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.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/lima-peru-food-culinary-boom-cooking-restaurants-180956467/#J04PoZIS0f16y33f.99