At last year’s World Travel Awards held in Delhi, Peru won the coveted prize of “Best Culinary Destination 2012,” beating off strong competition from contenders like France, Italy, China, Thailand and Japan. Peruvian cuisine is now widely recognized as one of the leading gastronomic countries in South America, and is now advancing rapidly on the international scene. The capital – Lima is the driving force behind the explosion of interest in Peruvian cuisine, and has become benchmark for foodies and gourmets around the world.
To understand why Peru is growing as a culinary destination, you need to understand a little about the rich heterogeneity of its landscapes. Peru’s climate and different geographical zones make it an important agricultural nation. With over 90 different micro climates it has the possibility to produce a staggering number of crops, like 3,000 varieties of potato, 55 varieties of corn and 30 varieties of quinoa (United Nations super crop). Peru also has the second largest fishing industry in the world. Its Pacific coastline which spans some 2,000 km’s (1,240 miles) in length is home to some of the richest sea life on the planet. Driven by the cold Humboldt Current from the south, Peru’s inshore waters are home to a staggering 700 species of fish and some 400 species of shell fish.
As a country made up native Indians and immigrants from Europe, Asian and Africa, Peru’s cuisine was and still is heavily influenced by its culturally eclectic heritage. A classic example of this is the dish of tacu tacu with lomo saltado; a spicy rice and bean mash dating back to African slave roots, served with a Peruvian-Asian beef stir fry.
Although the country’s food has always been notability good, in recent years the promotion of its cuisine on the international scene has been greatly assisted by many of Peru’s young and talented chefs. One of the most prominent figures is Gastón Acurio, Peru’s most famous and best-loved celebrity chefs. Considered by the nation as an ambassador of Peruvian cuisine, Gastón quickly shot to fame after the success of his first restaurant Astrid & Gastón in Lima’s upmarket district of Miraflores. Today the restaurant is listed in the top 50 best restaurants in the world, and is a hot-spot for Lima’s elite and discerning international travelers. Nowadays, his empire stretches not only nationally but also worldwide, including top eateries in Miami, New York, San Francisco, Madrid and recently London.
Peruvian cuisine is described by food journalists with fancy words like “Novoandino” or “Peruvian fusion,” but essentially it’s a cuisine that is varied and unique, utilizing ingredients which are difficult to find in any other part of the world. Some Peruvian chefs have taken it to the next level by combining other international cuisines and incorporating Peruvian flavors to create what is known as Peruvian-fusion cooking. Chifa, a mix of Peruvian and Chinese food is probably the best known, but others like Peruvian-Japanese and Peruvian-Italian are also popular.
Ceviche is probably one of the most renowned Peruvian dishes. Served in restaurants from mid-day until late afternoon, this spicy fish dish is a favorite with most Peruvians, especially those that live on the coast. Made from raw fish marinated and cooked in fresh lime juice, garlic and “spicy rocoto” (or aji) pepper, ceviche is not only incredibly tasty it’s also healthy too. The dish is often served with finely sliced onion, corn on the cob and camote (sweet potato) to balance the spiciness of the dish. Gastón Acurio’s La Mar and Punto Azul are two Lima’s best places to try this dish.
The most notorious Peruvian dish, which is eaten not only in Peru but throughout the Andes, is known as “Cuy.” Better known to outsiders as guinea-pig, this relatively expensive traditional dish is loved by highlanders and frequently requested (more than you might think) by intrigued foreign tourists. Cuy was venerated by the Inca’s and was only eaten during special festivals and celebrations. The dish is traditionally served whole including legs and head (and as Peruvians joke with tail). Perhaps a little strange for the unaccustomed, a more appetizing option eating cuy is as part of a potato causa or entrée. Cusco’s fancy ChiCha restaurant offers a fusion take on the dish, offering peking-cuy as part of the menu.
If you really want to immerse yourself in Peruvian cuisine, you may want to consider incorporating a gastronomic tour of Lima in your Peru travel plans. Take a guided tour of the local markets, barter with the vendors before learning about traditional cooking techniques with local chefs.
If you love incredible food and like to discover new flavors and ingredients, then Peru should definitely be on your radar. Peruvian food is on the up, and if the last few years are anything to go by, the next few years will prove be a huge success for Peruvian cuisine in the international scene.
Photo 1: One Week in Peru by Uncorneredmarket (Flickr)
Photos 2 & 3: Courtesy of Carlos Zevallos at Cusco Restaurants Group