The hottest restaurant destination in South America, Lima was once a mere launching pad for trips to Machu Picchu or the Amazon. Today this gourmet melting pot is luring the world’s foodies with its mind-boggling array of local seafood, potatoes, corn, grains, chillies and exotic tropical fruits enlivened by its melange of indigenous, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese cultures.
Mistura food festival
The Mistura food festival, which, appropriately, means mixture in Spanish, is held in Lima every September. South America’s largest food festival, it has put Peru on the world food stage. When invited chefs like Rene Redzepi, Ferran Adria and Michel Bras get so excited about what is going on here the word spreads. Mistura takes a broad approach to food, which is why it is so much fun. It is a rich cultural feast with street food, farmers, celebrity chefs, folk dances, restaurants, artisanal products, even a chocolate market and a section dedicated to Pisco, Peru’s famed grape brandy. Best of all, it is a celebration of national pride by a country that has overcome its racial, social and cultural differences…at least when it comes to food.
Gaston Acurio, Peru’s rock star chef
Lima’s restaurant rock star is Gaston Acurio whose passion for cooking led him to Le Cordon Bleu School in Paris where he met his wife-to-be Astrid Gutsche. Opening Astrid y Gaston in 1994, he started experimenting with Peruvian ingredients, a big change for Lima’s fine dining establishments which had always looked to Italy and France for inspiration. With his television show “Culinary Adventure” Acurio brought his Peruvian food explorations to a wider audience. Astrid & Gaston has been on San Pellegrino’s World’s best 50 Restaurants for three consecutive years. He is undoubtedly Peru’s biggest ambassador with a stable of 33 restaurants from Lima, Brazil, Chile, Panama and Mexico to New York, San Francisco, and Madrid each specializing in a different facet of Peru’s many culinary traditions.
At Astrid y Gaston I dined on whimsical dishes showcasing huamantanga potato, cuy or guinea pig with purple corn and lucuma (a rainforest fruit) popsicles with native chocolate.
At one of Acurio’s affordable Tanta bistros I chowed down on a chicharron sanguche, or Peruvian sandwich (tanta means bread in Quechua, the Incan language) with crispy pork belly, salsa criolla (onions and tomatoes) and fried sweet potato.
Peru’s most famous dish, ceviche, is a classic example of culinary fusion served at hundreds of cevicherias all over Lima, several linked to big-time chefs. All manner of local seafood is marinated in Peru’s orange aji amarillo chilli, plus the lime juice, coriander, garlic and onions brought from Europe by the Spanish. (Conquistador Francisco Pizarro is buried in the cathedral in Lima’s UNESCO-heritage-listed historic quarter).
Sample it at El Mercado run by Rafael Osterling, Acurio’s La Mar or Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s La Pescaderia, which specialises in sustainable seafood.
More must-try specialities include tiraditos, another distinctly Peruvian raw fish dish akin to Italian carpaccio and Japanese sashimi, and causas, Peru’s famous potatoes stuffed with anything from chicken and lobster to fried calamari.
You can also savor terrific Peruvian/Japanese Nikkei-fusion food at Mesa 18, run by chef Toshiba who worked with Nobu in the 1970s at Lima’s trailblazing Matsuei restaurant.
The new guard of chefs
While Nobu has gone onto world domination, young Peruvian chefs are also making their mark.
Virgilio Martinez, who ran Acurio’s restaurant in Madrid, has the ultra-hip Restaurant Central, where you can dine on suckling goat with chickpeas, goat cheese, tomato and lemon verbena on his rooftop garden before enjoying dessert from the chocolate cellar. He has also opened Lima, London’s first Peruvian fine-dining restaurant, showcasing Peruvian flavors in a clean, contemporary style.
Rafael Osterling is the first Peruvian chef to win the Gourmand World Cookbook Award. At his 15-table restaurant in a 1940s mansion, I savored an updated lomo saltado, the quintessential Peruvian/Chinese Chiffa-fusion dish where strips of beef are sautéed with rice vinegar, onions, tomatoes and Pisco.
Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s sleek Malabar is another cutting edge destination. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America and in Italy, Schiaffino spent a year in the Amazon immersing himself in the fruits and fish of the jungle. Now he creates dishes like ‘blini and caviar’, with pancakes made from breadfruit, sour cream from chestnut and milk puree, and yellow caviar roe from armored catfish.
Pisco: Peru’s national drink
I also made an exhaustive study of Pisco in bars that ranged from classic, like Bar Cordano across from the Presidential palace to the uber-cool, art-filled Ayahuasca in the bohemian Barranco barrio. Turns out that while Pisco has been distilled from grape musts since the Spanish arrived, Pisco Sour, Peru’s national elixir of grape brandy, syrup, lemon juice, and bitters, was invented by an American in the 1920s. Yet another stunning example of a country forged by culinary fusion.
Classes and Culinary Tours
Capital Culinaria offers terrific culinary and cultural tours of Lima.
The Lima food scene is constantly changing. If you have visited a new hot spot, I’d love to hear what you discovered in the comments section below. Also, if you are keen to work off all your eating indulgences, check out my post on Mountain Lodges of Peru.
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