Lima rarely finds itself listed in the same company as Tokyo or Paris. A drab concrete sprawl set on arid coastline, she is no great beauty – but if the route to the heart is through the stomach, then Lima, with her vibrant, distinctive kitchen, is every bit as alluring as her prettier peers. Peruvian gastronomy is having its moment and logic follows that the gaze of the culinary world is fixed on the capital. Refreshingly, what has captured the collective imagination is not as much its proliferation of stars and star chefs (although there are plenty of those too) but an intense interest in how the country’s intense natural and cultural diversity continues to shape the cuisine culture of South America’s leading food destination.
In recent years, ‘fusion’ has become a dirty word. Somewhere along the line, it came to represent a style of self-conscious restaurant cooking that at best is over-wrought and at worst, just plain bad. It’s a shame because ‘fusion’ is a term that helps articulate the marriage of cultures on a plate; a marriage that is almost always only successful after a long, organic courtship. All great cuisines have taken and adapted influences by osmosis and Peruvian food is perhaps the best test case of a union still in its honeymoon period. With influences from pre-Colombian, Inca, Spanish, Arab, African, Chinese, Japanese and Italian cuisines still individually evident, the puzzle of the Peruvian palate is one that is complex, at times confusing and very often wonderful.
Ceviche (cebiche), a lunchtime ritual, is the country’s national dish and in some ways it reflects the place on the plate. Raw fish from the Pacific, marinated with lime imported by the Spanish, flavoured with Incan aji chili, served with African salsa criolla and sliced with the precision of the Japanese. The country can be grateful to Japan for breaking down reservations toward raw seafood as it seems it will help usher in the age of ceviche, a dish so universally appealing it has the potential to be Peruvian cuisine’s Trojan horse. It is said that Lima has 2000 cebecherias (ital) ranging from rudimentary roadside stalls, to Javier Wong’s quirky, no-menu bolthole Chez Wong to temples dedicated to the dish, such as Gaston Acurio’s La Mar.
To many, the 40-something Acurio is the architect of the gastronomic renaissance in his country. More than a celebrity chef and restaurant empire builder (although it must be said he is adept at both), he has used his restaurant and international profile to become a cheerleader for his country via its food. In a society that has long been fractured around class and racial lines, Peruvians’ love of food from whichever ethnic/class group it may have originated is what unifies them. This national pride has emanated throughout the country from Lima but it is in the sprawling capital that it is most apparent. Street vendors and sexier chefs alike are now unofficial ambassadors for the city, from the tiny, elderly Dona Grimanesa and her perfect anticuchos (ital) (marinated beef hearts on skewers) to indie cool poster boy Viriglio Martinez with his polished produce inspired offerings at the gleaming Central.
Martinez was lured back home after stints in various high-end kitchens in Europe, not on the promise of becoming a flag bearer for his country’s food culture but for the opportunity to work with extraordinary and as yet unexplored produce. With 85 different microclimates within the relatively small country, Peru is a cradle of bio-diversity. A trip to Lima’s markets is like visiting a parallel food universe with hundreds of bizarre vegetables and fruits from the Andes and the Amazon, often unknown even as they arrive to market. Some estimate that Peru is home to 4000 individual varieties of potatoes alone. For young chefs, the unpredictability and possibility of the daily market is what makes cooking in Lima so irresistible and is also what is beginning to attract fans of high-end gastronomy. Fond as food writers are of naming movements (think Mod Oz, California Cuisine and the aforementioned fusion), many have begun to term the cooking ‘Novoandino’ (ital) which might describe aspects of Martinez’s food, such as his delicate and flavourful roasting of cuy (guinea pig), an Andean favourite. Another branch of the more avant-garde scene is perhaps best coined as ‘New Amazonian’ and is led by Miguel Pedro Schiaffino, another charismatic young cook with culinary adventure on the mind. He has devoted himself to uncovering the wonders of the Amazon, going to extraordinary lengths to unlock the potential of this edible goldmine by experimenting with obscure ingredients on his menu.
If ceviche is the national dish, pisco is its drink. Poured strong, mixed with lime juice, a little sugar and blended with an egg white, it becomes the legendary pisco sour. Colonial era pisco bars populate the historic center, an area that is only now reemerging after years of neglect. A sour with a butifara (a sandwich made with local cured ham) in one of the weathered old bars can be a welcome change of pace from street food or the more experimental modern fare. There is some dispute as to whether the potent grape brandy is Lima’s alone; their Chilean neighbors become enraged at the assertion it is anything but their own in a provenance disagreement that makes jostling between Australia and New Zealand over pavlova look very tame indeed. History is written by the victors and right now, when it comes to food and drink, Lima is on top of the world.
© Vogue Living, May 2012, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora