrus juice in a food processor or blender and blitz to a paste, adding a little water if necessary. Add two-thirds of this to the meat, along with the beer. Cover, bring to the boil and then simmer over a low heat until the meat is very tender – this should take at least 1½–2 hours.
Add the potatoes and red pepper and cook for a further 20 minutes. Add the peas and simmer until they are soft and until much of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the remaining coriander mixture.
Serve with steaming-hot white rice.
SEA BASS CEVICHE
This is the signature dish at London's Ceviche restaurant, so called as it's really the daddy of all our ceviches and the most popular dish we serve. We suggest sea bass for this recipe, but use whatever is freshest at market – try sea bream, Dover sole or any other firm-textured white fish.
1 large red onion, very thinly sliced
600g sea bass fillet (or other white fish), skinned and trimmed
1 portion of tiger's milk (see right)
A few coriander sprigs, leaves finely chopped
1 limo chilli (or yellow scotch bonnet), deseeded and finely chopped
1 sweet potato, cooked and cut into cubes
Fine sea salt
For the tiger's milk
Put a 5mm piece of fresh root ginger (cut in half), 4 roughly chopped coriander sprigs and the juice of 8 limes in a bowl. Stir and leave to infuse for 5 minutes. Strain the mixture through a sieve into another bowl. Add ½ tsp salt and 2 tsp chilli paste (see below) and mix well.
For the chilli paste
Put 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Heat over a medium heat and then add 100g frozen or fresh chillis of your choice (for authentic Peruvian flavour, look for amarillo, panca or rocoto) and half a finely chopped small onion. Sauté over a low heat for 10 mins.
Add 2 crushed garlic cloves and sauté for 5 mins until everything is very soft, being careful to make sure it doesn't take on any colour. Put the contents of the saucepan into a food processor or blender and blitz until smooth. Store in the fridge for up to a week. Makes about 190g.
Wash the sliced red onion and then leave it to soak in iced water for 5 minutes. Drain thoroughly, spread out on kitchen paper or a clean tea towel to remove any excess water and then place in the fridge until needed. This will reduce the strength of the onions and help to keep them crisp.
Cut the fish into uniform strips of around 3 x 2cm. Place in a large bowl, add a good pinch of salt and mix together gently with a metal spoon. The salt will help open the fish's pores. Leave this for 2 minutes and then pour over the tiger's milk and combine gently with the spoon. Leave the fish to "cook" in this marinade for 2 minutes.
Add the onions, coriander, chilli and the cubed sweet potato to the fish. Mix together gently with a spoon and taste to check the balance of salt, sour and chilli is to your liking. Serve immediately.
The classic cocktail, and this is our way of doing it. As everyone's tastes for sugar and sour vary, it's definitely one you can play around with to suit yourself.
50ml Pisco Acholado
1 egg white
3 drops of Angustura or Peruvian chuncho bitters (to serve)
For the sour mix
30ml lime juice
20ml sugar syrup
There are two ways to make this cocktail.You can either put the main ingredients into a blender with 3 ice cubes and blend until smooth, or you can fill a shaker with ice, add the main ingredients and shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds.
Carefully hold the froth back with the lid of the shaker or blender and pour the liquid into a chilled glass; you will still end up with a drink with a good head of foam. To serve, add 3 drops of bitters.