After our fulfilling lunch at Isolia in Barranco we walked down the street to catch a coffee at a new cafe that had yet to open. They let us in and we looked at their new machinery. To accommodate our thirst they improvised some custom drip coffee from brazilian beans. I would begin to look forward to our next visit when we'd have to compete with other clients to enjoy the brew.
My first trip outside Lima got cut short. It was 1995; the army and the guerrillas of Shining Path were still fighting in the Andes. I was 16 and far more ignorant than intrepid. I hitched a ride on a cargo truck on its way to the Amazon, with the idea that I’d turn around when the driver kicked me off or my money ran out. The army was stationed at the entry to a town called Pichanaki, where a soldier who looked about my age glanced at my documents, then told me to go back to the city. The guerrillas had attacked just a few days earlier. I did as I was told.
About 20 years later, chef and traveler Virgilio Martínez invited me to visit his office on the second floor of Central, a discreet restaurant just a few steps from the ocean, on a tree-lined street in the Miraflores district of Lima. It’s decidedly exclusive, a place where you should make a reservation at least a month in advance. Yet Martínez’s office looked more like a biologist’s lab or an art installation. It was filled with glass vials. Each one contained a seed, a root, or an herb that Martínez had brought back from his adventures. He showed me photos from his most recent trip into the Andes. There was an image of a frigid lagoon perched at an elevation of more than 13,000 feet, where he’d collected sphere-shaped edible algae. And there was one of him cooking beet soup in the home of some local farmers. His cuisine was a reflection of all the time he’d spent traveling across the country: Since peace was established, it has become infinitely easier to get on a bus or a plane and see Peru.
The country’s geography is like a staircase in the form of a letter A. You begin at the Pacific, ascend to the highest peaks of the Andes, and then descend the other side into the Amazon jungle. The full journey passes through 84 different ecological zones, each one with its own species of plants and animals. The tasting menu at Central reflects that diversity and is organized by altitude. “Bivalves and corals. Lima Ocean. 10 meters.” “Different varieties of corn. Low Andes. 1,800 meters.” “Frozen potato and algae. Extreme altitude. 4,100 meters.” Not so long ago, when the city was locked away and absorbed by the war, this kind of diversity would’ve been impossible to imagine. Today, even though most Limeños now go out to bars and restaurants, many people remain frightened by the thought of traveling outside the city. Yet young chefs like Martínez are helping to break that taboo.
Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino runs Malabar and Ámaz, which both specialize in Amazonian cuisine. Schiaffino is a friend, and a few years ago I accompanied him on one of his monthly trips to the jungle. (Full disclosure: I occasionally consult for Schiaffino on social media strategy.) On that trip, we started out at the Belén market in the river city of Iquitos, where it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Stevedores unloaded rodents the size of small pigs off ships, as well as lizards and monkeys. Local delicacies such as piranha and edible larvae called suri are cooked on grills. Fruit sellers showed off products like caimito, a citrus fruit nicknamed the kissing fruit, because eating it is supposed to be like getting kissed. By afternoon, we’d left the market, and Schiaffino was submerged in a lake, along with a group of local men who were casting for paiche, a prehistoric-looking fish that can weigh over 400 pounds and is often called the king of the Amazon. Everyone was surprised when Schiaffino managed to get his arms around an adolescent paiche and hoist it gently to the surface. He showed us the fish with a quiet sort of pride, as if he and the creature were old friends.
Modern Peruvian cuisine takes elite French and Japanese culinary techniques and applies them to traditional and locally sourced foods. Several chefs add molecular gastronomic touches a la Catalan powerhouses elBulli and El Celler de Can Roca, and dishes often exit the kitchen looking as if a paintbrush and tweezers were as fundamental as the spoon and spatula. While many countries have similar influences, few claim an ecological playing field like Peru.
The country’s fertile ecosystem includes the fish-rich Pacific Ocean, the towering Andes, the high-elevation Lake Titicaca, the coastal desert and an Amazonian region (Loreto) larger than Germany. From the warm coast to the chilly mountains, Peru is a mix of cultures, climates and terrains with different flora and fauna ready to be crafted into a feast of flavors. Epitomizing the immense biodiversity, Peru claims more than 3,000 types of potato, and genetic testing suggests all potatoes might stem from a single species that originated in southern Peru. In addition to homegrown goodness, the Spanish conquistadors brought animals, grains, produce and distilling technology that the natives quickly incorporated into their kitchens. For example, the coastal Moche people marinated fish with local banana passion fruit for over 1,000 years, but Spanish citrus fruits turned the dish into ceviche.
Andean tuber, ancient grain, aromatic herb, Amazonian fish and exotic tropical fruit are all in the game and utilized by chefs to maximize the nation’s natural resources. Central, for example, offers a tasting menu based on ingredients harvested from the region’s entire range of extreme topography—both above and below sea level—that includes edible deep-water algae (80 feet below), frozen Andean clay (12,800 feet above), balls of bacteria (13,800 feet) and an avocado dish (9,435 feet) in which the kitchen dehydrates the skin around the seed and turns it into a cracker.
The Diversity of Peruvian Cooking
If biodiversity is one pillar of Peruvian gastronomy, the other is a cultural melting pot that soaks up influences like a sponge. The traditional cuisine, criolla (Spanish for Creole), is a colonial-era mix of pre-Columbian native and Spanish cuisine with Moorish and African touches, the latter stemming from African slaves working in their masters’ kitchens. In particular, the street food classic anticuchos (grilled beef hearts) likely originated with Afro-Peruvians making use of meat cuts tossed aside by wealthy colonists.
In the 19th century, the Peruvian kitchen expanded further as waves of Japanese and Chinese immigrants arrived to work on railroads, fisheries and farms. Lacking ingredients from their home countries, the Asian population modified their dishes with local ingredients. Today, chifa is the name for Chinese-Peruvian dishes like chaufa (fried rice) and lomo saltado (beef stir-fry), while Nikkei is Japanese-Peruvian fusion with ceviche rolls and sashimi-style tiraditon. The Asian influence led to more twists on traditional Peruvian dishes, and the Japanese immigrants helped improve knife technique overall. Important chefs like Rosita Yimura and Humberto Sato helped popularize Nikkei, which Mitsuharu Tsumura advanced to the highest level at Maido.
“Peru is a multi-cultural country, and you can see it reflected in the gastronomy,” says Franco Kisic, an Adrià family collaborator and Director of Operations at IK Restaurant in Miraflores. “African, Indian, European-this is what makes our gastronomy exciting-the fusion, the biodiversity, the flavors, the land and the culture.”
A FRIEND of mine told me that on the Monday morning after he’d attended my first book-release party back in 2004, a co-worker asked him politely how his weekend had been. I should explain that this had not been a typical New York publishing-industry book-release party, which are less like parties than the sort of thing parties were invented as an antidote to — it was a raucous, bawdy, brawling affair in a south Baltimore dive bar. And by dive bar I do not mean a New York “dive bar,” which is more like a dive-themed bar with sexy barmaids and a video hunting game and $5 Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts — I mean an actual dive bar, with skanky patrons and pop country on the jukebox and cases of Miller High Life takeout at last call, a place where you might, on occasion, get punched in the face for no reason at all.
In attendance were cartoonists, novelists, a NASA engineer and a Homeland Security physicist, a transgender memoirist, the first girl I’d ever had a crush on, (at least) one prostitute, some people I knew from Sunday school and the Evil Ben Walker. Tiny meatballs were served. A female designer of light shows for a famous rock band danced so provocatively with a dominatrix that the local ladies, not to be outdone, tore off their own tops and danced. We played a slapping game, whose object was to slap one another in the face very hard, until we wept with laughter.
My friend, considering how best to answer his co-worker’s question, decided maybe it would be easier just to skip the details. He said: “I was in Baltimore.”
His co-worker’s eyebrows went up. “Oh,” he said, as though in an instant all had been revealed. “Baltimore.”
H. L. Mencken once wrote that Baltimore was known up and down the East Coast for the excellence of its food, the pulchritude of its women and the genteel charm of its domestic life — all of which, sadly, reads like a joke now. Like Sodom and Hiroshima, it is a city best known for its destruction. The Baltimore where I reeled around drunkenly for years, and got hassled by the cops exactly once — for impersonating a deity — was White Baltimore, which, if mapped, would look like a tenuous network of interconnected nodes laid over the terra incognita where the majority of the city’s inhabitants lived their lives. That other Baltimore, hungry and disenfranchised and heavily armed, written off by politicians, pushed around by the cops and called animals on the Internet, was always a block away.
Ever since I left more than a decade ago, I’ve followed my home city’s decline from afar through the bizarre and disturbing news items that emanate from it (a burglar’s hand lopped off with a katana) and the increasingly crazed denial of its official slogans (“The Greatest City in America”). I still get nostalgic watching episodes of “The Wire” when I see real locations that look like sets from a postapocalyptic movie, scenes of off-duty cops vomiting on the sidewalks outside bars at 2 a.m., totally unremarked upon by passers-by, or hear the shrill nasal twang of an authentic Baltimore accent, apparently irreproducible by actors from anywhere else.
Maybe the city I miss is just the city of my youth, or the city of drunkenness. Ernest Hemingway famously described Paris as “a moveable feast”; Baltimore is more like a permanent hangover. Once you have lived there, you will never be entirely sober again.
We drank National Bohemian and Mystery Shots and a bottle of Kiwi/Lemon Mad Dog we providentially found unopened in the snow one New Year’s Day. We got kicked out at last call and headed to ghastly after-hours clubs like Medusa; we waited in line outside the Sportsman’s Lounge, a transsexual bar that opened at 6 a.m., where dancing was forbidden by official signage; we once cajoled a bartender to open early for us, claiming to be “businessmen from Philadelphia” who simply wanted a quick cocktail before catching our flight home. After a few hours, he caught on to us.
Central Restaurant, tucked into a quiet corner of Miraflores’ popular dining neighborhood, has been ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world, in the 2015 World’s 50 Best restaurants competition announced in London yesterday.
Headed by chefs Virgilio Martinez and Pina León, Central remains Latin America’s best restaurant for the second year running. Using local ingredients that many Peruvians have never even heard of, Martinez “has taken Peruvian cuisine to a whole new extreme elevation,” according to the panel of judges.
The Central, which offers two tasting menus, was ranked just above the Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner in London.
Also high up in the ranking is the flagship of Peruvian haute cuisine, Astrid & Gaston, which this year has climbed several notches again and ranks 14th. Founded two decades ago by chef Gaston Acurio and his wife, pastry chef and chocolatier Astrid Gutsche, the restaurant is a flagship of Peruvian haute cuisine and is now headed by chef Diego Muñoz.
The Peruvian newcomer to the annual ranking is Maido, owned by young chef Mitsuharu Tsumura. Maido, which offers Nikkei or Japanese-Peruvian fusion food, has been ranked 44th among the best in the world.
Tsumura, who credits his early interest in cooking to his mother and the family cook, studied cuisine in Rhode Island and then took a tough apprenticeship in one of Japan’s leading restaurants, learning to scrub saucepans before slowly being taught every aspect of Japanese cooking.
He returned to Peru to join the Sheraton Lima, becoming sous chef and then Food & Beverages manager before branching out on his own to open Maido.