Over the past few years, diners on both sides of the Atlantic have developed a taste for Peruvian cuisine. Several popular restaurants have opened in New York City, while Barcelona’s Adrià brothers (masterminds of the legendary El Bulli) have launched Peruvian-Japanese venture Pakta. In London, the Peruvian wave has surged highest with Martin Morales’ Ceviche and Andina restaurants, followed by Lima London, which has been awarded a Michelin star.
Why is Peruvian food conquering the culinary world? The way to find out is to go back to the source. Long before the fashionable restaurants, there was the Peruvian people’s passion for cooking. Blessed with an abundance of different types of potatoes and maize and an eclectic range of fruits, theirs is the original fusion food. Chinese, Japanese, African and Spanish colonial ingredients are blended with pre-Hispanic traditions to create the ultimate melting pot with delicacies like estofado (rich meat stew) and papa a la huancaina (sliced potatoes in a spicy, yellow chilli-cheese sauce).
While there has always been a culinary verve here, Peruvian food experienced a revolution around the turn of the millennium, when a generation of chefs returned from abroad with new skills and ideas. They realised Peruvian cuisine had the potential to rival any in the world. Now famous in Peru and increasingly beyond is Rafael Osterling, whose eponymous restaurant, Rafael (rafaelosterling.pe), is today a Lima institution.
The menu is always changing to reflect the seasons and ensure the best ingredients, while also allowing for new inventions: “We’re constantly refreshing it,” Osterling says. The classics include tiradito apaltado, a dish of raw corvine fish that is a bit like sashimi, served in a citrus and chilli-flavoured sauce called leche de tigre (milk of tiger) with an onion relish and avocado. The pulpito a la grilla – smoky and crunchy on the outside, tender and juicy within – is probably the best octopus I’ve eaten, while the chicharrón con crocante de camote (tender pork belly fried and served in sweet potato cream) is incredible.
Osterling’s first restaurant is compelling by being classy and experimental. His second in Lima (there are two more in Bogotá, Colombia) is relatively informal, with more traditional fare. “I wanted to do something honest and authentic,” Osterling says of El Mercado, which opened in 2010. “This is my homage to real Peruvian food.”
At El Mercado, I’m met by Osterling’s right-hand woman, Claudia Cortez, who offers me a maracuyá pisco sour beverage with Peruvian passion fruit, lime and pisco brandy – as delicious as it is potent. It’s long past lunchtime but the place is full of noise and bustle. “People in these kinds of restaurants share the food,” says Cortez, offering a plate of freshly prepared ceviche, the iconic Peruvian fish salad. “In Peru, it’s very common to share. Even at Rafael, despite being more formal, you see people sharing.”
We’re seated at the bar from which we can see the chefs preparing dishes. Except for two Colombians, they’re all Peruvian – the next generation of the country’s gastro revolution. “You can come from any background or place in Peru and have a good taste for food,” says Cortez. “Since we were children, we ate everything – offal such as tripe, sweetbreads or brains, raw fish, spicy estofado. We’re a very open people, always curious and open-minded.”
Next we share a light, super-fresh paella with prawns, calamari, chorizo and clams, followed by the fish of the day. The dessert of picarones, which are a bit like doughnuts but slender, is simply magnificent; made from pumpkin and sweet potato, they’re topped with chancaca syrup and fig leaf, and served with cinnamon ice cream. These dishes look unfussy, but El Mercado elevates traditional approaches to Peruvian staples by using the best ingredients and cooking them with the passion and diligence of a master painter.
While most visitors flying into Peru arrive in Lima, they inevitably end up in Cusco – which is where I now head. The ancient Inca capital has long drawn tourists who use it as the natural base from which to seek out Machu Picchu. Its dining options were never much to speak of, but over the last decade, that has changed, thanks to restaurateurs like Australian expat Tammy Gordon.
“I came to Cusco 19 years ago,” says Gordon, whose husband is Peruvian. “I was looking for somewhere to live and loved it here, although it was very different then. I opened a bar, which was really the first place serving wine from a stemmed wine glass, and we also had quality snacks. We weren’t trying to be anything we’re not, just honest about what we liked.”
After closing the bar, Gordon opened Cicciolina (cicciolinacuzco.com) more than 10 years ago – a stylish restaurant celebrating Peruvian food. “When we started, there was nowhere like this,” she says. “People from here love us, and keep coming back. And they aren’t pedestrian customers – they encourage us to cook exciting food.”
The food is varied, centred on Peruvian ingredients. I try the quinoa-coated prawns, which are crispy and served with maracuyá sauce, as well as baked wild mushrooms from the Sacred Valley with fleshy Andean cheese. Then there’s a lightly seared, peppery alpaca fillet on a bed of olluco – a Peruvian root vegetable that tastes like a cross between beetroot and parsnip. For dessert, there’s a taster of two mousses: Quillabamba chocolate (smooth and creamy, with a dash of salt), and lacuma (a native fruit with a syrupy flavour).
I also visit Cicciolina’s sister restaurant, Baco, a bistro with dim lighting, black leather sofas and dark-wood tables. Sprigs of coca hang behind the bar, while the interior is dotted with Peruvian urns and smaller ceramics. As for the food, the mixed grill is essential: tender chicken, spicy sausages, beef with mustard sauce, and anticuchos (beef heart, usually found on skewers at stalls).
My main course is a Peruvian delicacy: cuy, or guinea pig. Roasted and served on a layer of potatoes and Andean cheese, it has a tough exterior but is soft inside, falling off the bone. The taste is gamey and pungent; no amount of delicate preparation and thoughtful garnishing can distance it from the flame-grilled cuy in Cusco’s Mercado de San Pedro.
While Lima, Cusco and other cities are growing a stock of world-class restaurants, it all began with ordinary people cooking at home and in the markets.