Before journeying to Peru, I jokingly asked a Spanish-speaking friend to teach me one phrase, and one phrase only, to guide me in my upcoming travels: “ Dame todo su comida,” or “Give me all your food.”
OK, fine, it wasn’t really a joke. Peru — and particularly its capital city, Lima — has garnered many recent international accolades for its gastronomical fare. Travel guide publisher Frommer’s anointed Lima its top food-and-drink destination for 2012. Chef Gastón Acurio’s Astrid & Gastón restaurant in Lima’s Miraflores district has received such acclaim that Acurio now acts as a de facto ambassador for the country’s cuisine, extending his empire across the Americas — including recently opened establishments in San Francisco and New York — for those who can’t travel all the way to Peru just to eat.
Armed with my new Spanish language skills, my husband and I set off for the former Incan stronghold to visit his sister and her husband, a native Peruvian who recently returned to his home country for a government position. Like many visitors to this ancient country, our itinerary included a couple of days in sprawling Lima, where pastel, Spanish-style architecture blends with modern high-rises, sandwiched around several days based in pre-Columbian Cusco, the most common launching point for the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.
It didn’t take long to appreciate Peru’s love affair with its food: Over Peruvian-Japanese sushi in the Lima neighborhood of Surco, my brother-in-law proudly called his country’s food culture “the strongest in South America,” and said that the two things one needs to prepare great food — access to ingredients and creativity — are abundant here.
Peru is home to 85 percent of the world’s microclimates, he explained, providing the basis for its myriad cooking components. In the Amazon jungle area to the north, that means patarashca, freshwater fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over an open fire. Along Peru’s 1,500-mile coast, you’re looking at seafood fished from the ocean that morning. In the central Andes region, expect hearty fare — a mind-bending number of potato preparations (the country grows thousands of types) and thick stews. And in Lima, with a population hovering around 8 million people and a long history as a cultural crossroads, familiar Latin favorites and international imports coalesce in a dynamic restaurant scene.
Which brought us to that Peruvian sushi at Hanzo. Peru was the first Latin American country to accept Japanese immigration in the late 1800s, leading to much of today’s upscale fusion fare. Many maki rolls here not only rely on fresh seafood but also come drenched in creamy yellow and orange aji pepper sauces. Peruvians are proud that their peppers are flavorful, not just burn-your-taste-buds hot, and you can find aji sauce bars at many larger grocery stores.
Indeed, Asian cuisine is robust in Lima, particularly chifa, the Peruvian spin on Chinese food. Lima has its own Chinatown near the city center, with stellar restaurants such as Wa Lok Restaurant Oriental (with a second branch in Miraflores), while Restaurante Royal in the San Isidro neighborhood has been honored by the World Association of Chinese Cuisine, and features an extensive brunch buffet where you’ll find full hogs’ heads and crispy ducks, their skin crackling, hanging from metal ceiling racks.