Life in Lima
Life in Lima
& the advent of Peruvian gastronomy
The heavy hitters in global cuisine remain unrefuted. You’ll never oust French technique or Japanese refinement, never perfect classics like the Italians or master street-eats like the Thais. The culinary golden child emerging on the international stage doesn’t seek to do so, with Peruvian cuisine being an entirely fresh experience. After the oil-drenched ‘soups’ served through Bolivia, passing into Peru is a great relief for the stodge-weary South American traveller. Throughout the south of the country you’ll stumble across foodie delights, in the cafes of Cusco or the street vendors of Arequipa, but none quite match up to Lima.
Peru’s coastal capital has gained a reputation amongst travellers as a decidedly missable city. The first place you arrive, or the last place you fly from, it’s considered a stopover city. Without the tourist attractions that keeps thousands travelling to the mountains every year, or the mysteries of the Amazon jungle, it is generally overlooked on a classic Peruvian itinerary. Busy, overcast, unexciting at first glance.
Forget these aspersions as you take a wander through the bright backstreets of Barranco, draped in quirky street art, or party your way through the metropolitan hub of Miraflores. Stop and taste the pisco, taste the coffee, taste the food.
Peruvian cuisine is built on a foundation of cultural diversity. Credit the confluence of cultures, the freshness of the ingredients, and the uniqueness of indigenous techniques. Traditional Incan dishes, like the ubiquitous ‘guinea pig on a stick’ cuy of the Andes, were transformed by Spanish invaders. Introducing ingredients like onions, honey, more diverse meats and spices, indigenous dishes met European refinement. Over the following centuries, Peru became a popular destination for expats. The large Japanese and Chinese communities had a massive influence over local cuisine, of which there is no better example than Peru’s own ode to the raw fish diet- ceviche.
Peruvian food is broken down by region- costa, sierra, o selva.
Costa – Coast
Ceviche is probably the most famous dish in the traditional Peruvian repertoire. With raw fish as the core element, cevichería’s play with spice and citrus to pique your taste buds. Up and down Peru’s extensive coastline you can find this dish on every corner, though the most popular spot in town is El Verídico de Fidel. It is actually rather far out of town, for those of us hanging out in the nice touristy end of Lima, but worth the uber out of town if you’re looking for the best. Crammed with locals and tourists alike, foodies of all kinds hope to sample the Peruvian sea.
The coastal cuisine is not limited to ceviche, mind. Though notoriously difficult to perfect, and often chewy and tough, Peruvian’s have mastered one particular octopus dish. Pulpo a la Parilla is as simple as its name- octopus grilled over an open flame, charred to perfection. Sudado, fish stews with tomatos, onions, chillis, and a sharp citrus twist, are commonplace in coastal eateries, as well as shrimp, clams with plantain, dried guitarfish, and any other number of aromatic treasures de el mar.
Being the hub of life along the Peruvian coast, there is no shortage of costa cuisine in Lima. Pay attention to where the locals eat, and ask local friends for recommendations.
Sierra - Mountain
Mountainous deserts, so far in the sky you make yourself sick with the effort of breathing, don’t exactly strike you as an agricultural treasure. With culinary traditions developed from ancient Incan techniques, centred around preserving the integrity of the base ingredients, indigenous Andeans have learnt how to infuse flavours through varied slow-cooking processes. Leather-faced locals spit clumped coca leaves while raking through fields of the now coveted quinoa, once a staple of the sierra diet, which is now too expensive for the indigenous communities that grow it. Their diet is now more focused on the commodity they have an endless supply of- the potato. There are more than 2,000 varieties of potato grown in the Peruvian Andes, all offering unique tastes, textures, even colours. You can find some in the dish at the forefront of the Andean culinary scene, Pachamanca. A combination of beef, lamb, pork, cuy (guinea pig), potatoes, fava beans and humitas (corn cakes), marinated and cooked in a hole in the ground, covered by earth and corn husks. Corn is another staple of the Andean diet, the primary player in soups like patasca or chohoca.
Amongst the most famous chefs bringing Peruvian food to the forefront of the international gastronomy scene are a number of advocates for highlighting the natural, and often forgotten, ingredients native to Peru. Central Restaurante, in the Barranco district of Lima, is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. Their efforts to redefine Peruvian cuisine is centred on developing these ancient ingredients and techniques for a contemporary audience. Learning from the indigenous communities of the mountains and the jungles, before adapting them to Lima’s metropolitan palate, expresses the old and the new in Peru’s ever-developing culture and diversity.
Selva - Jungle
The Amazon. Enormous and mysterious, the ingredients native to the Peruvian jungle have been largely underutilised. During my stay in Iquitos I saw lists of dishes filled with ingredients I had never heard of, nor imagined. Whether it’s fish plucked fresh from the Amazon river, ants ground into a paste that tastes like lemongrass, or the omnipresent plantain, Amazonian cuisine is guaranteed to surprise. Try traditional concoctions like Juane, a mixture of rice, meat, boiled egg and spices, wrapped and cooked inside a bijao leaf, or fried pork served with plantain or balls of rice.
Much like the native ingredients of the Andes, there has been a recent surge in Peruvian chefs reinventing Amazonian cuisine. Preserving traditions and discovering new flavours, Amazonian chefs are at the forefront of culinary innovation, introducing new ingredients from the depths of the rainforest. Well known amongst them is Pedro Miguel Schiaffano, the ‘jungle chef’, whose reworked Amazonian flavours you can sample in Lima at his restaurant Malabar.
Before I went to Lima, I asked two friends from the city what I should do when I got there. In true Peruvian fashion, they were thrilled to help and immediately offered to write me a comprehensive three day itinerary. This plan, organised down to the hour, included breakfast, coffee/snack, lunch, another coffee/snack, dinner and drinks. Every day. As someone that typically eats maybe 1-2 times a day, this seemed crazy to me. There was no mention of sightseeing, of day trips. Once I arrived in the city, I came to appreciate that this is exactly the way to spend time in Lima. Make some local friends, and let them guide you through their favourite spots to eat, drink, peruse street art and people watch. Follow friends, and follow their stomachs, and you can’t go far wrong in the Peruvian capital.
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