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.
But most tourists don’t visit Lima for the sushi and dim sum. Despite the growing number of upscale establishments with international roots, Lima is still best known for its cevicherias, humble shops serving multiple varieties of the country’s most famous dish: raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice with slivered red onions and aji chile peppers.
Most restaurants featuring comida criolla, or traditional Peruvian dishes, feature at least one ceviche recipe. At these establishments, you’ll also often find tacu-tacu, patties of rice and beans that are lightly fried to mimic the economical scrapings from the bottom of the cooking pan, a preparation believed to have originated with African slaves in Peru during colonial times.
We tried both at Bar Restaurant Cordano, just off the Spanish building-lined, palm-treed Plaza Mayor and across the street from the magnificent presidential palace. The building itself is more than 100 years old, and the country’s National Institute of Culture considers it a historic monument.
The kitchen’s ceviche de corvina, prepared with white sea bass, was presented with the traditional accoutrements: crunchy roasted corn kernels called cancha, a slice of corn cob and a hunk of sweet potato.
As we slurped down seafood in the old-timey dining room, my sister-in-law caught me attempting to sop up the ceviche’s limey, sinus-clearing sauce, first with my tacu-tacu, then with my fork — both losing endeavors, in case you’re wondering — and handed me a large serving spoon.
“That’s why it’s here,” she said, explaining that Peruvians call the marinade leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, and it’s often served as a standalone shot.
It would be a shame, we were told, to leave Lima without sampling anticuchos, marinated beef hearts served on skewers. The low-key La Panka in the Surquillo district serves an excellent rendition that grabbed top honors in last year’s Mistura, Peru’s national food festival.
The rich, tender kebabs, rubbed with aji and black pepper, come with a selection of creamy, garlic- and pepper-based dipping sauces, and sent us to bed with full bellies in preparation for our early-morning flight to the Andes.
Cobblestoned Cusco offers many contrasts to the megalopolis of Lima. Once the base of the Inca Empire, the colonial city of more than 300,000 is breathtaking, literally: At more than 11,000 feet above sea level, you may find yourself short on oxygen, and mate de coca, a grassy tea made from the leaves of the coca plant, is the one beverage you should be sure to imbibe (many hotels keep some brewing at all times).
Most visitors to Cusco undertake either the four-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu or a day or overnight trip to the spectacular ruins. Those long treks don’t leave much time for fine dining, but for those with some time in the city, Andean delicacies abound; my sister-in-law’s impression was that the restaurant scene had vastly improved in the five years since her first visit.
At Greens Organic, just off Plaza de Armas, we feasted on more local ceviche, which married luscious mango, juicy pink trout fished from the local rivers and gigantic corn kernels three times the size of those found in the United States.
Then, with some hesitation but a resolution to be daring, we ordered grilled alpaca steaks, produced next to a lovely vegetable ratatouille. The meat was a little tough to swallow (I mean that both literally and figuratively, as we observed several live alpaca walking the streets of Cusco during our stay) but well-spiced.
In broken Spanish and using hand gestures, I tried to ask the waitress about the restaurant’s piquant secret. The waitress gazed quizzically for a moment, then disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing with a colorful handful of aji peppers, in the ultimate “show, don’t tell” moment.
Those with foodie inclinations and some free time between visiting Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuamán (impressive Inca stonework overlooking the city), the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (a thought-provoking blend of Spanish-Catholic and Inca heritages, art and architecture) and Qorikancha (the former Inca sun temple ransacked by 16th century Spanish conquistadors) might consider a quick visit to the ChocoMuseo in Plaza Regocijo.
Peru is the world’s 13th largest exporter of cacao and its products, and the museum offers chocolate preparation classes, as well as more traditional cooking courses. There’s cacao tea to sample, a model cacao tree to study and, of course, cacao-based products to purchase. The museum has excellent English-language signs and a café should the hot chocolate cravings become unbearable.
Finally, for a knockout dinner, it’s worth the effort to huff and puff up to the trendy, artsy San Blas neighborhood for dinner at Pacha Papa. Here, you can take the plunge on sampling roasted cuy, or guinea pig (or chicken out, should you have fond memories of a childhood pet). So integral to the Peruvian culture is the guinea pig that The Last Supper painting in the city’s main cathedral depicts Jesus and his apostles feasting on some cuy of their own.
Ordering this delicacy can require planning ahead: Pacha Papa’s menu advises placing your order a day ahead of time, although a waiter notes that five hours is usually sufficient. At the very least, try to catch a glimpse of the rodent, dramatically served whole on an oversized platter, as it whisks past your table in the restaurant’s open-air courtyard.
The menu here impresses even beyond the guinea pig. There are several varieties of the pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, a grape brandy-based concoction made frothy with the addition of egg whites. The restaurant’s papa rellena stuffs a golden-fried cone of mashed potatoes with ground beef, peas, black olives, boiled egg and raisins, and a similar preparation fills a halved avocado with creamy chicken and vegetable salad.
For the less adventurous, there are wood-fired pizzas, and if you’ve left room for dessert, the restaurant’s alfajores — shortbread cookies with decadent dulce de leche pressed between the layers — are a dreamy confection.
On the way out of Pacha Papa, the manager approached, and was disappointed to hear it was our final evening in the city, as he has many other establishments to recommend. Food is central to Peruvian life, and happily, I learned, there was no need for perfect Spanish — nor bossy directives — to coax Peruvians into unveiling the secrets of their culinary heritage.