Montreal Gazette

ON TOP OF THE WORLD

Peru's food culture has pushed Lima to `world's best restaurant­s' fame

- SIMEON TEGEL

Chef Virgilio Martínez chews a raw purple tuber as he listens to a Quechua-speaking subsistenc­e farmer describe an Andean technique for hedging against inclement weather.

Broad beans and pukutu, a rare, multicolou­red, ancient variety of corn, are planted together, Cleto Cusipaucar explains. If there are heavy rains, the maize will fail but the pulses will thrive. If conditions are drier, the beans won't grow, but the corn will.

“I wish I had more time to spend just listening,” says Martínez, 46, who was honoured this year as creator of the world's best restaurant. “Every time I do, I learn something new.”

The men are standing in a field overlookin­g Moray, an enormous pre-columbian basin of concentric tiers dug into a mountainsi­de above Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Thought to have been used as an agricultur­al laboratory, Moray is home to a surprising effect: As you descend into the bowl, the temperatur­e rises. Modern researcher­s believe the Inca used the terraced rings to acclimatiz­e crops to different altitudes for their highly vertical empire.

Moray is where Martínez has built a centre for his Mater initiative, a contempora­ry culinary research institutio­n anchored in the study of local traditions and ecological knowledge, which has helped propel the chef to rock star status in the gastronomi­c world. In June, Central, Martínez's flagship restaurant in Lima, was named No. 1 among the World's 50 Best Restaurant­s, arguably the most influentia­l such list in the industry. It had ranked in the Top 10 for years.

The honour, voted on by more than 1,000 internatio­nal experts, cemented Peru's place on the culinary map. Central, with an innovative tasting menu that showcases Peru's breathtaki­ng geography and biodiversi­ty, led a cohort of four Lima restaurant­s in the 50 Best — more than from any other city in the world.

How the gastronomi­c scene in the capital of troubled, underdevel­oped Peru came to triumph over establishe­d powerhouse­s such as Paris and New York owes much to the personal talent and drive of Martínez and Lima's other highend chefs. But it's no coincidenc­e that they are Peruvian, their creativity forged in this South American nation's highly original and varied national food culture, one that is finally being recognized as one of the world's greatest.

Wherever you go here, Peruvians of all races and classes love not only to eat, but also to talk about food, with myriad appetizing options for all budgets. Most of the recipes can be found only in Peru; they're invariably made with fresh ingredient­s.

“Food is the best thing about Peru. We have so many dishes and ingredient­s,” says fruit seller Pamela Clemente, 32, as she tucks into a ceviche, Peru's national dish, in a street market in Lima's gritty La Victoria district.

“I don't know what Peru would be like without our cooking,” she says. “We'd have no country left.”

In a society whose self-esteem has been battered by runaway corruption, political dysfunctio­n, the world's highest COVID -19 mortality and the serial failures of the national soccer team, anthropolo­gist Alexander Huerta Mercado says, cuisine is the one enduring source of collective pride — and sheer joy.

“Most Peruvians have never visited Machu Picchu,” says Huerta Mercado, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “But food is different. Any foreigner in Peru will straight away be asked if they like the food. You're not supposed to answer no. Chefs are cultural heroes here. Everyone wants to be one.”

Martínez's Centre, inaugurate­d just before the pandemic, draws together chefs, botanists, anthropolo­gists, artists and others to investigat­e new and sustainabl­e ways to harness and use the flavourful, nutritious ingredient­s from the Andes, the Amazon and the Pacific Coast.

Cusipaucar, the farmer, and other locals work three acres of land next to Moray, harvesting endemic produce such as tubers ulluco and mashua, and herbs such as huacatay, a local marigold used heavily in Peruvian cooking. The villagers keep half the produce; the rest goes to Mil, Martínez's small restaurant here, and Central.

Cusipaucar, 58, cultivates 50 varieties of potato, but can market only four, for want of commercial demand. He tells Martínez that he has counted 80 Andean plants, traditiona­lly consumed for food and medicine, that are falling out of use among neighbouri­ng communitie­s. “It's my biggest worry,” he says. “We're going to lose them forever.”

Martínez nods and promises to include the threatened varieties in Mater's botanical garden. “Tell me which plants, which seeds,” he says. “We're completely aligned. We can help you.”

Martínez's relationsh­ips with artisanal suppliers such as Cusipaucar, fishermen in the Pacific and Indigenous communitie­s in the Amazon, has shaped Central's tasting menu, Mundo en Desnivel — loosely, World on an Incline.

Heavily plant-based, it takes diners on a brisk voyage across Peru, noting for each of the 14 courses the altitude at which the ingredient­s were harvested — in many cases, foraged in the wild. Throughout, Martínez delights in throwing curveballs at diners with unexpected textures and tastes that belie the food's appearance.

Highlights include a dish called Warm Sea, from 15 metres below sea level on Peru's northern coast, a breezy broth of grouper with crispy clams and ají limo, a fiery Peruvian pepper; Extreme Altitude, from 4,200 m above sea level in the altiplano, with five varieties of corn, crunchy Andean amaranth seeds and delicate sweet potato leaves; and Amazonian Waters, from 190 m above sea level, with cured pacu, a herbivorou­s cousin of the flesh-eating river piranha, watermelon slices and a foam of coconut and coca (yes, the basis for cocaine).

Many of the country's most celebrated dishes — ají de gallina, a korma-like chicken recipe; arroz con mariscos, a paella-influenced seafood rice dish; and an extensive pantheon of deserts, a legacy of French influence — might best be described as comfort food.

Peru's culinary excellence is partly the result of its expansive natural pantry. Its tropical latitude, with huge variations in altitude from the Andean peaks to the Pacific Coast, hosts almost every kind of ecosystem, and therefore crop and livestock, on Earth. Famously, that includes more than 4,000 varieties of potato, but also all kinds of herbs, cereals, pulses and produce new to most foreigners. What's more, Peru's Pacific waters are exceptiona­lly prolific, thanks to the plankton-rich Humboldt Current.

Peruvian food — or “combat,” in the local slang — fuses a range of influences, from distinct Indigenous traditions on the coast, in the mountains and the rainforest to waves of immigratio­n, voluntary and involuntar­y, from Spain, Africa, Italy, China and Japan, among others. That blend of geography and history explains the primordial soup that gave birth to Peruvian cuisine. But no one has pinpointed the proverbial lightning strike that sparked it into life.

Peru's next most celebrated national dish, lomo saltado, is made up of strips of sirloin stir-fried in a wok with sliced tomatoes and red onions and flavoured with soy sauce, cumin and aji amarillo, a mild, uniquely Peruvian yellow chili pepper. The classic plating includes rice and fat fries made from floury, absorbent Peruvian yellow potatoes. But there is also a version with tacu tacu, a hearty Afro-peruvian mixture of rice and pulses seasoned with pork fat.

Traditiona­lly, many of these recipes were served exclusivel­y at home. The template for the poshest restaurant­s was French cuisine; Lima's largely white elite looked down on local recipes — even on seafood, a centrepiec­e of the contempora­ry Peruvian board.

But in the last two decades, a generation of young chefs has returned from culinary schools in Europe, North America, Japan and beyond to train their new skills and techniques on Peru's traditiona­l home cooking, reclaiming and giving new life to working-class standards.

Martínez, rejecting “French hegemony,” asks: “Why does the meal have to start with champagne? Where is that written?”

Martínez and other chefs have been the strongest voices for conserving Peru's increasing­ly threatened crop megadivers­ity.

Peru just renewed a 10-year moratorium on sowing geneticall­y modified organisms, a cornerston­e of U.S. Big Ag that's viewed as threatenin­g to Peru's traditiona­l custodians of the country's diverse ingredient­s, farmers who typically work only an acre or two. The move was championed by Martínez's mentor, Gastón Acurio.

Still, Peru's gastronomi­c revival faces obstacles. Fast-food chains are growing their footprint here, and obesity rates are rising.

“We're importing the North American model of mass food,” Martínez warns. “It's food that makes you sick.”

After Central's triumph in the world rankings this year, there was complaints about the $384 cost of its tasting menu in a country where the Food and Agricultur­e Organizati­on says half the population now experience­s food insecurity.

Martínez says he employs around 100 people directly while paying above-market rates to — and establishi­ng stable, long-term relationsh­ips with — his often humble suppliers. Central has also raised Peru's internatio­nal profile and attracted tourists.

 ?? PHOTOS: ANGELA PONCE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Virgilio Martínez, left, the head chef and owner of Central, prepares a dish at his restaurant in Lima, Peru.
PHOTOS: ANGELA PONCE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Virgilio Martínez, left, the head chef and owner of Central, prepares a dish at his restaurant in Lima, Peru.
 ?? ?? Damiana Ccorihuama­n, left, Alicia Ayma and Yovana Juarez collect potatoes to be cooked and served later.
Damiana Ccorihuama­n, left, Alicia Ayma and Yovana Juarez collect potatoes to be cooked and served later.
 ?? ?? Percy Mendoza, a street ceviche vendor, works selling food from his mobile stall in Lima, Peru.
Percy Mendoza, a street ceviche vendor, works selling food from his mobile stall in Lima, Peru.

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