Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

© Carol Clemens

Gaston Acurio's Cebicheria La Mar, Lima.

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Peru on a plate

Hot Latin American eating in Lima

Gastón Acurio is the sort of chef who makes the darlings of the Food Channel look like snails on sedatives. At age 40, he has 20 restaurants, 22 cookbooks, a hit TV show and a non-profit cooking school.

The son of a former prime minister, Acurio may be the world’s first gastro-patriot. He’s determined to install Peruvian cuisine as his country’s global ambassador. “I want to take Peruvian all over the world,” says the whirlwind, whose restaurants reach around the Hispanic world from Lima to Mexico City to Madrid. “I want to prove we can sell our cuisine and our culture beyond South America. This is my mission.”

His first American enterprise, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, is a 100-square-metre restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. A second location is slated for Washington, and another for San Diego. The Peruvian Conquest is on.

Ironically, Peru remains a relative unknown on the foodie’s map of the world — even though it gave us the potato, the tomato — the fabled “apple of the Andes” — and the chili pepper, three lynchpins of Western cuisine and three of the most wonderful things ever to cross a human palate.

Drawing on its remarkable resources from a Pacific teeming with fish, from the Amazon wilderness and from the hothouses of the Andes, Peru is undergoing a sweeping foodie awakening. The country boasts 55 of the world’s 60 official agricultural microclimates. This means variety beyond anything else on the planet. Its bounty is simply incomparable, with a storm of new products and regional dishes coming into play. In the capital city of Lima, the excitement is palpable.

Step right up and meet camu-camu, a tart, pink Amazon fruit containing 10 times the vitamin C of an orange. And doncella, a metre-long Amazon catfish as delicate as tuna or swordfish. And yellow potatoes that redefine the frite to a world mired in tasteless frozen product. And alpaca, cousin to the llama, whose firm, sweet flesh is as versatile as lamb or pork.

Peruvians are travelling and coming home with worldly ideas. A new generation of chefs is taking traditional food to international standards. They’re lightening up, plating for the eye and infusing their fare with Pacific Rim flavours. Such Peruvian may be new but it’s not nouvelle — it’s cooking à la full plate. Here are a handful of the best in Lima.


Old-school glamour

A 1650 Spanish manse and national historic site in the upscale San Isidro district, Casa Hacienda Moreyra (290 Avenida Pax Soldan, San Isidro, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-444-4022) is probably the most glamourous restaurant in Lima. The interior rooms hung with portraits of Spanish fops in bloomers (courtesy of Peru’s Institute of National Culture) may seem inadvertently comical, but the courtyard and balconies provide exquisite settings for long evenings over roast suckling pig and very good wines from the industry now emerging in the Peruvian south.

To see this latest Latin revolution going full tilt, look no farther than Gastón Acurio’s hopping, lunch-only fish Cebicheria La Mar (770 La Mar, Miraflores, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-421-3365) in swank Miraflores. Tuna tartar dances in with crispy julienned nori. Causa is an Andean yellow potato dish — the potato zapped with lime juice and chillies — topped with scallops. Black-fleshed clams startle newcomers. Every morsel is fresh, nary a bit overcooked and much of it not cooked at all.

Ceviche (pronounce it “seh-VEECH-ay”), is fish and seafood briefly cured in lime juice and chilies. It’s both another Peruvian original and the national dish. It’s also one of the best ways to eat fish.

With ceviche, there’s a firmness in the mouth. Oceanic flavours swim across the palate. In Peru, it comes spiked with the fire of aji limo, a seductive orange chili pepper, or the milder rocoto. Lima has 2000 cevicherias, some offering up to 60 different varieties of marinated fish. At La Mar, Acurio confines himself to a mere dozen, including Dover sole, yellowtail tuna with Japanese accents, sea bass, sea urchin and octopus. No two look or taste alike.


Fishing for compliments

Kallapaq translates as “know-how.” So a restaurant named El Kallapaq (4844 Avenida Petit Thouars, Miraflores, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-444-4149) is no surprise from chef-owner Luis Cordero, a swashbuckling sort who likes to go to the ocean, spear his own fish and serve it for lunch. The grilled swordfish drizzled with olive oil and garlic tells all. But hand-holding couples still at lunch at 5pm suggest another kind of know-how, a restaurant designed for clandestine lovers.

The weathered fishing boat out front is the icon for Sonia (173 Calle Santa Rosa, Chorrillos, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-467-3738), the sprawling house in which fisherman Freddie Bahamonde and his wife Sonia have been pleasuring customers, including the last four Peruvian presidents, movie stars and gallivanting celebrity chefs, for almost 30 years. The specialty, aside from some marvellous ceviche, is chita a la Sonia, a two-kilogram scrod fried in a flash and garnished with mussels, shrimps and calamari. The fish tastes of the sea, of salt and smoke, its jus a nectar.

“We serve our fish with love and patience,” explains Sonia. “We teach customers how to eat the whole fish and how to finish it. You eat slowly, enjoy every bite, forget fanciness and use your fingers. We encourage diners to eat the heads. And you surprise yourself by eating everything.”


The Land of Nobu

The unlikely entry to the lovely Toshiro (450 Avenida Conquistadores, San Isidro, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-221-7243) is via the Mandalay Casino, which the restaurateur also happens to own, but what happens upstairs is no gamble. Regulars don’t even bother to order. They sit back and let the chef do whatever he chooses.

Toshiro Konishi arrived from Japan 30 years ago with his pal Nobu Matsuhisa to open South America’s first Japanese restaurant. Nobu, of course, has since gone on to become an international celebrity chef known for his Japanese-South American fusion, with 20 restaurants around the globe.

What brought Toshiro here was the astonishing variety of microclimates and foods in the Andes, his personal quest for the gastronomic grail. “In each altitude of this country, you find a completely different world of growing life,” he says, still in amazement.

He was Peru’s first celebrity chef, part of a 120-year-history of Japanese immigration to the land of the Incas, and a founder of tiradito or Nikkei Peruvian, the cuisine evolving from that immigration. Toshiro was fusing before fusion came along.

By his own count, he’s created at least 60 Peruvian Japanese originals: for sashimi of black snapper, he leaves the raw flesh almost untouched, but crisps the skin with a blow torch. He rolls ahi tuna, avocado and cream cheese in nori, crusts the roll in panko and fries it for about two seconds until the crumbs are hot and crisp. His shrimp and eggplant roll roars in a piquant sauce of smoky bonito flakes and chilies.

His masterwork may be scallop with avocado and flying fish roe sauced in maca, a wonder soft and crunchy and sweet and sour all at once. Maca, he explains, is a tuber found at an altitude of 4200 metres up in the Andes. It’s healthy enough, but more famously sold on the Internet as “the Viagra of the Andes. Too much maca and you have to run out of the room,” he laughs.

If you think Toshiro is a mischievous man, you’d be right. He knows about women — his wife is a sculptor whose works adorn the room — and you believe him when he compares his culinary creativity to dressing a beautiful woman. “But,” he says with a twinkle, “a woman is also beautiful naked.”


Blueblood bounty

It’s plain that the Baroque, hacienda-style José Antonio (200 Bernardo Monteagudo, San Isidro, Lima; tel: 011-51-1-264-0188) is the work of a family of matadors. The handprints of Spanish icons Manolete and El Cordobes are fixed into the walls, a bull’s head sits over the fireplace and you wouldn’t be surprised to find its cojones on an alp of purple potatoes.

For 35 years of Sundays, Lima’s blueblood families have gathered here for piqueo criollo, a traditional orgy-on-a-platter of skewered beef heart, deep-fried pork belly, green tamales, fried yucca and deep-fried potatoes stuffed with meat sauce. Cholesterol be damned.

Tourists save their last night for a blowout at Gastón Acurio’s flagship location Astrid y Gastón (175 Calle Cantuaras, Miraflores, Lima; tel: 011-51-242-5387), ranked by many as Lima’s premier restaurant. His is the consummate pan-
Peruvian restaurant, embracing fish and seafood, regional dishes from Amazon to Andes, traditional Limoan cooking, Japanese-influenced tiradito, Chifa or Peruvian Chinese and even Inca cooking.

The itinerant foodie can dine on lobster sauced in aji chilies, goat stewed in sweet basil, pork chop crusted in herbs and garlic and sauced in peanuts and cocoa. He roasts plump scallops for just seconds, caps them with trout caviar that pops in the mouth and sets it atop creamy yellow potato. He brings the Inca fave of roast guinea pig into modern times in a crust of lemongrass, although the rodent remains an acquired taste.

The vegetarian takes a flying leap at smoked potatoes with a sauce of artisanal goat cheese and rocoto, the crimson chili with seeds of black fire. The carnivore feels the same way about three-week-old piglet from the Andes: the skin is cracker-crisp, the flesh juicy and sweet. The accompanying potato stew leaves you worshipping the spud god.

One of 20 desserts is a duo of chocolate truffles and sweetly exotic candied Cape gooseberries. The “Cape” is Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, where the fruit grows particularly well. But the berry didn’t originate there. It comes from — you guessed it — Peru.

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