Peru on a plate
enjoys a delectable and varied diversion in what has become one of the world’s hottest food destinations
EN years ago, travellers returned from a trip to Peru with tales of archaeological wonders, incredible scenery and friendly people. The food rarely rated a mention apart from the occasional tale of eating guinea pig on the way to Machu Picchu.
How things have changed. Today, Peru is a gastronomic mecca, Lima has repeatedly been declared the food capital of South America, and where and what you ate is as much a topic of conversation as whether you hiked the Inca trail.
The start of the culinary revolution has been credited to chef Gaston Acurio. After training in France, he returned to Lima with his German wife and fellow chef Astrid Gutsche and opened a French restaurant.
Fortunately for Peruvian cuisine that restaurant was not a hit, but when Acurio started focusing on local ingredients and dishes, he paved the way for a gastronomic boom.
As other chefs followed his lead, restaurants were filled with dishes that celebrated Peru’s original cuisine and embraced the extraordinary range of ingredients the country produces.
Not only does Peru have access to some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, it also has 30 of the world’s 32 climates and a rich biodiversity.
It’s this complexity of the land that inspired chef Virgilio Martinez’s menu at Central in Lima, where courses are based on the altitudes where native ingredients are sourced.
This vertical culinary journey has resulted in Central claiming the fourthbest restaurant in the world position on The World’s 50 Best list, as well as being No.1 on Latin America’s 50 Best.
As we make our way through 17 courses our elevations range from the “Close Fishing” octopus and coral sourced from 10m below sea level up to the “Andean Plateau” of tuna, annatto and black herbs from 3900m. The wine pairings include some impressive South American drops including an Altos Las Hormigas malbec as well as a pisco cocktail and a quinoa beer.
Martinez moves through the restaurant, greeting diners. He notices me slow down around the 11th course, and puts any fears of a star-chef turn to rest with a smile: “Don’t worry, I won’t be offended if you can’t finish.”
Considering the accolades and the fact that Central was one of the best dining experiences of my life, I’m surprised by the reasonable prices. Our 17-course menu is S/.370 ($A160) or S/.542 with matching wine.
Mind you, this being Peru you could find a three-course set menu at a more modest restaurant for about S/.5, so it’s all relative. But this is a country where your dining dollar can go far.
Between the Spanish colonisation and migration from Africa, China, Italy and Japan, Peruvian food has a range of cultural influences. Creole and Chifa, the Chinese-Peruvian hybrid, are particularly popular, with Chifa restaurants rather than the usual Chinese, around Peru.
At Maido, a new entry on World’s 50 Best at 44, we experience the special Peruvian-Japanese fusion Nikkei.
After asking if there’s anything we’re allergic to or do not want to eat, chef Mitsuharu Tsumura tells us he prefers not to explain too much about the food beforehand so people can taste without prejudice.
Other mysteries abound on the menu. While the river snails in a shell are a giveaway, I have no idea I have eaten a guinea pig gyoza until the end of our 15-course Nikkei Experience. Part of me wishes I had known so I could have paid more attention. Instead all I remember is that it was delicious dipped in its “Amazonic Ponzu”.
Lima may be the centre of Peru’s food scene but we are impressed by every meal we eat around the country, from Acurio’s Chifa in Cusco, to a buffet at El Parador de Moray overlooking an archaeological site in the Sacred Valley.
Peruvian food is also making its mark around the world. Acurio now has more than 40 international restaurants. The writer travelled as a guest of PROMPERU, the Peruvian Tourism Board.