Where to begin friends, where to begin.
This Gringo just ventured far from the snow-covered tundra that was once known as Boston…sneaking out on one of the last flights from Logan before the historic blizzard they called Nemo buried our great city in white powder.
I touched down in warm and sunny Lima, Peru to explore a city teeming with culinary treasures. In case the news hasn’t reached your desk yet, Lima is in the midst of a major food revival. Over the course of a short series of posts here on the blog, I will catch you up to speed.
The first of these posts presents a food essay on three reasons why the restaurant scene and cooking in this city is so fingerlickin’ good:
Peru pimps 28 of the 32 distinct climate zones that exist in the world. To put that into food terms, this country produces everything from coffee to chocolate to quinoa to sea bass (Chile isn’t the only country in that market). This is the original home of the humble potato, which was spread throughout Europe by the conquering Spaniards. They now grow 3800 types of the round thing, along with 55 varieties of corn, and nearly 20 varieties of commercially available native fruits that you’ve never eaten before. You thought acai was the next cool yuppie antioxidant? Let me tell you, there are five to ten more down here in Peru that haven’t even hit the market yet.
Below you’ll see a small selection of the bountiful spread of produce bestowed upon this country by the Pachamama:
2. CULTURAL DIVERSITY
The major immigrant groups entering Peru over the years have left a footprint on the palates of the people here:
- Japanese farmers voyaged here en masse and brought their love of raw fish and agri-skillz with them.
- The Italian influence really made a mark here as well – most restaurants (even traditional Peruvian ones) will have a small section of their menu devoted to pasta and/or pizza.
- The Spanish brought over European cooking techniques and a zest for excellent seafood dishes.
- The African community gifted us dishes like tacu tacu, an amazing rice and beans concoction.
- Finally the Chinese influence has manifested itself in what Peruvians call “Chifa” – a fascinating mix of South American and Eastern influence that is so popular you’ll find a chifa joint on just about every major road in Lima.
And let’s not forget the array of interesting dishes that were here before any of these groups arrived – roasted guinea pig, alpaca steaks, anticucho (skewered beef heart and potato), and my favorite: ceviche.
But Peru is not great at food because all of these influences exist separately. Peruvians are exceptional behind a stove because they have allowed everything to fuse and meld together into their recipes, their homes, and their identities.
In fact, if you ask a Peruvian what their roots are, they will likely respond “el que no tiene DE INGA tiene de MANDINGA”. This is an old saying where “INGA” refers to Incan or indigenous blood/heritage, and “MANDINGA” refers to West African people sometimes also called “Mandinka” or “Mandingo”. In Peru people use this phrase to say that everyone is mixed.
3. SERVICE AS “METIER”
The French have an excellent word to describe the unique mix of art, science, craft and calling that make a true profession. This word applies perfectly to nearly every individual position within the restaurant business in Lima. The top Lima restaurants (dare I say) may even put some of their French counterparts to shame in the service department…ahem, excusez-moi…monsieur…where is my effing café au lait?
Let me paint a picture for you – the more upscale joints in Lima (of which there are many) will have a small army of servers tending to your dining needs. The service is always attentive but not overbearing, composed but not snobby. A quick glance and eye contact with not just your server – but any food service professional on the floor – will bring them to your table within a few moments. And I’m not just talking about the haute-cuisine joints in town – some of the best service I encountered here was at small local pastry and sandwich spots.
I would also certainly extend the word métier to describe the approach that Peruvian chefs in Lima take to their trade. The food is artfully prepared, obsessively fresh, painstakingly thought-out, and well-executed from a technical perspective. Fun facts:
- Le Cordon Bleu opened their first school in South America in Lima.
- Robert DeNiro discovered Nobu Matsuhisa (of THE Nobu Empire) after eating at his restaurant Matsuei in Lima.
- Some of the diaspora of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli (of Michelin 3-star, #1 restaurant in the world fame) have settled their chef’s knives in the city of Lima.
- One of the most respected figures in modern Peru is Chef Gaston Acurio, a man renowned for heralding the food of his country and celebrating the goods of small farmers and food operators (more on this amazing person later).
If that doesn’t start to get you interested in Peruvian cuisine, read the next post on the best restaurants, food trends, and dishes that I encountered on the trip.