Judith Elen unearths Peruvian culinary treasures in the international year of the potato
S my journey to Peru progresses on the flight from Auckland to the Chilean capital, Santiago, dinner comes dominated by two round boiled potatoes, like the abandoned eggs of some large bird. My lunch at Santiago airport, awaiting the connecting flight to Lima in Peru, includes a plate-filling pillow of herb-green potato puree.
I am particularly fascinated by this focus on potatoes because I’m for their probable birthplace, on the shores of Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian Altiplano, where they have been eaten for more than 8000 years. Their arrival in Europe, via the Spanish conquistadores in the 1570s, is yesterday in comparison.
When I visit the potato research centre, Centro Internacional de la Papa in Lima, I discover the potato is not as familiar as I had thought. It comes in about 5000 varieties, most of them found in the Andes, and most (from 100 wild species) held, under the auspices of the UN, in CIP’s gene bank. I see samples: pink, gold, shades of purple, blue and black, and looking like nothing I have seen before. One, the name of which translates as panther’s paw, is longer than my hand, black-skinned and shaped for all the world like its name.
Potatoes appear in most traditional dishes here, and in the highlands they are a vital staple. I fly to Juliaca airport to reach Puno beside Lake Titicaca, 3800m up in the Andes. Here small farmers grow numerous potato varieties in rotation with maize, quinoa and okra.
Staying overnight with a family on Taquile Island in the lake, I share a meal of thin potato soup, followed by an orange-yolked fried egg atop potato chips and plain rice, served with muna, a herb tea. I later read that celebrity chef Gaston Acurio, of restaurant Astrid y Gaston in Lima, names home-cooked fried egg with rice as his favourite dish. When we’ve eaten, our host takes me into the yard, where we stand in pitch darkness and gaze up at a sky ablaze with stars while he explains how crops are grown and harvested according to phases of the moon and stars.
In the morning, my guide Noelia takes me to the cantina in the village square, where we breakfast on Peruvian pancake with strawberry jam and mate, a tea of infused coca leaf, the country’s other staple.
If the Peruvian potato is exotic, the cuisine here takes even stranger turns. The haughty, long-necked alpacas I see standing in the dust beside adobe farmhouses outside Puno are a favourite. At the Casa Andina Private Collection hotel, beside Lake Titicaca, I order alpaca tonnato, a Peruvian version of the Italian classic, with slices of pale alpaca meat replacing the veal and masked in tuna mayonnaise. Later, at a covered market in Puno, I spot an alpaca head lying on a butcher’s stall.
The guinea pig, too, is a delicacy. It is brought to restaurant tables whole as a sign that it is, indeed, the speciality and not some lesser substitute. My daughter reports ordering it in a Lima restaurant where it arrived a la suckling pig, a carved carrot cap atop its head and a sliver of carrot in its mouth.
Less challenging, and on menus everywhere, is trucha, or trout. In Puno, it comes farmed or wild from Lake Titicaca. Crossing the vast lake by ferry, I watch fishermen tending their nets from small boats. A typical family meal in this region, Noelia tells me, is soup of quinoa or maize or creamed vegetables, and fried trout with fried potato and rice.
In the evening I hit the streets, idly wandering into shops selling alpaca wool clothing and locally crafted jewellery. Several restaurants look discreetly welcoming but I choose a tiny hole in the wall with two tables and an open-fronted clay chimney, which smokes profusely. There’s a set four-course menu for 14 soles (about $4.60): a creamy avocado with salsa, fresh asparagus
Make a meal of it: A woman on Lake Titicaca with traditional cooking pots
Go native: Peruvian potatoes come in many varieties soup, trucha and finally warm chocolate cake. Fresh banana and pineapple juice is included. The excellent pisco sour — Peruvian white spirit, egg white and lime juice — is extra and, at about $2, soon doubles the bill. The cuisine here arcs from the earthen-floored rooms of villagers cooking over open hearths in the barren high country to the classy restaurants of Lima’s international hotels, where a recent movement, variously called novandina, nouvelle Andean or nouvelle Peruvian, flourishes.
Linking these extremes is food activist Isabel Alvarez, an anthropologist who has studied colonial cuisine and teaches the history of food at St Marcs University. She owns El Senorio de Sulco, a cliff-edge restaurant overlooking the sea in the elegant Lima suburb of Miraflores. Alvarez, of Andean (Quechuan) and Catalan descent, is evangelical about preserving authentic dishes, such as the pre-Hispanic huatia sulcana, beef braised in a clay pot and strewn with aromatic herbs, which is on the restaurant menu. She says there has been a revival of interest in Peru’s rich food history and attitudes to cooking as a profession have changed. Sons and daughters of well-to-do families are embracing the formerly lowly work, training in Lima’s 20 or so cooking schools.
Alvarez’s son, Flavio Solorzano, executive chef at the restaurant (she prefers to cook ideas), is a leading light at Columbia Cuisine School in nearby San Isidro.
Ancient ingredients are being used in new ways and young chefs are just learning how to use the thousands of potato varieties, Alvarez tells me. In the high Andes, grains are used that are not seen so much in tourist areas. La tunta ,’’ she says, fascinanto .’’ She is referring to the dried potatoes known as white chuno, or tunta — the Incas’ white gold — which are still produced here and are thought to be the form in which the Spanish first took the tuber to Europe.
My next stop is Columbia Cuisine School, where nouvelle Peruvian chef Luis Munoz is whipping up lunch. There are potato cakes with cilantro, or coriander, and a magret of duck coated in chuno, with pear puree and a pear and honey salsa. A potato puree mixed with egg and milk is wrapped in prosciutto and baked, and there’s cara pulcra, a mole of yellow potato, chocolate, peanuts, cinammon, chilli and cloves.
At Le Cordon Bleu Peru in Miraflores, a branch of the renowned Paris-based gourmet school, I meet leading young chef Jose Meza, who says Peruvian food has become trendy in the past six years. A graduate of the school, he has worked in New York and Washington. Of the new interest in Andean cuisine, he says other cultures have taken up products such as quinoa, Yet we Peruvians have not taken advantage of these heritage products.’’
Meanwhile, CIP continues its work in the background, conserving and researching native potatoes. The purple-fleshed varieties are especially high in antioxidants, stored in the pigment, while yellowfleshed varieties are higher in available iron. Andean highlanders serve red, yellow (yema de huevo, egg-yolk potato) and blue in a single dish. But even along the Inca highway, some native varieties have been lost. In this, the UN’s international year of the potato, awareness is the key to keeping cultivation and research funds flowing. Judith Elen was a guest of Centro Internacional de la Papa. www.peru.info.com www.cipotato.org www.senoriodesulco.com