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Peru Redefines World Cuisine

Peru Redefines World Cuisine

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 23, 2015

Built on the foundations of a former Incan temple, the centuries-old Cuzco Cathedral in Peru is home to an 18th-century painting of the Last Supper, but unlike the Da Vinci original, Christ and the Apostles are dining on guinea pig. Historical accuracies aside, the painting epitomizes Peruvian pride in local cuisine and the nation’s willingness to mash-up cultures. Centuries later, these characteristics helped turn the country’s gastronomy scene into a new banner of national pride.

The San Pellegrino-sponsored World’s 50 Best Restaurants List epitomizes Peru’s meteoric rise. Despite no entries before 2011, Lima had two Top 20 restaurants in 2014, a tally matched only by San Sebastián, Spain. Likewise, a Latin America list debuted two years ago, and Lima currently claims the top two spots with Central and Astrid y Gastón (numbers one and two, respectively). Only Buenos Aires has more restaurants on the Latin America list (11 to Lima’s eight), but the Peruvian capital has three times as many in the Top 10. The Michelin Guide does not rate restaurants in South America, but last year London-based Lima by Central chef Virgilio Martínez became the first Peruvian restaurant to earn a Michelin star.

The ceviche and pollo a la brasa in the U.S. are mere hints at the style, diversity and originality firing up kitchens in Peru. Just as Mendoza draws crowds for an Argentine wine experience, travelers now flood Lima for the hottest culinary adventure in South America. Peru arguably rivals Scandinavia as the trendiest food destination, and informed travelers can enjoy the full range of Peruvian flavors in Lima.

Global Rise of Peruvian Cuisine

Gastón Acurio, the most important and influential Peruvian chef, founded Astrid y Gastón in 1994. In the decade previous, the country had three different currencies, quadruple-digit inflation and violent rebel groups like Shining Path. Against such a backdrop, the people hardly took to the streets to demand more haute cuisine. Poverty and violence limited the restaurant scene to upper-crust snob fests that only served European fare. Astrid y Gastón itself opened as a French restaurant.

In the 1990s, several seismic shifts turned the tide. For starters, improved economics and security sparked new business and foreign investment. The famed Inca site Machu Picchu, which drew 41,000 foreigners in 1991, increased tourism as visitor numbers swelled to 352,000 in 2000 and 842,000 last year. Most importantly, the aforementioned Acurio disregarded the stigma of native cuisine and took a stylistic turn from Paris to Peru. The staunchly Eurocentric upper class shunned the nation’s so-called peasant food, yet the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef changed minds with Peruvian twists like Peking Guinea Pig and quinoa risotto. Many dishes also defied European table manners by making diners eat with their hands. For the son of a politician, Acurio certainly had a defiant streak.

More chefs followed suit. Hector Solis, a third-generation chef from Chiclayo, brought his northern style to Lima with Fiesta in 1996. Paris- and London-trained Rafael Osterling opened the eponymous Rafael in 2000. Italy-trained Pedro Miguel Schiaffino launched the Amazonian-sourced Malabar in 2004 and ámaZ in 2013. Martínez, an alumnus of Astird y Gastón restaurants in Bogota and Madrid, introduced Central in 2009. Like Acurio, many Peruvian chefs learned elite technique in Europe and then applied it back home, and global praise for New Andean cuisine sparked a space race-style rivalry to innovate and elevate.

Amazonian aguaje Photo: Alvaro Garcia-PromPeru

What Makes Peruvian Food Special

Modern Peruvian cuisine takes elite French and Japanese culinary techniques and applies them to traditional and locally sourced foods. Several chefs add molecular gastronomic touches a la Catalan powerhouses elBulli and El Celler de Can Roca, and dishes often exit the kitchen looking as if a paintbrush and tweezers were as fundamental as the spoon and spatula. While many countries have similar influences, few claim an ecological playing field like Peru.

The country’s fertile ecosystem includes the fish-rich Pacific Ocean, the towering Andes, the high-elevation Lake Titicaca, the coastal desert and an Amazonian region (Loreto) larger than Germany. From the warm coast to the chilly mountains, Peru is a mix of cultures, climates and terrains with different flora and fauna ready to be crafted into a feast of flavors. Epitomizing the immense biodiversity, Peru claims more than 3,000 types of potato, and genetic testing suggests all potatoes might stem from a single species that originated in southern Peru. In addition to homegrown goodness, the Spanish conquistadors brought animals, grains, produce and distilling technology that the natives quickly incorporated into their kitchens. For example, the coastal Moche people marinated fish with local banana passion fruit for over 1,000 years, but Spanish citrus fruits turned the dish into ceviche.

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