Peru: Part II – innovation and veneration in Peru’s best restaurants

In the last several years Peruvian cuisine has become a starlet of the food scene. A few restaurants in particular are credited with bringing Peruvian cooking to world-wide attention, such as Astrid & Gaston, Malabar, and Central, which is currently considered the best restaurant in Latin America. The food at these experimental restaurants often bears little resemble to the comida criollo discussed in my last post. But what fascinates and attracts me and so many others to these high end Peruvian restaurants are their reflections on and reinventions of traditional, even ancient, ingredients. Perhaps no one does this better than Virgilio Martinez, the chef behind Central.

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High in the Peruvian Andes. About 2600 meters.

Many of the world’s best restaurants currently seem to be interested in storytelling and are weaving narrative into their tasting menus. Take Astrid & Gaston for instance, which creates a different menu each season that tell stories about Peru. Each course is a thoughtful reflection on the predetermined theme, currently “Memories of my Land.”

The story chef Martinez is telling is the no less ambitious than the landscape and geography of Peru. Each course uses ingredients from a particular elevation, often ingredients that no diners, even Peruvian ones, have tried before. The dishes prompt you to consider the environment that produced the ingredients, and also the people who may have once sustained themselves on these foods.

Paita Expedition - Frogfish, Deepwater Algae - minus 25 meters
Paita Expedition – Frogfish, Deepwater Algae – 25 meters below sea level
Orchard of Mala – Cactus Milk, Retama Petals – 290 meters

One of the first dishes at Central, called “Dry Andes,” looked remarkably like rock covered in moss. It also felt like one at first too, before the “moss” melted in my mouth and the “rock,” made from an edible, very well flavored, clay, broke into soft bites. This dish signaled what to expect for the rest of the meal – presentation that looked so naturalistic that the dish could seem alive, which often cleverly disguised the true ingredients, textures, and tastes.

Dry Andes - Chaco Clay, Ocas - 3900 meters
Dry Andes – Chaco Clay, Ocas – 3900 meters

Another great example of this was the “Rock of the Sea,” which looked more other-worldly than something from the ocean. When the light, crunchy exterior was cracked open, it revealed bright orange, gooey clams.

Rock of the Sea - Clam, Sweet Lemon - 6 meters below sea level. With breads and butters from the Dead Amazon course
Rock of the Sea – Clam, Sweet Lemon – 6 meters below sea level. With breads and butters from the Dead Amazon course
The opened Rock of the Sea, revealing the clams
The opened Rock of the Sea, revealing the clams

While some dishes used ingredients entirely foreign to both me and Peruvians, others used rare or ancient variants of staples, highlighting their historical and continued importance to Peruvian cooking. “Diversity of Corn,” featured three different types of maize, which has long been an integral part of daily cooking.

Diversity of Corn - Choclo, Kculli, San Geronimo - 1800 meters
The Ten-Mile Fish – Calamari, Sargassum, Barquillo – 5 meters below sea level
Diversity of Corn – Choclo, Kculli, San Geronimo – 1800 meters
High Jungle - Yacon, Duck - 1250 meters
High Jungle – Yacon, Duck – 1250 meters

One of my favorite parts of the meal was the bread served as part of the “Dead Amazon” course. One of the breads was made with coca leaves, giving the bread a sweet, earthy flavor. Of the many forms I had seen coca during my short time in Peru, including in gummy candies, granola bars, and teas, I had not seen it in bread.

Coca is as Peruvian as llamas and the Incas. It has been used for millennia in traditional religious ceremonies and as a mild anesthetic and stimulant that reduces fatigue and hunger.  The Incas considered the coca plant to be of divine origin, and only the nobility were allowed to possess and chew it. But the plant became more widely used after the fall of the Incas and is a both chewed and brewed as tea throughout the Andes and the rest of Peru.

Cold Cultivation - Scallops, Loche Squash, Tumbo - 10 meteres below sea level
Cold Cultivation – Scallops, Loche Squash, Tumbo – 10 meters below sea level
Valley Between the Andes - Avocado, Tree Tomato, Kiwicha - 2875 meters
Valley Between the Andes – Avocado, Tree Tomato, Kiwicha – 2875 meters
Octopus in the Desert - Octopus, Purple Corn, Airampo - 0 meters
Octopus in the Desert – Octopus, Purple Corn, Airampo – 0 meters

Another dish that perfectly highlighted the culinary history of Peru was “Valley Between the Andes,” a seemingly simple dish of cubed avocado and kiwicha, a seed similar to quinoa. Like coca, quinoa and kiwicha have been an integral part of daily life in the Andes for thousands of years. Until recently, few Peruvians regularly cooked kiwicha or quinoa, in part because of its association with indigenous peoples. Again in this dish, traditional ingredients were used to create a colorful and surprising dish, although here they were left closer to their natural state.

Mountain Beef - Milk, Hear, Kaniwa - 2750 meters
Mountain Beef – Milk, Heart, Kaniwa – 2750 meters

The menu saved the “heartiest” dish until the end – the tender and sweet “Mountain Beef” served with dehydrated beef heart shavings.

A sucker for dessert, I loved the always classic combination of chocolate and fruit of “Arid Forest.” Though chocolate is usually associated with Western deserts, cacao trees originated in the Amazon.  The dessert also incorporated other Peruvian ingredients such as mamey, a unique, fleshy fruit, to further distinguish it from something resembling a mousse chocolat a l’orange.

Arid Forest - Algarrobo, Mamey, Palo Blanco Cacao - 85 meters
Arid Forest – Algarrobo, Mamey, Palo Blanco Cacao – 85 meters

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The meal at Central was amazing for its innovative use of unique and bizarre ingredients, many of which had all but disappeared from Peru’s modern culinary language. But Peruvian chefs do more than really good Peruvian food. The Japanese first immigrated to Peru in the late 19th century and today there are more than 100,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent. Given the size of the Japanese-Peruvian community and the importance of fresh seafood in both culinary traditions, Lima is perhaps the best place in Latin America to get sushi.

The amuse bouche at Maido
The amuse bouche at Maido

Of the many great sushi restaurants in Lima, Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido rises to the top because of its fusion of bold Peruvian ingredients with classic Japanese techniques. This fusion is referred to as comida nikkei in Peru, and Maido is recognized as one of the best Nikkei restaurants. Had I not already overstuffed myself the night before at Central, I would have enjoyed the Nikkei Experience tasting menu.

A Nikkei take on ceviche
A Nikkei take on ceviche

The best ceviche I’ve ever had was actually not a traditional Peruvian restaurant, but at Maido. The unusual additions of sesame seed added nuttiness, and the tempura gave texture beyond what is typically provided by red onions. It was one of my favorite dishes of the trip.

The octopus in the next dish we decided was even better that that served in the octopus course at Central. Crispy yet tender, and a bit sweet. The avocado mousse, topped with crispy quinoa, again perfectly used traditional Peruvian ingredients to add another dimension to what would have been a very Japanese dish.

Octopus and scallops topped with algae and avocado mousse
Octopus and scallops topped with algae, and avocado mousse

The rise of Peru’s best chefs to the top of the food world has not been because of their amazing interpretations of food served at Michelin star restaurants in New York or Paris. Gaston Acurio, Virgilio Martinez, and Mitsuharu Tsumura are some of the most innovative and boldest chefs in the world. They pay homage to Peru’s biodiversity and rich agricultural and social history, providing an edible account of Peru’s remarkable story.

Restaurants mentioned

Central – Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima 15074. +51 1 242 8515

Maido – Calle San Martin 399, Miraflores, Lima 15074, Peru. +51 1 444 2568

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