Peru On A Plate

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Summer 2013/2014


A new wave of Peruvian chefs is educating the world on their delicioulsy diver cuisine, writes Tatyana Leonov.

Although Australia is home to only a handful of Peruvian restaurants, globally they are opening up everywhere from LA to London, and according to Daniel Manrique, president of Peru’s National Chamber of Franchises, they’re all the rage in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama. But the main act is, of course, in Peru, and the new wave of Peruvian chefs are the culinary stars in the limelight.

Interestingly enough, many Peruvian chefs are returning from overseas stints, inspired by the sudden resurgence and interest in their home cuisine. “Peru is a paradise for chefs,” exclaims Brisa Deneumostier of Brisa Culinaria, a local Peruvian chef, who has worked in restaurants from Denmark and Thailand, to New York and the Canary Islands. “We have a huge variety of products we use to create, cook and nourish, and a rich and diverse culinary history.”

The intriguing facet about this trend is that it’s actually quite the opposite to following a trend. “I’m inspired by what I feel in an exact moment,” Brisa explains, “and then, when I go to search for the ingredients, I’m inspired by what I find.”

Virgilio Martinez, a distinguished young restaurateur and chef, agrees. “In Peru we approach food without fashion and trends. It all starts from the soil, the sea, a moment – it’s an emotion.”

Virgilio has been managing the popular Central Restaurante in Lima for three years, and this year Central made British magazine Restaurant’s World’s Best 50 Restaurants list. He opened Senzo, in the new Orient Express Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cuzco, in June 2012, and then Lima in London in July that same year.

“Central is where it all started,” he says, looking over at his new wife, Pía León, with a smile on his face (they married three months ago). Although Virgilio is referring to his successful career, you sense that wasn’t the only thing that started at Central. After some probing, he reveals, “Pía is the head chef at Central. She was here from the very start.” He smiles again.

It’s evident Virgilio is a man of heart, and he applies emotion to every aspect of his life, including his cooking. “Senzo is our main connection to the Andean and Amazonian people,” he explains. “And Lima in London is, of course, a window that allows everyone to see all Peru has to offer in terms of ingredients, customs, tradition and culture.”

Virgilio is keen to keep that window open and perhaps open more to showcase Peru’s food to the world, as is Brisa, and a whole cornucopia of other new-generation Peruvian chefs.

IN THE BEGINNING

The emergence of the restaurant scene in Peru can be traced back to 1994 when Gaston Acurio opened his restaurant, Gastrid y Aston, in Lima’s über chic seaside suburb, Miraf lores. Today, he is just Gaston, the Jamie Oliver of Peru, who, together with his wife Astrid, runs 32 restaurants in 12 cities worldwide. 

Although Virgilio has always had a desire to express (“my mother is a painter and she encouraged me to express myself with arts,” he says) and does so with his imaginative and beautifully presented dishes, his journey to famous Peruvian chef can be partially accredited to Gaston. Virgilio is a former Gaston protégé, and cites learning to love his own country as one of the most important lessons he learnt from the now-celebrity chef.

Gaston put Peru on the global food map, then chefs like Virgilio, Brisa, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, Mitsuharu Tsumura and Diego Muñoz, amongst others, cemented its position. Locals started visiting and talking about the restaurants headed up by chefs rising to global stardom, culinary tours started appearing in travel itineraries and cooking schools began to open – everyone wanted in!

“It’s about time,” laughs Brisa. “Food here is a result of different cultural cooking styles combined with traditional cooking methods using locally foraged ingredients – it’s amazing!”

And the food is deliciously different! Peruvian cuisine is a result of absorbed inf luences from an inf lux of different ethnicities settling in Peru at various times in history. Spain’s rule from 1533 to 1821 left the biggest inf luence, but Africans, Chinese, Japanese, French and Italian, all influenced Peru’s culinary practices. Today’s food is a fabulous fusion – Criollo cuisine (Peru’s Creole cuisine), Chifa (a blend of Peruvian and Chinese), Nikkei (a combination of Peruvian and Japanese) – they all define Peru gastronomy now.

In addition, responsible gastronomy is starting to be addressed with more eagerness. Restaurateurs are making responsible changes in buying and in some cases purchasing directly from producers. Schools have vegetable gardens and university students are studying the importance of sustainable living.

What’s interesting is that Peru’s chefs have been thinking this way for decades, if not centuries, but now thanks to their celebrity-like status, they have the tools to share this knowledge with Peru – and the world.

AMAZONIAN APPETITE

Peru is made up of three distinct geographic regions. The Amazon rainforest represents about 60 to 70 percent of Peruvian territory, the Andean mountains make up approximately 30 percent, and the 2000-kilometre stretch of coast represents the third, much smaller region. Each area is exceptionally rich in both flora and fauna, and the diets of locals have, until now, remained very different from region to region.

Like Brisa and Virgilio, feted chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is not into trends. “I don’t know what’s going on in the international culinary scene. I’m into my own things,” he says.

Pedro spent his childhood on a farm, spear fishing, picking and selling fruits and vegetables at local markets, and looking after the animals. “I learned how to truss a chicken and de-boned meat before anything. My parents gave me a pair of knives when I was 13 because I liked to work in the shop. I did all this without thinking that someday I’d become a chef,” he remembers.

Nine years ago Pedro opened Malabar in the heart of the San Isidro business district in Lima. Passionate about Amazonian food, he introduced Limeños to the new ingredients and cooking techniques from the Amazon – and soon he had quite the cult following. So he took the next step, and opened the fittingly named Amaz, also in Lima, but this time in trendy Miraf lores. “Amaz is the world’s first restaurant serving only Amazonian cuisine on a professional level,” he states proudly. “We plan to introduce this same concept in almost all the other countries that share the Amazon with us.”

Through his work at Malabar, Pedro has gained trust from the Amazonian communities he works with – but it took him almost 10 years to develop these pivotal relationships. “I work with local communities, co-ops and associations. Fair trade and sustainability is a must in the Amazon,” he says. “Once they grow to trust me, we work together to produce high-quality ingredients.”

EDUCATIONAL EATS

Getting the produce from the Amazon to Lima is no easy feat, and planes, cars and boats aren’t ideal for the environment. To this, Pedro simply says, “I believe the environmental damage will be worse if people don’t know about this part of the world. Through food, we share our thoughts and knowledge of the Amazon.” Virgilio agrees: “For seasonal and regional produce at Senzo we travel! Getting from Cuzco to as high as 4000 metres above sea level in the Andes, and then going down to the Amazon at just 500 metres above sea level, takes a few hours by car. But this is something we are compelled to do. We are committed to sharing Peru’s diverse food with everyone.”

Virgilio also strongly advocates sharing knowledge, and for this reason, he, along with his wife and a team of other entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, set up the Mater Initiative, an online resource about Peruvian produce. “As complex as our geography is, simply saying we are a bio diverse country is not enough anymore. This has forced us to research and study the origin of ingredients we use,” he says.

Through Mater, Virgilio and his team educate the public on the where, why and how. “It’s important for us to not only provide information about products, but to also promote the right products. This is dependant on seasonality, what a community is willing to produce and work for, cultural activities and customs,” he explains.

His way of thinking is beautifully rational, and as Peruvian ingredients gain popularity on the global market, thought and assistance needs to be given to the communities producing the goods.

KEEN FOR QUINOA

Quinoa, an ancient Andean grain, is a perfect example. “Sometimes the demand becomes so large there is just not enough being produced. Moreover, communities are not always ready to supply on such a large scale,” Virgilio explains.

To educate the world about quinoa, Peru’s First Lady, Nadine Heredia (along with President Evo Morales of Bolivia), was named as the ambassador for International Year of Quinoa (2013). She will explain the nutritional benefits of the grain, and also highlight the indigenous Andean communities’ contributions, in particular the important role women farmers play in quinoa production.

Virgilio emphasises that it all goes back to where the food comes from. “We have to remember that agriculture is a big and ancient activity, so we need to take care not only of the food – but also of the people that pick, grow and forage it. We should not impose – but propose.” 

 

Virgilio Martinez’s ceviche

Serves 4

500g Corvina (or Mulloway) 50g white onion, chopped
2g garlic, chopped
1g fresh ginger root, chopped 40g celery, chopped

400ml water
Juice of 1.5 kilograms key limes

10g fresh cilantro leaves, chopped 1 limo chili pepper, cleaned, seeded and minced

1 red onion, cleaned and halved lengthwise, very thinly sliced

1. Cut the fish into small cubes and refrigerate.

2. To prepare the ‘Leche de Tigre’ (Tiger’s Milk – the sauce): Briefly process the white onion, garlic, ginger root, celery and water in a blender. Strain through a fine colander and add the cilantro and limo chili pepper to the liquid. Allow to rest a few seconds, and then add the key lime juice.

3. Mix the cubes of fish with the Leche de Tigre and add a few ice cubes. Incorporate the sliced red onion. The ice cubes can be removed once the dish is served.

 4. Serve on a well-chilled platter.