“With distinct regional variations and many diverse influences, this eclectic, mouth-watering cuisine that’s sweeping the culinary world is best enjoyed in its birthplace.”
The day had been chock full of alpacas. Riding in a minibus, climbing high into the Andes from sprawling Arequipa to the villages of the dramatic Colca Valley, I’d seen alpacas all along the way. Alpacas on the road. Alpacas grazing on the arid mountain vegetation. Alpacas hanging out in the backyard of my little Spanish-style casita, which overlooked the soaring cordillera. And that evening, chatting with César Landeo, the young executive chef of the restaurant at Las Casitas del Colca, a luxury property tucked away in the valley that places top priority on good, fresh, local Peruvian food, I had a nice slice of alpaca on my plate.
Peruvian cuisine is fast becoming the toast of the culinary world. Integrating an eclectic (and tasty) mix of influences brought to this South American country by immigrants from around the world including Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, West Africa and even China, Peruvian restaurants are popping up from New York to Paris. But to get the true taste of Peru, you need to make a visit to the homeland. While Lima-based celebrity chefs like Gastón Acurio and Rafael Osterling have led the way, some of Peru’s best food is found outside the capital, and the country’s cuisine varies along with its widely diverse climate and geography, from the wild rainforests of the Amazon to the high-altitude delicacies of the Andes to the pleasures of the coast.
Chef César was teaching me to cook lomo saltado, a dish normally made with beef sirloin and which occupies a high place in the pantheon of Peruvian cuisine. Essentially a stir fry (which brings in the Chinese influence), the preparation incorporates Creole/Caribbean frying and sautéing techniques, and chef César caps it all off with a shot of pisco, which is – apologies to the Chileans – a most Peruvian liquor. Here in the remote Colca Valley, chefs must use the ingredients they have on hand, and to that end the Casitas are home to an impressive network of gardens and orchards that provide fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables to the kitchen. And with beef not readily available, chef César has added a local touch by using alpaca. Flavoured with pisco, sautéed in onions, red wine, soy sauce and coriander, on a base of quinoa infused with yellow chili – one of the staples of Peruvian cuisine – plus Parmesan cheese and other delicious ingredients, this adds up to a unique, eclectic, mouth-watering dish. The alpaca is local and 80 percent of the herbs and vegetables are grown on the property. “Here in the mountains, you need to plan ahead,” says Chef César. “The gardeners plant according to my menus. So I’m always thinking three months ahead.”
And if the Colca Valley is remote, the Peruvian Amazon is even more so. A few days earlier, I flew to Iquitos, a city of almost half a million inhabitants, built on the banks of the Amazon River, a sprawling place deep in the rainforest that isn’t connected by road to any other major centre. From there, we took the only road in the region to the small town of Nauta and boarded a Delfin river cruise. A spot of sophistication in the humid heart of the jungle, the cruise featured luxurious cabins, a fully stocked bar, air conditioning and – importantly – gourmet cuisine. Our days were spent fishing for piranha, hiking among squirrel monkeys and three-toed sloths, buzzing around in skiffs on caiman-spotting outings and making visits to local villages with no electricity or modern conveniences, where people live in thatch-roofed structures with hammocks for beds.
Again, the cuisine we enjoyed was a reflection of our surroundings – ceviche (another dish in the Peruvian culinary pantheon) comprised of river fish and crustaceans, dishes made with root vegetables like cassava, as well as copious amounts of tropical fruits, from citrus to bananas and plantains. The ship’s executive chef, Isaac Arevalo, who grew up in Iquitos, explains that many of the fresh ingredients come from the villages along the way, and that it just makes sense to cook what you have in your own backyard – especially when your backyard is filled with some of the juiciest, freshest foods you’ll find anywhere. “My main inspiration is everything around here – the flavours, the colours, the textures,” he says. “I mix them all together, create, and add a gourmet twist.”
On one of my final days in the country, I took the quintessential Peruvian excursion to Machu Picchu, which is even more majestic in person than it is in pictures. I spent hours taking in the view from the crop-growing terraces that overlook this great Incan holy city, then spent considerable time walking through its former rooms and ceremonial spaces. Among the ruins was a surprise – the remnants of kitchens, used to feed the Incan ruling class.
That evening, back in Aguas Calientes, the small town at the foot of Machu Picchu, I chatted with Carlos Mayta Zamora, executive chef at the Sumaq Hotel. Although he’s originally from Lima, Zamora noted with a boyish smile that he was inspired by ancient Incan ingredients and techniques when he moved to this mystical place. Driven to explore further, he visited local native communities, gathering information on their cuisine and in the process forming relationships with local farmers. He now creates meals that could be called ‘Machu Picchu fusion,’ using local ingredients that owe much to the Incas, but in many cases integrate Creole touches that he learned back in Lima. “Because we’re here at Machu Picchu, I want my food to incorporate ancient techniques using local ingredients,” he says, talking with his hands. “I want it to complement the history of the citadel.”
Zamora then served a feast: alpaca ham with huancaína sauce, potatoes and Andean cheese in a ball, tacu-tacu, a form of tortilla with tender stewed beef served on a base of local beans and rice, crowned by huacatay, a native herb with some kick, finished off by a sort of mousse made from kiwicha, a staple grain, and squash. It’s all muy rico – the term Peruvians use to describe a meal that’s rich and delicious. In fact, it was a meal so good, you could even say it was historic.
By Tim Johnson