Peru on a plate

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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