The country’s remarkable natural bounty and melting pot of culinary influences are on full display in Lima, where markets overflow with Peruvian produce and restaurants showcase some of Latin America’s most exciting cooking.
By Sanjay Surana
Photographs by Christopher Testani
As much as I consider myself an adventurous eater, grilled guinea pig has never aroused my culinary libido. And yet here I was at Lima’s annual Mistura food fair standing before a straw bowl filled with cavy carcasses, their pale-pink flesh tufted with wisps of unplucked hair and arranged on a bed of celery sticks and purple corn. To the left, more guinea pigs—or cuy, as they’re called in Spanish—lay flat and spread-eagled like cartoon roadkill over smoldering charcoal. The young Peruvian manning the grill lowered his surgical mask and assured me that they tastedlike rabbit, with an earthier flavor, but even then I couldn’t bring myself to sample the Andean staple.
The guinea-pig stand was one of hundreds at Mistura, a 10-day celebration of Peruvian food that ranks as the biggest culinary festival in Latin America. Stretching for more than a kilometer along the beachfront at Costa Verde, the fair divides itself into more than a dozen sections that showcase everything from the potent grape spirit pisco and the de facto national dish of ceviche to breads loaded with aniseed and potato, endemic foods from the Andes and the Amazon, hybrid dishes cooked by the progeny of immigrants, desserts like quinoa ice cream and pumpkin-flavored maize pudding, and, in a big beer tent, a handful of Peruvian brews.
Launched in 2008, Mistura is a raucous, joyous event that puts the spotlight on a cuisine that is finally receiving the global acclaim it deserves. Back in 1999 the prescient New York Times critic Eric Asimov declared Peruvian food “one of the great cuisines of the world,” and these days pretty much every culinary prophet seems to agree, from Ferran Adrià and Alain Ducasse to the folks at the Culinary Institute of America, which named 2014 the year for Peruvian cuisine. No surprise, then, that the top two establishments in the latest edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants are Peruvian: Central and Astrid y Gastón, both in Lima.
“Peru has a culinary heritage that dates back thousands of years and a cuisine that has been shaped by five centuries of fusion,” Martin Morales, a British-Peruvian chef and author who’s opened the Peruvian restaurants Ceviche and Andina in London, tells me. “Potatoes originated here, as did tomatoes, peanuts, and a large variety of chilies, maize, and cereals. Peru is also the home of many of the world’s superfoods: quinoa, maca root, amaranth.”
Two critical factors have shaped Peruvian cuisine. First, the country’s vast range of microclimates enables it to grow almost anything, from the tubers and chili peppers harvested by Andean farmers millennia before Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors arrived in the 1530s, to the wheat, rice, onions, limes, sugar, apples, and grapes that the Spanish brought with them alongside pigs, chickens, sheep, and cattle. My visit to Lima’s Surquillo Market, a fount for many of the city’s top chefs, demonstrated the bounty that Pachamama(“mother earth” in Quechua) continues to provide centuries later: giant broccolis, verdant stalks of asparagus, plump artichokes, and wrecking ball–size zapallo squashes; brilliant white cauliflowers framed by fleshy leaves; tubes of cinnamon the length of a walking stick; cherimoya custard apples and tumbo passion fruits; nuts and olives and wonder grains like quinoa, kañiwa, and kiwicha; and all manner of seafood and meat.
The other force that shaped Peruvian cuisine is the country’s historic melting pot of cultures. The Spanish brought with them new foods but also Africans as soldiers and slaves. They were followed by Chinese and Italian immigrants, and finally, at the end of the 19th century, the Japanese, who came to toil in the sugar plantations and fish the waters. Each group has left its culinary imprint, aided by what chef Gastón Acurio, Peru’s culinary evangelist-cum-patron saint, calls “an open-minded society ready to mix everything.” The offal eaten by slaves gave rise to dishes such as chanfainita (cow-lung stew); the Chinese fusioned their predominantly Cantonese fare into things like lomo saltado (a stir-fry of beef and potatoes); and the Italians are responsible for tallarines verdes (literally, green noodles), Peru’s version of spaghetti pesto. And then there’s Nikkei, as Peruvian-Japanese cuisine is called. Popularized overseas by Nobu Matsuhisa—who honed his skills in Lima before garnering fame in America—it’s all the rage at places like Maido, one of Lima’s most sought-after tables, where chef Mitsuharu Tsumura turns out such specialties as miso-marinated butterfish and theceviche-meets-sashimi dish called tiradito.
Yet the most exciting aspect of Peruvian cooking is the contemporary stuff, which first surfaced in the 1980s under the name Novoandina. The movement, started by journalist and food critic Bernardo Roca Rey, sought to prepare classic Andean ingredients—llama meat, ancient grains and root vegetables like oca —using modern techniques, and had the potential to be revolutionary. Except it wasn’t, stymied by, of all things, another attempted revolution: the brutal guerilla insurgency of the Shining Path, which began in 1980 and continued until its leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992. It wasn’t until the end of this uprising that Peru’s economy began to recover, tourists returned, money reappeared, and the dining scene gradually evolved. Novoandina cooking was resuscitated and restyled as Nuevo Andino, informed by a cadre of chefs who had studied and cooked abroad—Gastón Acurio, Virgilio Martínez, Rafael Osterling, and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.