Latin Amer­i­can chefs are dig­ging deep into their roots and ref­er­enc­ing their cul­tural her­itage to rein­vent tra­di­tional fare for fine din­ing, learns karen tee

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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



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