/ 28 January 2015

The meat and potatoes of Peru’s ‘exotic’ dishes

Before the Spanish arrived with sugar and small domestic animals
Before the Spanish arrived with sugar and small domestic animals

There are roughly 4 000 edible varieties of potatoes, or papa, most of them originating in the Andes, according to the International Potato Centre.

Having a weakness for the tuber – mashed, fried, roasted, stewed – I circled the word “potato” in red ink in my notebook as I began researching Peruvian cuisine.

For five hot years, at least, the world has been engaged in a fixation with South American, in particular Peruvian, food. “Exciting”, “exotic”, “universal” – we see the descriptors used liberally. Terms like “New Andean” and “Alpandina” are slung about. The long-settled immigrant populations inspire chatter about the richly layered Nikkei (Japanese), Chifa (Chinese) and Creole (African) influences on Peruvian food.

Ferran Adrià might have referenced the abundance of Peruvian produce when he famously said: “God has spoken. The future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru,” but mine was a stubbornly pertinacious and singular agenda. Purple, black, pink, red, yellow – and ranging from the size of a date to a fat aubergine, my mission upon touchdown in Lima was mocked, and comically dubbed “Operation Potato” by friends who knew of my travel plans.

“But, the humble spud altered the world’s history,” I countered, quoting historian William H McNeill to own advantage.

Five doors from our hotel in Miraflores, an organic supermarket beckoned with a graceful finger, welcoming me into the bosom of a pristine produce aisle. And as I hoped, there they were: the potatoes of the internet, and of my dreams. Far less than 4 000 varieties, but so many colours and size.

The modern office blocks and hotels we saw in the first hour in the capital city gave no true indication of our precise geography but there, in that produce aisle, it finally dawned on me that I was in chef wonder Gastón Acurio’s culinary playground. The sight was my very first taste of Peru. Packed in bushels next to the potatoes (which I touched cautiously – bumpy, waxy, cool) were stacks of short, large-kernelled maize, or choclo.

Horse-teeth maize, I thought; our South African mielies paling in the size stakes. One basket of purple choclo, so dark it shimmered black. “Scary,” replied someone on my Instagram photo. Not when boiled with pineapples and mixed with sugar, cinnamon and cloves to produce the nation’s favourite icy beverage, chicha morada, I was soon to find out.

Placed on hot stones
Joaquin de la Piedra, a local philanthropist and owner of Saqra restaurant, drove a few blocks to his local market at the juncture where Miraflores sheds its golden threads for somewhat shabby garb. We tried the unusual, though not endemic, yellow maracuya (passion fruit) that you peel first, sinking your teeth into the spherical membrane that holds the juicy seeds. 

It’s sweeter than our granadillas and pacay (ice cream bean) with its long green pods that contain marshmallowy puffs that taste like candy floss. The fruit and vegetable names took on a mystical quality to my ears: camu camu, tambo, lúcuma, aguaje, añu, maca, yuka, oca.

As I ogled the impressive variety of potatoes at the market, De la Piedra said that that each was used in a distinct dish. A woman, deep in conversation, was rapidly peeling and shredding three-centimetre-long fingerling potatoes, her eyes unmoving from her companion.

At his flagship Astrid y Gastón restaurant Acurio serves, during the four-and-a-half hour degustation menu, very small potatoes covered in hay, cooked pachamanca-style – the old Andean way of preparing vegetables and meat by placing them on hot stones and covering them with earth.

Challenges to culinary success
Before the Spanish arrived with sugar and small domestic animals, the Incas ate for fuel and to medicate the body, we were told. Eating was an exercise in moderation and spirituality. Today the coca leaf, banned outside South America (cocaine is synthesised from the leaves), is regarded as an energy-giving food, and is taken as a tea to treat altitude sickness, headaches and body pains.

Peru’s culinary successes are not without problems. The ancient grain quinoa, now consumed worldwide, has become too expensive for many locals. Farmers find it more profitable to sell it than to feed their children, said De la Piedra.

Gastronomy of modern cuisine
“Red – the pepper, yellow the aji [chilli] and green for cilantro [coriander],” De la Piedra said, laying the ingredients together with a sweet potato, a lime and an onion on a board, “these form the basis of modern Peruvian cuisine”. If we added cubes of firm white fish, we’d have a plate of ceviche, the lunchtime marinated fish dish associated most commonly with Peru’s gastronomy.

Ceviche appears on global menus today from Chicago to Cape Town, except the Peruvian version is always served with maize and a slice of sweet potato. The shot of pisco, Peru’s grape brandy, is optional.

In Peru it’s unlikely you will be served the dish after 3pm or 4pm, because no one can guarantee the freshness of the fish then. Procuring fish and seafood is a daily endeavour for the restaurants and hauriques (hole-the-wall-diners).

Accompanied by the Lima Gourmet Company’s food guides, Samantha Lewis and her Lima-born husband Lucas Montes de Oca, I attended a class to learn how to make ceviche and pisco and discovered that they pair excellently. The couple returned to Peru four years ago to contribute to the country’s economic revival. Up until the 1990s, I read, Peru had its share of problems with rebel groups such as the Maoist guerrillas, Shining Path.

The game changer
“Peruvian chefs are competing with other international cuisines head to head,” De Oca said when I asked about the newfound confidence that has enabled Peru’s recent successes.

Acurio, they assert, spearheaded this on the culinary front. Today Acurio posts openly on his Facebook page that accepting all the media praise received will not get Peruvian chefs far. This is not the time to rest, he warns.

“Gastón Acurio has been one of the principal promoters of positioning Peru’s dishes and produce in the global market,” Lewis added. To Sandra Arce and Alonso Medina, who run Peruvian Local Friend, a historical guiding company, Acurio is “King Midas”.

“Yes, he is a great chef and his restaurant is one of the best in Latin America. He has been on television for years and has built a restaurant empire. But he cares. He created an institution for underprivileged young people who could never pay for chef school,” Medina explained. It is said that 80?000 students are enrolled in culinary schools in Peru as a result of the demand and interest in local cuisine.

Acurio and other chefs such as Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, Virgilio Martínez Véliz and Rafael Osterling have constructed the stage, and the world has arrived to explore. The Acurio-driven annual Mistura Food Festival in Lima is a showcase for both high-end restaurants and street food carts.

“Many people who have travelled to Peru have experienced what was [once] a rumour and have confirmed it is true: our food is outstanding. And now we believe it too,” Arce said.

Having journeyed through three regions, chasing my own Peruvian potato dreams, I ate from the pots of grand masters and home cooks and I, too, returned a believer.