As ever, I'm here for the food. In Lima, that is, the throbbing epicenter of Peruvian cuisine, the new global culinary superstar, the unofficial Next Big Thing. At its helm, chefs of gleaming, international repute, gilded with giddy praise: Gastón Acurio, Rafael Osterling and Virgilio Martínez. Their words and recipes are slurped down by swooning acolytes from glossy monthlies and hastily edited blogs alike. In fact, it’s impossible to escape the ravenous rabble, the honeyed hyperbole, the intoxicating prose about ceviches and tiraditos and 1,000 varieties of potato and Amazonian mega-plants that have no name, let alone a known culinary use. To the cynical observer, it seems as if this cuisine has sprung, perfectly cooked, from the sous vide a mere decade back. Surely no place could deserve this tsunami of praise.
How wrong I was. “Nature has been generous to Peru,” writes Copeland Marks, with some understatement, in The Exotic Kitchens of Peru. Gastón Acurio, culinary trailblazer and true Peruvian hero, is quick to agree. We meet in his Barranco offices, and despite the opening this evening of his immense new restaurant and project, Astrid & Gastón Casa Moreyra (Av. Paz Soldán 290, San Isidro; 51-1/442-2775), he’s remarkably calm. “What makes Peruvian food so interesting?” he asks, rhetorically. “Our biodiversity, our 28 different climates out of the world’s 32, for a start.” He waves his hand. “The coast, the Andes, the Amazon....14,000 years of cooking. Peruvians developed and domesticated almost 60 percent of what the world eats. Potatoes, corn, tomatoes, chiles.” He pauses. “After 500 years, our nation has finally been reconnected with our heritage. And I suppose that our chefs are the messengers to the world.” He smiles. “It’s about the pride and honor that every Peruvian has for his food. Every Peruvian is an ambassador for his country.”
But back, for a moment, to the capital. Lima is not exactly a “pretty city.” It squats under a sullen, nicotine-yellow fog, its arteries clogged and furred with the fumes and fury of a million clapped-out cars. Modern, dust-smudged concrete blocks, some already pockmarked with disdain, are scattered across the vista like architectural afterthoughts. Off-white, utilitarian skyscrapers jostle and skirmish to sully the view.
Sure, Lima’s handsome in parts, with its faded, crumbling colonial baroque. And wrought-iron balconies, now rusted with regret. This was once the all-conquering heart of the Spanish Empire. The palaces, monuments to money, and God, still stand, albeit now isolated islands of an intricately constructed past.
But I hate pretty cities. Too smug, and prim and blandly supercilious. Give me Naples over Vienna, Manila over Singapore. Barely ordered chaos, and unfettered urban sprawl, means spirit and vim and vigor, a society unconcerned with shallow social niceties and the correct way to take tea. Lima’s also a city filled with the incongruous and unexpected. The white-hot, ever-hip cevicherias hidden among the auto-parts and office-equipment stores of Miraflores; the lush, watered greens of the Lima Golf Club and colonial elegance of the Country Club Lima Hotel (Calle Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro; 51-1/611-9000) dotted amid the bus-choked highways of upmarket San Isidro; world-class restaurants lurking behind peeling suburban doors. And Barranco, once a fishing village and summer escape for the city’s rich. Now the home of Hotel B (Av. San Martín 301, Barranco; 51-1/206-0800), a superb boutique hotel, and Mario Testino’s MATE museum (Pedro de Osma 409, Barranco), showcasing the fashion photographer’s immense body of work and also that of local artists.
Testino is also one of his country’s great ambassadors. We’re sitting outside, drinking cold white wine at his beautiful house in Barranco. It’s late evening and just the right side of balmy. He’s tall, lean and laughs a lot. “The food of Peru is about history. Don’t forget the ancient Incan culture. Plus the Spanish influence, both in its culture and in its food.” He takes another sip of wine. “Then came the Africans, Japanese and Chinese. Most ended up in Lima, so their impact on the food and cultures is greatly felt. And Europeans, too, with the Italians leading the way.”
Peruvian cuisine is a generous, open-minded one. It embraces outside influences, revels in their bounty—the new ingredients, the novel techniques. As you’d expect, Spain’s culinary footprint is deep. Empanadas, escabeche, bacalao and chorizo are deep within the national fabric. But there are Peruvian-Italian dishes, too, the likes of tallarín con pollo, in which pasta slips into traditional Peruvian dishes. And “chifa,” or Peruvian/Chinese feasts. Pollo tipakay (chicken with sweet and sour sauce), sopa wantan (a Peruvian wonton soup) and tallarín saltado (again, a Peruvian take on chow mein) are as much a part of real Peruvian food as anticuchos (beef-heart skewers) and ceviche.
Ah, ceviche. Traditionally the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last point for any Lima eater. Spanking-fresh fish, “cooked” in citrus juice. Served with onion, ají pepper, salt and corn. Of course, before the Spaniards invaded, there were no limes. So passion fruit was used instead. I’ve eaten ceviche all over the world, but the Peruvians are right: Lima is the ceviche capital of the world. Here it’s not a dish but an art form and a religion, all in one bowl. Perhaps Peru’s greatest culinary contribution to world gastronomy. Nobody does it better. Nobody.
I thought I’d found ceviche heaven at La Mar (Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores; 51-1/421-3365) for lunch on my first day. It’s one of Gastón Acurio’s restaurants, large, bamboo-roofed and laid-back, sitting among the mechanics and tire shops in Miraflores. (Probably the country’s greatest ambassador, Acurio has introduced typical Peruvian food to 15 cities, from New York to Miami to Bogotá, via 44 restaurants.) Here, with my first taste of real Peruvian ceviche, my taste buds shiver and moan with excitement. Classic leche de tigre (tiger’s milk, named after the cold broth) comes with a fat scallop and plump prawns and chunks of white fish and shards of pert red onion and nuggets of soft corn, all in a flood of lime and ají-spiked broth. It flies into my mouth, tap-dances across my tongue and hurls itself down my throat with a gleeful roar. The freshness, the zing, the sheer edible joy. I wonder how this could ever get any better.
But it does, the next day, at El Mercado (Hipólito Unanue 203, Miraflores; 51-1/221-1322), a few blocks from La Mar. At Rafael Osterling’s place, I devour raw scallops three ways (ceviche-style, in a Bloody Mary dressing and “Chalaquita”- style with creole onion relish), sweeter than a spring dawn; flounder ceviche; and sole tiradito with sea-urchin sauce, dark and lusty. It’s so good I pinch myself to check I’m not still sleeping.
“Ceviche is not eaten all the time, and can be very expensive or very cheap,” says Andres Morales, the uncle of Martin Morales, the restaurateur who, with his much-lauded Ceviche and Andina, brought Peruvian food to London. Martin’s another ambassador. “Lima is like a flower opening up,” he tells me. “I left Lima when it was in a really bad state. Now it’s flourishing.” Andres is the owner of a thriving export company and a very serious eater indeed. He bubbles with energy and passion, grabbing one’s arm with a viselike grip to make a point. There is no better guide.
We’re on our way to Chez Wong (Calle Enrique León García 114, La Victoria; 51-1/470-6217). “Javier Wong got his start about 40 years ago, in a little store in gritty La Victoria, selling shampoo,” Andres says. “But he also used to make incredible ceviches. About 15 years ago he added a couple of tables.” We’re stuck in traffic. Again. It moves more slowly than treacle. And provides the true soundtrack of the city. The shrill, incessant, indignant beep of horns. A constant, never-ending cacophony. Along with the ubiquitous car alarms, electronic crescendos that punctuate one’s every moment, asleep and awake. “Ceviche was eaten no later than lunch in the days of no refrigeration,” Andres says, as he swerves to avoid a car that suddenly pulls out. “It used to be pretty dangerous around here. But it’s getting better.” We pull up to a nondescript door in an area filled with warehouses. It’s like finding Le Bernardin in a Bronx backstreet.
We’re the first, and once past the doorman, we go into little more than a sitting room with a few tables thrown in. The walls are covered with various awards and accolades. There are only two dishes here, ceviche and stir-fry. That’s it. No menus, or price lists, or wine cards. Nothing save Wong, a small, brusque Chinese-Peruvian man, and his chopping board, wok and knife.
The selection might be sparse, but his sole and octopus ceviche is anything but. The fish spends no more than a minute or two in the lime juice. Every ingredient bows down to the sheer magnificence of the fish. It’s a purist ceviche.
“It’s good,” nods Andres, a true ceviche pro. “So plain, so fresh. Maybe the best. Maybe.” He sits back, sighs and thanks God. He’s known Wong for years. They josh and rib each other. A bill here can be massive, even by London standards. Wong adjusts our final check, and I thank the Lord I’m with a local. We escape for $45 a head; cash very well spent.
Just like the money spent on dinner at Maido (Calle San Martin 399, Miraflores; 51-1/446-2512), a Nikkei, or Peruvian influenced by Japanese, spot that has to be one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever visited. Okay, so it was Nobu Matsuhisa, with Nobu, who introduced this thrilling fusion onto the international stage. But it’s at Maido that it reaches its stunning pinnacle. The chef-proprietor is Mitsuharu “Micha” Tsumura, charming in every way. “Lima is a sponge,” he says as I sit down to eat ceviche with dashi and ginger and shoyu. “And instead of rejecting outside influences, it embraces them.” I skip through course after course of obscenely fresh sashimi (sea urchin, fatty tuna and bass), tiraditos (a more subtle form of ceviche, in which the fish, without onion, is sliced rather than hewn into chunks) and much, much more. Each one is breathtakingly exciting, as if I were tasting all these flavors for the first time.
That’s the thing about Lima. It never ceases to surprise and delight. I’d usually run a mile from 25-course tasting menus and dishes that take longer to explain than they do to actually eat. But at Virgilio Martínez’s Central (Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores; 51-1/242-8515), recently voted the best restaurant in S.Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America, I could stay forever. Martínez is young (37), good-looking and laid-back. He grows his own herbs on the roof, filters his own water. Dishes on the 17-course tasting menu have names like Dry Andes (a sweet, rich, edible “clay”), Coastal Proximity (octopus in an intense, chile-spiked broth) and Altiplano and Lakes (lamb with wild mustards and quinoa) and are based around the various altitudes of Peru’s geography. Sounds pretentious, tastes divine. He not only introduces all manner of new flavors (tree tomato, Bahuaja nut, coca leaf) but plays with texture, too. For this particular cynic, it’s like seeing food through new eyes. Astounding.
But eating in the city is not all about the high-end. Andres wants to show me “not the posh La Mar and Central, but real stuff,” he says. “I’ll pick you up at 8 a.m. tomorrow.” Our day’s first meal, as promised, is way off the tourist trail. First, chicharrón de cerdo, pig fried in lard, as fine as you’d expect, huge plates of the stuff at Jacinto’s (Av. Universitaria 1954, Los Olivos; 51-1/531-8204), an old-fashioned breakfast spot near the airport. Then soup, shambar, at Andres’s favorite place in all of Lima, his love, a taste of his Andean youth: “I eat here three times a week.” We pull up to another nondescript door. “This takes me back to the Highlands, where I was born,” he says. We’re a long way from the gringo trail here. “This is El Rincon de Santiago (Av. Metropolitana 791, Comas), owned by my friend Wilson Paredes Aguilar.”
Aguilar appears, smiles, then gets back to stoking the fire necessary for cooking the Andean soup with beans and wheat and pigskin and chiles. It’s soothing and rich and filling, with a whisper of pig and a great shout of warming comfort. “Soup of the gods,” cries Andres, and we’re off again, this time for cuy, or guinea pig, at a small place across town. My belly protests. I carry on regardless.
An hour or so stranded in that traffic before we eventually reach Rinconcito Huaracino (1 Av. Héroes del Cenepa Mz. F Lte. 6, Comas; 51-1/536-6840). “Cuy is expensive, especially when it’s home-reared, as it is here,” Andres says. We drink chicha, a mildly alcoholic fermented corn drink, tart and a little fetid. A car is parked next to our table. Indoors. I’m not entirely sure why. The guinea pig has wonderful, burnished crisp skin. And delicate, soft meat. “Good, eh?” laughs Andres. I nod.
On my final day, I talk Lima with Diego Velasco of Coltur Peru, an expert in high-end tourism. Everyone comes through him. And he’s busier than ever. “It’s all changing, for the better,” he says over leche de tigre and black scallops at El Verídico de Fidel (Calle Colon 246, Miraflores; 51-1/445-9297). “Twenty years ago there were one or two fancy restaurants. Today there are a bunch, and Lima has become a destination in its own right, rather than merely a stop-off to Machu Picchu,” he says.
Adds Testino, “You have to remember the years of terrorist problems we had in the Andes. All these people came down to escape, bringing in the chicha culture. They helped create the birth of a true middle class, which has made the city full of opportunities and growth. Its cultural influences, for me, have been the key to making Lima such a thrilling, interesting city. The magic is in the mix—and the chaos it brings.”
I think back to Gastón Acurio’s parting words: “In the 1990s Lima was not free. Now, though, we are. I once spoke about the future, about a time of true freedom. I was dreaming, but now it’s reality.” Not just one of the finest-tasting realities in the world, but a city to revel in and adore. Lima might not be the most pulchritudinous of cities. But appearances are merely skin-deep. Because when it comes to heart, soul, culture, pleasure and, yup, some of the most drop-dead, balls-out brilliant cooking you’ll find on this earth, Lima has it all. So rub that smog from your eyes and dig in. A mighty city awaits.