Savour the flavours: Peruvian cuisine is going global
Nick Curtis journeys to its source on a gourmet adventure
Peruvian is the new Mexican. The South American country's mouthwatering cured-fish ceviches, spicy mashed-potato causas and tender alpaca steaks – though possibly not its roasted guinea pigs – are going global. Native chefs such as Virgilio Martinez, of Central restaurant in Lima and of the forthcoming Lima London in Fitzrovia, are reworking the nation's classic dishes and its cornucopia of fresh ingredients for gourmet palates. International gastronomes such as Denmark's René Redzepi and Spain's Ferran Adrià sing the praises of Peruvian food, and Peruvian restaurants are springing up across the Americas, Spain and London.
I flew to Peru to taste today what the rest of the world will be eating tomorrow. As I arrive in Lima at midnight from Miami, the signs do not look promising. Acres of traffic jams and urban sprawl are broken up by the glaring lights of casinos and enormous pollerias – fast-food chicken joints. But after a restful night at the historic Country Club hotel I get my first taste of the enormous variety of produce that Peru's rare geographical mix of coastline, jungles, mountains and rivers has to offer at the Mercado de Surquillo in the district of Miraflores.
Wandering around the 90-year-old domed building I sample chirimoya, a wet and impossibly sweet white fruit, and the creamy, orange lucuma, used to make ice creams and puddings. There are dozens of different kinds of corn, including choclo, the kernels four times the size of those on European cobs, and the black Inca variety, which is boiled to make the sweet purple drink called chicha. Peru has 3,000 varieties of potato, I am told by one stall owner, "but we only use about 36 of them".
Outside, gold-toothed women with stern Indian faces and traditional alpaca fedoras serve tamales and humitas – heavy, moist corn cakes wrapped in banana leaves.
A small sample gives me an appetite for breakfast and I head to Salon Capon, in Lima's Chinatown. Cantonese immigrants first came to Peru in the late 19th century to work in the burgeoning guano industry, and their presence resulted in a hybrid cuisine, chifa, or dim sum with a Latin flavour, such as the dense tau sar bao dumpling that yields a sweetly nutty brown paste.
I eat dry, peanutty duck and sin mai – pinkish steamed pork dumplings with a spicy kick. The first-floor restaurant is basic and low-ceilinged but by 11am it is full of Chinese and Peruvian families.
Peruvian food has also absorbed influences from wider Asia, France and North America: the ubiquitous Peruvian freshwater trout is a non-native species originally imported from Canada. But the biggest cultural influence is, of course, Spain, which ruled Peru from 1533 to 1821, after Francisco Pizarro overthrew the Inca Atahualpa. Free mixing of conquistadors and the conquered resulted in a mestizo (mixed) population: you hear the native language, Quechua, as often as Spanish.
Lima, home to about eight million of Peru's 30 million population, is an architectural as well as ethnic, economic and culinary jumble. The central square of Plaza de Armas looks like Cadiz; the glassy, high-rise coastline looks like Malibu; the mountainside shanties like Cape Town. Downtown Barranco recalls Havana, inland Miraflores, Detroit. The auto district of Miraflores used to be poor, dangerous and unsavoury. Now, the garages that keep Lima's millions of bangers on the road are interspersed with chic eateries such as La Mar.
This cool, semi open-air cevicheria on the site of a car park, where the waiters place orders on iPhones, serves updated, upmarket versions of the traditional lunchtime dish, ceviche: raw fish cured in a "tiger milk" of lemon, garlic, fish stock, ice, garlic, celery, salt and chilli. Lima's vast and historic fish market brims with river trout and an almost overwhelming variety of species from the sea, all spanking fresh.
La Mar is the brainchild of Gastó* Acurio, who with his wife, Astrid, runs an empire to rival that of Gordon Ramsay; he has 10 other restaurants in Peru and branches of La Mar across South America, and in New York and San Francisco. Acurio's sidekick, 35-year-old Diego Alcántara Menacho, says his country has a new and growing pride in all things Peruvian, but especially food.
When he trained as a chef there were 13 students in a year: now there are 200. He shows me herbs such as the minty huacatay, and the chilli pepper aji –"the DNA of Peruvian food". As he talks, he puts dish after delicious dish in front of me: ceviches ranging from the subtle to the mouth-strippingly zingy; causa potato patties topped with soft grilled octopus or tuna; sinfully good, deep-fried devil fish with roe; and rich tacu tacu (wok-fried rice and beans) with beef, calamari and scallops. It's washed down with sharp, snowy pisco sours.
I can't believe I'll ever eat again, but the evening finds me at Mesa 18 in the glamorous seaside Miraflores Park Hotel, eating Toshiro Konishi's Peruvian-Japanese fusion food. Now 59, Toshiro has been here for 35 years. "My blood is Latin," he says. There is delicate sashimi of local flounder, scallops served with the high-altitude root vegetable maca ("herbal Viagra," says Toshiro), aubergines stuffed with pork and shrimp, followed by an ineffably subtle wasabi ice cream.
The following morning, I fly into Cusco, which is 3,500m above sea level and, unlike the almost perpetually arid Lima, in the middle of rainy season.
Fortunately, altitude sickness doesn't hit me, as one of the cures is to eat and drink as little as possible. The following three days I spend in Peru's Sacred Valley are a barrage of sensory experiences, facilitated by my excellent guide, Margaret Ferro.
I nibble deliciously light cheese and onion empanada buns (and pass on overpriced silver and fabrics) in the historic market town of Písac. Up in the hills above the town, I enjoy a dream-like banquet overlooking cloud-wreathed peaks, my table the only one occupied, in Casa Orihuela. This vast, antique-stuffed hall is the private home of the eponymous local family who have owned vast tracts of land here for 400 years, but select tour companies can book you in for lunch. There's butter-drenched trout, beef stewed with tomato and onions, and syrup-macerated wild tomatoes.
Further along the valley I stumble upon an entire village drunkenly chopping down a tree in the exuberant Yunza Carnival fertility celebration. Everyone is drinking chicha, the ubiquitous corn drink: some drink the alcoholic version; others opt for the soft variety.
Every town has chicherias, most of them set up in people's homes, their presence indicated by a red ball or bag on the end of a pole. I visit one outside the town of Urubamba where the patroness has served chicha for 25 years, her ceiling black with smoke. That night, I stay at the lovely Sol y Luna Lodge and Spa, in an independent casita where the bathroom is as big as the chicha woman's entire house.
Sol y Luna's fine-dining restaurant Killa Wasi was closed for refurbishment during my stay (it has since reopened), but the hotel also has an adjacent horse ranch, Wayra. Chef Nacho Selis, 42, who runs both kitchens, describes his food at Wayra as "more rustic" but I think he's joking. The tasting menu he serves me in the private dining room is strikingly sophisticated. I wouldn't believe he could source all his ingredients locally if I hadn't watched him pick them at a supplier's farm or point them out at his local market in Urubamba.
My first, delicious taste of guinea pig here – in an explosive, gamey confit – is freighted with the awareness that a friend of mine keeps them as pets and may never forgive me. Nacho can do truly rustic, too: the next day we eat smoky chunks of alpaca, chicken, lamb and more guinea pig (sorry) from a traditional pachamanca. Large stones are heated on an iron grill over charcoal in a brick-lined pit. The charcoal is then dug out, the stones lashed with herbs to clean them; then stones, meat and vegetables are layered in the pit, and covered with moistened cotton flour sacks, the edges weighted down with earth.
I was elected godfather of the pachamanca, driving a floral cross into the ground beside it and "blessing" it with beer. I'd like to take responsibility for the feast that emerged 40 minutes later but, in all honesty, I can't.
In Cusco town itself, there is a meal at the warmest and most welcoming restaurant I visit in Peru, the scarlet-walled Cicciolina, run by 59-year-old Argentine chef Luis Alberto Sacilotto, a former industrial chemist. Over chilli-spiked trout, and more juicy alpaca and guinea pig, Luis and I rehash the Falklands/Malvinas war, in which he was a pilot.
It's a tough one to call, but I eat perhaps the finest of many fine meals on my trip, back in Lima, at the very charming Virgilio Martinez's restaurant, Central. This place is a family affair: the cleverly interlocking spaces of its buildings were apparently designed by Martinez's mother, and his Brazilian girlfriend Pia Leon is his chief cohort in the kitchen. The tasting menu here – pig's jowl, leg of goat cooked sous-vide for 20 hours, tuna cured in oil – has flavours as vivid as those at Wayra. The room looks formal but is as lively as Cicciolina.
It's significant, perhaps, that Virgilio had to cook other cuisines for other chefs in leading kitchens worldwide, before becoming an ambassador for his own country's food – not just here, but in his forthcoming restaurant in Cusco's magnificent Monasterio hotel, and at Lima London. Peruvian cuisine may now be the equal in sophistication of any other in the world, but at heart it's a matter of celebrating what's always been there.
Because, alongside all the haute cuisine, I experienced simpler but no less vivid gustatory pleasures. A simple ceviche with avocado in the double-height, football-flag draped dining room of Lima institution Canta Rana. A salt-sprinkled plastic bag full of hot quail eggs bought for one sole (about 25p) amid the chicken-broth stalls and the stacks of brains and cow noses in Cusco's San Pedro market. Anticuchos: tender, succulent skewers of beef heart served hot from the grill in a seaside bar.
And still, I feel I've only just scratched the surface of Peru's endlessly fascinating cuisine. Better go back for seconds.
The full version of this article appears in the June issue of 'High Life' magazine, available on all British Airways flights (bahighlife.com).
Nick Curtis travelled as a guest of Jacada Travel (020-7562 8288; jacadatravel.com). A 10-night gourmet tour costs from £3,150pp, including international and internal flights.
Salon Capon, Lima (00 51 1426 9286).
La Mar, Lima (lamarcebicheria.com).
Mesa 18, Lima (miraflorespark.com).
Casa Orihuela, Písac (limatours.com.pe).
Wayra, Cusco (hotelsolyluna.com).
Cicciolina, Piso, Cusco (cicciolinacuzco.com). Café Ayllu, Cusco (cafeayllu.com).
Central Restaurant, Lima (centralrestaurante.com.pe).
Canta Rana, Lima (00 51 1 247 7274).
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