Latin American chefs are digging deep into their roots and referencing their cultural heritage to reinvent traditional fare for fine dining, learns karen tee
Latin American chefs dig deep into
caiman, capybara and pirarucu. Such wildlife inhabitants of the dense Amazon rainforest are rarely glimpsed outside their natural habitat. These days though, adventurous foodie travellers may get to experience them on the plate at Leo, the eponymously named fine dining restaurant by Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa in the country’s sprawling capital, Bogota.
In Espinosa’s deft hands, a sliver of Caiman crocodile meat, the most delicate of its kind I’ve ever tasted, is painstakingly wrapped around a reduction of cassava extract and cooked in a bowl of peach-palm custard. Pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, is marinated with sour yucca, cacay nut and ojo de pez pepper and resembles ceviche with the texture of chicken sashimi. And capybara, the world’s largest rodent, which is considered an Amazonian delicacy, is cooked in a rich, meaty stew with native red beans and garnished with a strip of crispy crackling. Its gamey flavour reminiscent of pork and rabbit packs an umami punch that is familiar yet foreign all at once.
By the end of my 15-course Ciclo-Biome dinner at Leo — ranked 18 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list — it’s as if I’d gone on a whirlwind trip through the country’s diverse ecosystem. Widely regarded as the high priestess of fine Colombian cuisine, Espinosa has made it her life’s mission to introduce her country’s bounty of exotic flora, fauna and gastronomic traditions to the rest of the world. “My idea was to take traditional dishes and introduce them to a wider public, without losing the essence of what they were originally about,” she says.
Adventurous Dining in Lima
Throughout Latin America, many of the region’s culinary stars are embracing a similar ethos by aiming to nourish, satisfy and educate the palate in a single meal. In Lima, arguably the gastronomic capital of the continent, chef Virgilio Martinez of Central is quite rightly the wizard-scientist of Peru. His explorations of the country’s immense biodiversity has resulted in a menu featuring ingredients sourced from a mind-boggling range of altitudes, from 20m below sea level to 4,100m up in the mountains. It is probably the only restaurant in the world where one can feast on crispy piranha skin as well as heritage potatoes and tubers (with a side of shaved alpaca heart) from the Andes mountains in a single seating.
Equally illuminating, although somewhat more underrated, is the food by chef Mitsuharu Tsumura at Maido. Eighth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, his Japanese-Peruvian dishes at this stylish establishment are a vivid embodiment of fusion food at its best. Termed Nikkei cuisine, this genre typically melds Japanese cooking techniques with Peruvian ingredients and dates back to over a century
ago when Japanese farm workers migrated to Peru. Today, Nikkei cuisine is so much a part of Peruvian culinary consciousness that many meals are eaten with rice and previously ignored seafood such as octopus and scallop are commonplace in the country.
At Maido, Tsumura gives his version of Nikkei food a haute spin with cutting-edge cooking magic. Take for instance, Cuy-san, or Mr Guinea Pig. Simply put, it is guinea pig karaage. More precisely, it is a boneless nugget fried in a thin, crispy batter with cauliflower cream, and accompanied by torikara sauce and shredded native greens. The meat has a surprisingly clean taste, thanks to the maestro’s light touch, which showcases his mastery of Japanese cuisine.
In comparison, guinea pig is traditionally roasted whole to impart an earthy smokiness to the meat and is served in its entirety (face included) on the table. “I generally find that the street food version still has the true heart and essence of the dish,” says foodie traveller Victor Dizon, co-founder and director of A2A Safaris. But its appearance, and perhaps the psychological barrier many have to overcome to eat rodent meat, can be a deterrence to some. “Maybe not enough people are willing to try local food in the street environment, so I think the fine dining version can at the very least introduce the dish to such folk. The nice ambience certainly helps some people become more adventurous,” he muses.
Comfort at its Best
Of course, dining doesn’t have to be ultra-exotic and make you feel like you’re starring in an episode of TV’s Fear Factor to be memorable. Sometimes, comfort fare, elevated to fine dining standards, is exactly what a weary road warrior needs. A case in point is Criollo in Oaxaca, the street food mecca of the country. While chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol fame lends his star power as a partner, it is another chef, Luis Arellano, who directs the menu here, the waiter tells me during my visit. Unlike Pujol, which thrives on culinary innovation, the food at Criollo leans heavily towards Oaxacan classics. “I think Criollo is our anchor in tradition and in Mexican food,” says Olvera.
Here, guacamole is prepped à la minute by mixing mashed avocado with generous bunches
of aromatic herbs; a juicy mango salad is tossed with heirloom tomatoes, watercress and fresh Oaxacan cheese and tacos are heaped with tender shredded suckling pig, black bean sauce and local herbs. Every dish is beautifully balanced on the palate and easy on the eye. With each course, one can almost hear Arellano proudly proclaiming, “See how elegant our humble regional cuisine can be?”
The Next Chapter
For a sign of how progressive Latin American cuisine can get, head to Ali Pacha in La Paz. Perched high up in the clouds at an elevation of 3,640m, the capital of Bolivia can feel somewhat detached from the modern world, with its witchcraft markets and many women still dressed in traditional garb and bowler hats. But tucked among a handful of greasy fried chicken joints in the bustling, chaotic city centre, is Ali Pacha, a fine dining vegan restaurant.
This gem of a find, rare even in the international culinary scene, is helmed by Bolivian chef Sebastian Quiroga. He trained at Gustu, the city’s numero uno restaurant, which was founded by Claus Meyer, who also happens to be the co-proprietor of Noma in Copenhagen. Quiroga’s culinary pedigree shines through at Ali Pacha, with his delightful and spot-on vegan interpretations of Bolivia’s meat-heavy cuisine.
Meals here start with sourdough bread and the most irresistible coconut butter ever made — every table around me asked for seconds. To showcase the region’s endless variety of corn, Quiroga turns out a deceptively simple-looking pepper tamale and corn soup that’s garnished with crispy dehydrated corn husk and fried corn crumbs. The masterful balance of the varied textures are all it takes to showcase the naturally sweet flavours of this humble plant.
Then there is the highlight of the meal, beet ceviche. Sliced beets are marinated with just enough lime and fruit juice to give it the firm texture of raw fish while the canny addition of ginger evokes the sense one is eating seafood instead of vegetables. By the end of my fivecourse meal, we’ve cycled through all flavours the human tongue can taste, from sweet, sour, salty and bitter to spicy and umami, a feat that even regular restaurants will find hard to achieve. My only regret — that I didn’t skip lunch to make room for the seven-course menu.
“My idea was to take traditional dishes and introduce them to a wider public, without losing the essence of what they were originally about”
— Leonor Espinosa
CHEF LEONORESPINOSA; RESTAURANTE LEO IN BOGOTA; OPPOSITE PAGE: ESPINOSA PAIRS LOCAL DUCK WITH CORN FLATBREAD
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: SUCKLING PIG TACO WITH PICKLES AND HERBSAT CRIOLLO; BOLIVIA’S ALI PACHASERVES VEGAN DISHES SUCH AS BEETCEVICHE; MAIDO’S CHEF TSUMURA MELDS JAPANESE TECHNIQUES WITH PERUVIAN PRODUCE