Lifestyle & Belief

Peru, South America’s palate pleaser par excellence


Cooks throw potatoes into to make "pachamanca" during Peru's gastronomic fair Mistura in Lima.


Ernesto Benavides

LIMA, Peru — “To feed the world, you need quality not quantity,” says chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino as he explains the philosophy that has put this South American country on the gastronomic map.

Schiaffino, whose flagship restaurant Malabar was recently named among the world’s hundred best, is making the point that many Peruvians understand from their daily experience.

From the humblest street stands across Peru to capital city Lima’s new wave of gourmet eateries, cooks of all levels here serve their customers a stunning range of dishes exploding with flavor.

The food typically comes in healthy — in other words small — portions, at least compared with the mega-sized servings that are standard in many US establishments, fueling the world’s worst obesity epidemic.

Eaters, including a growing wave of gastronomic tourists flocking from across Latin America to get a taste of Lima’s culinary boom, are invariably satisfied.

Signature dishes include aji de gallina, a rich stew of chicken and cheese, with yellow chilies found only in Peru, and papa a la huancaina, a creamy, spicy yellow sauce served on slices of steamed floury potatoes.

In the Andes, there is pachamanca, a method of slow-cooking mutton, pork or beef wrapped in leaves and placed in a hole in the ground with hot rocks. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, dishes come garnished with cassava and shredded palm heart instead of potatoes and green salad.

Yet listing that handful of classics fails to do justice to the dozens of traditional recipes from Peru’s Amazon, Andes and coast.

Peruvian cuisine has always been dazzlingly creative, highly varied and, as more and more critics are acknowledging, just plain delicious.

Yet it is only in the last decade that Lima has become home to an increasing number of world-class restaurants as a generation of chefs, who fled the economic chaos and violence of their homeland in the 1990s, returned from the US, Europe and Asia to apply new techniques to classic Peruvian recipes.

“When I returned to Peru, I began my second training, which was to rediscover the products and traditions of my country and try to build my own language in the kitchen,” chef Gaston Acurio, who trained in France, told GlobalPost.

More than anyone else, Acurio is the person who has driven Peru’s culinary boom. His first restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, opened in 1994 and has won even more plaudits than Malabar.

And his championing of popular Peruvian cuisine, as well as the often impoverished small-scale farmers who produce its ingredients, has made him a national hero here and even prompted calls for him to run for president.

In an interview in September at Mistura, Latin America’s largest food festival, which Acurio founded, excited fans thronged around him, demanding autographs and photos in a way normally reserved for Hollywood starlets.

Two key factors have helped make Peruvian cuisine so highly original and varied: the melting pot of influences from 500 years of migrations and ethnic mingling, and Peru’s staggering diversity of climates and landscapes, giving it an almost unrivaled variety of raw ingredients.

Influences include Italian, Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese, with descendants of each group forming large communities in modern-day Peru. Indigenous peoples from the Andes and Amazon also, of course, have played a role.

Meanwhile, chefs here are able to draw on ingredients from the Amazon, Andes, and one of the world’s most abundant and varied fisheries, thanks to rich Antarctic currents that well up off the Pacific coast.

Peru’s mountains are famously home to more than 3,000 varieties of potato. Yet there are also numerous other kinds of tuber that grow there.

And the rain forest provides everything from exotic fruits to capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Schiaffino’s reputation is largely founded on his obsession with finding creative twists for both traditional and obscure Amazonian produce.

Yet there is also a missing ingredient, one which no one quite seems able to pinpoint, and which has allowed Peru to capitalize on these providential circumstances.

“It is informal and spontaneous. It comes from the soul, not the measuring spoon,” says another of Peru’s top chefs, Rafael Osterling as he seeks to pinpoint the secret of Peru’s culinary excellence.

According to Osterling, whose restaurant Rafael vies with Malabar and Astrid y Gaston for the title of Lima’s finest, that makes Peruvian cooking “happier” and “less square” than its rivals.

The result is that Peru’s cooks are now increasingly exporting the country’s wonderful recipes. Osterling’s two restaurants in Bogota are viewed by many as the Colombian capital’s best, as are Acurio’s two establishments in Santiago, Chile.

Despite the huge variety of dishes on offer in Peru, all three chefs agree that the country does have a national dish: ceviche, the seafood salad served across Latin America but which has reached its apogee here.

Only in Peru is ceviche served with a thick slice of steamed sweet potato, to soak up the zesty juice of the raw fish or shellfish marinated in limes, cilantro and onion. And while ceviche is just one item on menus in Mexico or Chile, in Peru it has spawned an entire culture, including specialist restaurants called “cevicherias.”

“Choosing just one dish is difficult because there are so many,” says Acurio. “But ceviche is a good weapon for spreading the word about Peruvian cuisine, just as the Japanese started with sushi.”

For anyone who has ever sampled Peruvian ceviche with a cold beer during a southern summer, those words, unquestionably, sound like pearls of wisdom.