An Epicurean "El Dorado"

Note: This article was originally published in Marathi for Digital Diwali 2016, a wonderful global endeavor documenting culinary traditions and journeys from various countries, edited by Sayali Rajyadhaksha. What follows is an English version of the same. The published article was edited for style and length.

Many thanks to Sayali-tai, and my dear friends Nilesh & Netra - this article would not be possible without your grace and patience! Thank you!!

The “World Travel Awards” are considered the Oscars of the tourism industry, highly competitive and coveted alike. The trophies change hands in various categories every year, but one nation has steadfastly held its bastion as the World’s Leading Culinary Destination, four years in a row, from 2012 to 2015. Can you guess which country it is?

Is it France, the birthplace of an eloquent elegance that permeates its cultural identity – from arts to haute cuisine? Is it Italy, the home of succulent and hearty dishes that provide comfort to a weary traveler? Is it India, the verdant marketplace of a world of spices? Or is it Japan, presenting its delicate and balanced world-view through the Kaiseki cuisine? The answer may surprise you! Although the abovementioned countries were all nominated for the award in the year 2015, the cuisine that has globally won over the hearts of food lovers in recent years, and rightly earned the title of a “Culinary Destination,” belongs to Peru!

Peru! Nestled in the northwest region of the South American continent, Peru is a land steeped in rich traditions of an indigenous culture that has, over the centuries, embraced other cultures and traditions and made them their own – usually with a Peruvian veneer. Peru is often treated as the youngest sibling in comparison to its more prominent neighbors – Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Columbia can certainly lay claim to a more popular, a more visible culture and cuisine that is well-known across the world. But it is Peruvian cuisine that has caught the imagination of culinary explorers!

I was fortunate to be able to visit this land with a group of friends recently. However, our encounter with Peruvian cuisine began in Seattle itself when we visited the consulate of Peru to submit our visa paperwork. That visit gave us a glimpse of the hospitality, warmth and enthusiasm that we were to witness over and over again during our time there. The Consul General, Senor Miguel Angel Velásquez García, conducted the interviews himself, and the experience felt more like a friendly chat than the rigorous interrogation often experienced elsewhere. Senor García remarked that while countries like India or China chose to make their name in IT industry and eventually become the “brainy powerhouses” of the world, Peruvians consciously chose to be the “world’s best pantry” – to celebrate the cuisine and to invite the world to partake it! Although this remark was made partly in jest, in our experience, it was not too far from the truth. Peruvians treasure their food, and display their love and pride for their cuisine through it.

Aji-pepper chutneys
Anticuchos de Corazon (Beef hearts marinated and grilled) served with boiled corn and potatoes

Our journey began in the capital city, Lima - a proverbial hotbed of cultures, cuisines and cosmopolitan lifestyle. Lima is not a city that can be defined at a glance - it reveals itself to an uninitiated visitor gradually, in a multi-layered vista. Walk around the city and one finds colonial architecture sitting comfortably beside an Art Nouveau exemplar that shadows a traditional Pueblo inspired settlement or apartment complex. The city is one and many, a curious mezcla. Nowhere is this amalgamation of cultures more readily visible than in its cuisine! And what better way to experience this cuisine than to indulge in a “food tour”? For over 4 hours, this guided tour provided us with an intimate glimpse into the cuisine of one of the trendiest culinary destinations in the world today!

Picarones - Peruvian doughnuts with fig-honey!
Peruvian cuisine is a healthy mix of the original Inca, European (Spanish/German/Italian), African and Asian (Chinese/Japanese) epicurean traditions that span more than 500 years of history. The evolution of the cuisine closely mirrors the history of this land. The earliest settlers of this land believed in living with harmony with their surroundings, and largely subsisted on locally available ingredients. Their staple food was largely corn, potatoes, legumes, and grains like Amaranth and Quinoa. Peru is home to the ‘purple corn,’ a special type of dark corn that is native to this part of the Andes. Peruvian corn has much larger grains than American corn, and is much tastier. A very popular (and addictive!) snack in Peru made from ‘fava beans’ is “Habas” – made of dehydrated and pressed beans, that has found its way into the airline snack box! This land also produces over 3800 different varieties of potatoes, and in our 4-day camping trip, we consumed over 20 different types alone! The diet of the indigenous people of Peru included these very simple ingredients coupled with fruits like lucuma (similar to Indian chikoo), cherimoya (similar to ramphal), passionfruit, papaya, and pepino, to name a few.

The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors brought to Peru European staples like wheat, rice, garbanzo beans, spices (cardamom, cloves, saffron, black pepper, anise), and different types of meats (beef, pork, chicken). The Spaniards also brought with them slaves from Western Africa, and their unique counter-cuisine that was more earthy, practical and hearty for labor-intensive jobs. The African slaves established cultural and social roots that today, run deep in the Peruvian society. One of the stories around the genesis of their cuisine goes as follows:

The slaves lived in poverty, and as such, did not have access to choice cuts of meats, which traditionally went to their masters, the Spaniards. The slaves could only afford throwaways like organ meat. However, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the resourceful Africans developed an entire suite of dishes based on the utilization of organ meat. The most popular dish in this subfamily of contemporary Peruvian cuisine is “anticuchos” – beef hearts marinated in African spices and then grilled on skewers (much like the sheesh kebabs from Middle East). It is widely sold as street food and is truly a delicious example of how human inventiveness trumps adverse conditions! Anticuchos are typically served with boiled corn and potatoes on the side.

Amongst the non-African immigrants who flocked to Peru in search of a better life, were the Chinese and Japanese laborers who worked on the farming estates owned by wealthy Spaniards. They brought with them the exotic cuisines of the Orient. Mature and rich as these culinary traditions were, they too were not immune to the assimilation process experienced by their predecessors. The confluence of Peruvian and Chinese culinary traditions has given birth to the “Chifa” (“to eat rice” in Mandarin) cuisine. The scarcity of authentic Chinese ingredients in Peru forced the Chinese population into using native Peruvian ingredients to create a cuisine that quickly caught the fancy of aristocratic Limeans in the 19th century. Chifa soon became a national obsession, and today, there are countless chifa stores in every district in and around Lima, where most of the Chinese population is concentrated.

Ceviche - the National Dish of Peru
The Japanese immigrants brought with them, an appreciation of the delicate natural tastes, especially in seafood (sushi/sashimi). The Peruvians had, for more than 2000 years, perfected a technique of preserving fish by curing it with fermented beverage of corn (called chicha). A combination of the two traditions resulted in the current form of the dish, Ceviche, where chunks of raw fish (typically sea bass) are cured in lime juice. The acids in the lime juice break down the proteins in the fish, a process called denaturing. This gives the appearance of the fish being cooked. Additionally, finely chopped aji-peppers are added for taste, and the entire dish is served with raw onions, boiled sweet potatoes and toasted corn. Ceviche is the national dish of Peru and you will rarely find a restaurant, or an eatery that does not serve it.

Peruvians love to indulge their sweet tooth. A traditional Spanish dessert that is commonly found in homes is Arroz con leche (Rice with milk). This is a rice pudding that is very similar to a rice-kheer. Rice is cooked and soaked in milk with raisins, cinnamon/nutmeg. Another common dish that is sold on the streets is a purple jelly made from the purple corn, called Mazzamora Morada. Often, street food vendors will also sell Chicha Morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn maize alongwith the anticuchos. We enjoyed a bit of all the dishes during our “food-tour” in Lima. Perhaps what we enjoyed the best of all, were a Peruvian twist on the traditional Spanish doughnuts – Picarones! Picarones are made from a mix of corn and pumpkin flours, fried in doughnut shapes, and served with a sweet sauce (usually made from molasses). The ones that we tried were served with a fig-honey – a molasses syrup infused with fig flavors.

Tres Leches cake with strawberry syrup.

A secondary aspect of Peruvian street food are the ubiquitous juice shops that are present on street corners in various neighborhoods. These shops are usually a cart that two or more persons push around to get from one place to another. They are stocked with fresh fruit, fruit extracts, and powdered supplements and vitamins. The base for these drinks is usually the extract of aloe vera, a succulent tropical plant that is found locally. A huge pot in the center of the cart contains boiling water and the flesh of aloe vera plant. Upon order from a customer, the juice vendor mixes fresh fruit pulp, vitamin powders or other traditional medicines into this concoction to create sometimes delicious, sometimes medicinal-tasting drinks that are a more than a mouthful for a single person to consume!

Pisco Sour!
Peru is also famous for one more drink – the Pisco. It is a local brandy made from fresh grapes. The Pisco is the national drink of Peru, and is available across class hierarchies from the most expensive boutiques to the cheaper, local supermarkets. Pisco is often consumed as a cocktail known as Pisco Sour, a concoction of Pisco, lime juice, sugar and egg whites. The ingredients are beaten together and served with crushed ice. Our tour guide, Julio, informed us about a humorous saying in Peru with respect to tourists and Pisco sours: “If a tourist has one [Pisco sour], they are happy. If they have two, they start dancing. But if they have three, they start speaking Spanish!” After our encounter with the drink, I can confirm that it was a very happy evening indeed!

A beverage that is very common in the high-altitude areas of the Andes, is the coca tea. This tea is made by steeping the dried leaves of the cocoa plant in boiling water for about five minutes. It is believed that the alkaloids in the cocoa leaves help in alleviating altitude sickness. The leaves can also be chewed (like tobacco leaves) and have a slightly bitter taste like green tea. Those travelers, who may not find these methods to their liking, can consume the cocoa extract through chocolate, candy, or even coca infused liquor. Medicinal properties aside, we had countless cups of tea and innumerable pinches of coca leaves every day, just because they tasted so good!

If the traditional Peruvian cuisine holds its head high with pride on the streets of Lima, contemporary Peruvian cuisine is pushing the boundaries of fine dining in the more upscale venues. Meticulously plated food serves as a beautiful visual delight before turning into a gastronomic one. Peru is home to some of the highest-rated restaurants in the world, specializing in serving fusion cuisine that retains the best of both worlds – the simplicity and taste of local Peruvian ingredients, matched with innovative techniques of cooking and presentation.

We enjoyed our food experience in Peru thoroughly – in Lima as well as in other parts of the country. Even in the remote campsites when we were hiking to Machu Picchu, our tour cook provided us with food that was both locally sourced and supremely delicious! Our meals on the hike consisted of a soup, an appetizer, at least three or four different dishes (including rice and meat), topped off with the coca tea. Special dishes were prepared for the vegetarians in our group, which sometimes turned out to be more delicious than the non-veg dishes (fried eggplant/brinjal was exquisite!) In the somewhat remote lodging in Lake Sandoval, our breakfast fruits were sourced from the neighboring jungle. We were also treated to surprisingly new ways of using known ingredients (Quinoa juice with pineapple – heavenly!) No matter where our travels took us, our collective dining experience was always accompanied by laughter, surprise (our cook slow-baked an exquisite cake on wood-fire for two hours, at our campsite!), and feeling of contentment that left us looking forward to the next meal every day. This experience was an affirmation that one could definitely enjoy food made from a combination of the freshest, best ingredients without the support of fancy techniques involved in haute cuisine. But whether it was simple, hearty, campsite food, or the fine-dining experience in famous restaurants, what was readily evident to us, was the love that Peruvians showed towards making their food, and presenting it to us. Whether it was the highest rated fine-dining experience such as Morena Peruvian Kitchen, a quirky hole-in-the-wall establishment like El Tabuco (great pizza!), or even a new-agey, sustainable farming experience in Cafe Organika, the food was always fresh, delicious, and with a well thought out presentation. We remembered Senor Garcia’s words on more than one occasion.

Overall, it was a pleasant experience to partake food made from a simple handful of fresh, local ingredients that was not only pleasing to the eyes, but also most satiating. We realized that a culinary outing in Peru was not just consumption of food; it became a food-experience by itself! As an icing to the cake, the delectable offerings were ably matched by the warm hospitality of the Peruvian people. It was not surprising then, to say the least, that Peru rightly holds the title of the Culinary Destination of the World. Needless to say, but Peruvian cuisine won us over, course by delicious course!

Peru – we will be back!