[Editor's note: Food is one of the perfect intersections of physical and cultural geography. This article from The Washington Post last month highlights how Peru's location and cultural heritage intertwine to bring us a special cuisine enjoyable when traveling afar or at your local cheap eat.]
Republished from The Washington Post.
LIMA, Peru — It’s usually the sneakers that give Americans away when they travel abroad. But here, it’s what you eat — and when you eat it. Only tourists would think of ordering ceviche after 2 p.m. If the fish, which is “cooked” in a marinade of lime juice, onion and chili peppers, has been out of the water for more than 12 hours, most Peruvians turn up their noses. It simply isn’t fresh enough.
It’s easy for Peruvians to be particular about their seafood. Fed by the icy, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, the waters off the Peruvian coast are the most bountiful fishing grounds in the world. Which is why, seven days a week, starting at 4 a.m., fishermen at the Villa Maria market in Lima hawk Dover sole for ceviche, plus red snapper, tuna, scallops, squid and octopus just hours out of the sea.
Eating ceviche, the South American country’s best-known dish, is a must in Lima. But there’s so much more: tiraditos, a Peruvian take on sashimi; Chinese stir-fries spiked with Peruvian chili peppers; and sushi rolls filled with scallop and Parmesan cheese, a favorite combination in Lima.
“Right now, people want to discover new flavors,” says Peru’s most famous chef, Gaston Acurio, who owns 29 restaurants around the world. If the Japanese could persuade the world to embrace raw fish and seaweed, he reasons, “why can’t we dream of doing the same with Peruvian food?”
Peru’s campaign is well underway. In 2006, Acurio, 41, reportedly wowed the crowd at the prestigious Madrid Fusion culinary conference, which anointed Lima “the gastronomic capital of Latin America.” More recently, chefs such as Todd English and food magazines have declared it the next big thing, praising the diverse ingredients and creative combinations of flavors. (Indeed, Peruvian cuisine might finally be the thing to redeem “fusion,” which has been a dirty word in culinary circles ever since the 1990s brought us sesame-crusted everything.)
Hundreds of years of immigration have created a natural fusion of Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences. A wave of Chinese arrived in the 1850s to help build the railroads, bringing with them ingredients such as soy sauce and wok-cooking techniques. The Japanese came in the early 20th century to work on sugar and cotton plantations, and, according to the indispensable food guide “Eat Smart in Peru” (Ginkgo Press, 2006), they were instrumental in transforming ceviche from home cooking to restaurant fare. Asian influences are especially pronounced in Lima.
On the southern coast, where the Spanish brought African slaves, popular dishes include carapulcra, a stew of pork, dried potatoes and peanuts. In the Andes, the pre-colonial cuisine showcases such meats as alpaca and guinea pig, as well as potatoes, which originated in the area more than 7,000 years ago.
At the heart of all Peruvian cooking are its chili peppers, or ajis (ah-HEES). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ajis from the western slopes of the Andes and the jungle. The three most popular are aji amarillo, a delicate but piquant pepper that is a must in ceviche; aji panca, an earthy dried chili; and aji rocoto, a fiery chili that is commonly stuffed with meat and cheese for a dish called rocoto relleno, or added to spice up soups and sauces.