Peru Comes to the Table

A gastronomic awakening transforms the country
Peru Comes to the Table

Elías Alfageme

On the 2016 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, compiled by British magazine Restaurant, there is only one Latin American entry in the top ten: Central, in Lima, in fourth place. It´s certainly a privileged position, and the tip of the iceberg. In all, Peru chalked up three restaurants on the list, proof that the country has become an outstanding gastronomic destination. But there’s more.
 
Every year in September, the Peruvian capital is the site of Mistura, the world´s largest culinary fair, whose latest edition attracted more than 380,000 visitors in just 10 days. For young Peruvians, the culinary arts now offer a desirable career path. And beyond the country itself, gourmet Peruvian restaurants are multiplying in cities like Miami (La Mar, among others), London (Ceviche), Madrid (A&G), Dubai (Toro Toro) and Hong Kong (Chicha).
 
What happened? For over a decade, the country has experienced a wide-reaching cultural, social and economic phenomenon popularly known as “the culinary boom.” It’s Peruvian food’s amazing awakening.
 
For many years, Peru was a country in need of a point of pride. Not that we didn’t attempt to find something to thump our chests about. We tried with soccer and volleyball, but were defeated (Peru has not participated in a World Cup since 1982).
 
Nevertheless, around 2006, a group of notable newcomers arrived on the scene. Young chefs had begun to rediscover and re-envision our cuisine, which unjustly had been undervalued and unappreciated. 
 
Seafood dishes like spicy ceviche, sudado de pescado (a “sweated fish” in a light sauce made with onion, chilis and tomato) or mussels a la chalaca (an amuse bouche with mussels in lemon juice) have been part of the Peruvian diet for decades.
 
Complementing the delights from the shore are the dishes that have come down from the Sierra mountains, like pachamanca (meat and root vegetables covered with hot rocks and cooked with herbs); el cuy chactado (a rodent that is a staple of the Andean diet, fried whole); los anticuchos (pieces of barbecued beef heart marinated in vinegar and red chili, part of our African heritage); as well as cecinas (smoked wild pork) and tacachos (butter and green plantain balls) from our Amazon. The mix of flavors that permeates this entire rich tradition had been hidden in home kitchens, without making the jump to professional stoves. The reasons are significant.
 

TIMES CHANGE…
 
The era of economic ups and downs and elevated crime in Peru (1980-1995) created a situation in which restaurants where not an attractive or secure business proposition, and high cuisine was virtually unknown.
 
“There were attempts to revindicate our cuisine by chefs like Cucho La Rosa or Teresa Ocampo during the 1980s, but no one dared to put the dishes we ate at home on the table in a white-tablecloth restaurant,” explains Palmiro Ocampo, the chef at 1087 Bistro (1087.pe), which serves contemporary Peruvian cuisine in Lima’s exclusive San Isidro district.
“The few fine restaurants that could be found 30 or 40 years ago served international cuisine, not Peruvian food.”
 
Ocampo talks while he prepares his signature take on lomo saltado: tender pieces of beef cooked in a wok with vinegar, cherry tomatoes, white onion slices and yellow chili, served with fried native potatoes, white rice and baby carrots. A classic of Peruvian Creole cooking.
 
Peru’s recent economic opening to the world allowed for the gradual growth of a platform for good Peruvian food. But at first, no one believed that food could become the glue that would bring together a historically and socially divided country.

 

PORK RINDS MADE TO ORDER
 
Franco Kisic, who helms the Peruvian gourmet restaurant IK (ivankisic.pe), belongs to that generation of cooking pioneers, together with his twin brother and chef, Iván Kisic, who tragically died in a river accident when he was traveling in the remote villages of the Andean Ayacucho region in search of new ingredients.
 
At IK, which opened three years ago in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood, the goal above all is to experiment with ingredients that are not massively consumed. Its excellent menu features small plates like grilled scallops in sea salt and flame-cooked native potatoes covered with a salt crust, made with complex techniques in a minimalist wood and concrete environment.
 
“There was a time when everyone who wanted to be a chef had to go abroad because here there was no place to train,” says Kisic. “My brother left first, and I went to Spain and Denmark. Then we returned.”
 
The Peru that welcomed back a whole generation of chefs was changed. It was a country that had become calmer and more modern.
 
The new cuisine also benefited from the contributions of people like Bernardo Roca Rey, who studied the cuisine of ancient Peru and pioneered “New Andean” cooking, an Indigenous and cosmopolitan fusion. That spawned dishes like alpaca meat tartar or quinotto, a risotto made with quinoa rather than rice.
 
Then came famed chef Gastón Acurio, a ubiquitous figure who inaugurated the new millennium with an update on Peruvian cooking born from the country’s incredible biodiversity and its total multiculturalism. Acurio and like-minded chefs, including Rafael Osterling and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, were members of a movement that defended diversity, and also accentuated the importance of taking our cuisine to new levels of sophistication never seen before. That is what Acurio demonstrated with honors at his first restaurant, Astrid & Gastón (named the best restaurant in Latin America by Restaurant Magazine in 2013).
 
Acurio’s work put a spotlight on Peruvian cooking, and went beyond, highlighting and protecting the whole production chain that starts with the labor of farmers and fisherman.
 
In 2003, Acurio founded Aventura Culinaria, a television cooking show that promotes not just the food, but the people he believes to be the true pillars of a powerful gastronomic culture: the everyday cooks who have kept the recipes alive.
 
 

LIVE TO EAT

Perhaps since the palate is incorruptible, the chefs’ discourse struck a chord and fed off the different ethnic and cultural groups that have contributed to our cuisine: the indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the descendants from Africa, and the significant Chinese or Japanese colonies.
 
Toshi (toshinikkei.com), for example, is a restaurant serving nikkei – Peruvian-Japanese - food. The late chef Toshiro Konishi, the restaurant’s founder, mapped out a menu that mixed traditional Japanese food with local ingredients and techniques, creating an exquisite fusion in dishes like maki topped with ceviche. It’s food that’s not Japanese or Peruvian, it’s nikkei
 
With the 2007 creation of the Peruvian Gastronomic Society (Apega), The country got an institutional boost to showcase the kind of popular cooking found at neighborhood eateries and on street carts, in addition to gourmet cuisine. Today Peru has an enviable grastronomic circuit. The idea of looking to Europe as a reference for culinary excellence has been replaced by an ever-expanding local offering.
 
Ámaz (amaz.com.pe) is a restaurant in Lima serving gourmet food from the jungle. The menu includes warm ceviche made with grilled shrimp from the Amazon River, encased in piece of bamboo, with sweet chili, onion and juice from a citrus fruit called cocona and bitter orange. A trip for the tastebuds no less incredible than river snails (churos) that are cooked over low heat for seven or eight hours. Opinions may differ about what the best and worst things are about our country, but everyone comes together at the table when it comes to our food. Peruvian cuisine is absolutely brilliant, and we can’t live without it.