7 January 2013

Exploring Peruvian Cuisine

Interest in Peruvian cuisine has hit fever pitch with a growing number of world-class restaurants taking inspiration from the region’s wonderful flavours. So we’re going back to the basics of Peruvian cuisine – taking a look at the ingredients and dishes that spawned the current craze.

Walk into any Peruvian market and experience an instant orientation into their cuisine and staple ingredients. Whether browsing a market in Lima, Cusco or Trujillo the first thing to catch your eye will be the bountiful mass of potato sacks piled high with potatoes of various sizes, shapes and colours. There are purportedly 3,000 different varieties grown in Peru with distinct flavours and textures to complement specific dishes within Peruvian cuisine. The same can be said for the varieties of corn and chilies; with corn it is the giant, butterbean-sized kernelled Peruvian variety that makes its way onto most plates; with chilies, the spicy, golden aji amarillo (yellow chili).

After a quick survey of the local ingredients, it’s time to sample the dishes at the local dives. The typical, hole-in-the-wall restaurants will only offer a set menu with the day’s entradas (appetizers) and segundos (mains) posted on a board for your selection. Here are a few of the classic choices:

Ceviche

The origins of ceviche are a hotly contested topic that doesn’t need another voice in the debate. All that matters are the flavours, and Peruvian ceviche focuses on simple flavours serving to highlight the freshness of the fish. In Peru, ceviche consists of bite size chunks of white fish, typically corvine or sea bass, which is marinated just before serving in a mixture of lime juice, seasonings and chilies. The marinated fish is topped with thinly sliced red onions and served with boiled sweet potatoes and corn. A cold dish, ceviche is a typical appetizer and is often accompanied with a shot glass full of the spicy and tangy marinade or “leche de tigre” as an aperitif of sorts – a strong concentration of flavour and the perfect way to start a meal. Recipes for the leche de tigre vary greatly and are a chef’s closely guarded secret.

Causa

A mashed potato dish is a near certainty in a diet so predominantly potato based. Here mashed potatoes are used to create a layered potato salad, in a dish allegedly named after the ancient Quechua term for sustenance. Yellow potatoes are mashed with lime juice, oil, chili paste and seasonings. The mash is layered with a variety of fillings that may include avocado, canned tuna, chicken or shrimp. The shape of the dish varies, dependant on the vessel it is prepared in, but is often moulded into a mashed potato log with a filled centre. Served cold, the layered potato salad is topped with wedges of hard-boiled egg, black olives and salsa Huancaína, a creamy sauce made of cheese, chilies and evaporated milk. This rich and satisfying appetizer is the perfect dish for experiencing the flavours and textures of Peruvian potatoes.

Lomo Saltado

The wave of Chinese migrant workers that entered Peru throughout the 19th and 20th century have had a distinct influence on Peruvian cuisine which can be seen in the number of “Chifas”, Peruvian Chinese restaurants, that are present throughout the country. By far the most popular dish at these restaurants, and even making its way into most local restaurants, is Lomo Saltado – a Peruvian take on a traditional Chinese stir-fry. In fact, armed with only the term “Lomo Saltado” you will likely be able to order food at any restaurant in any region of Peru. Strips of beef are marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and spices and are stir-fried with red onions, peppers, parsley and tomatoes. The dish is served over a plate of white rice and a side of, you guessed it, French-fried potato wedges. The double helping of carbs seems excessive, but with all the condensed beef and tomato flavours dripping on the plate you will be glad they were included.

For The Adventurous: Cuy (Guinea Pig)

A staple of Andean cuisine for thousands of years, Cuy to this day remains an important aspect of the Peruvian diet. The animal’s small size and fast reproductive rate make them the ideal livestock to raise in an urban environment. For preparation, the animals are gutted with their fur removed and seasoned before being roasted whole at high temperatures ensuring a crispy skin. The small and bony guinea pig doesn’t offer much in terms of meat but the roasted skin is enjoyable for fans of pork crackling. If you can stomach the face of a bucktoothed roasted guinea pig staring you in the face while you pick at its flesh, it may be worth a try – even if only for the chicha (home fermented corn beer) that typically accompanies the dish.

And to Drink: Pisco Sour

Using a brandy produced exclusively from grapes in the Pisco region of Peru, this national cocktail is a unique one blending a locally produced spirit with, surprisingly, raw egg whites. Pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and raw egg whites are shaken vigorously in an ice-filled cocktail shaker essentially whipping the egg whites to create a frothy head when poured into a glass. The pungent aroma of the grape brandy combined with the lime juice is reminiscent of classic cocktails such as the whiskey sour, but with an added floral and fruity flavour imparted by the Pisco. The complementary element of the frothy almost creaminess of the egg whites adds a complexity and balance to the cocktail that needs to be experienced to truly appreciate.

Words by Alex Chan

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