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South American Cuisines: PERU

In the first of this four part series, Penelope Walsh finds out why Peruvian food is taking the world on

Written by . Published on December 6th 2011.


South American Cuisines: PERU

IN the last ten years, food has become to Peru what football is to Brazil; a source of national pride and global admiration. In cause and effect, Peru’s economic growth is intrinsically linked with its chefs, and their militaristic mission to put Peruvian food on the map.

Now, there is a buzz surrounding Peruvian food, and it is growing globally. In London, it is set to reach fever pitch in Spring 2012, with two Peruvian restaurants opening within weeks of each other. They aim to showcase a (high quality, yet accessible) side to Peruvian food, not seen in London before, and to bring words like anticuchos and ceviche as fluidly into our vocabulary as dauphinoise and dim sum.

Peruvian food is rich and diverse. Since the Spanish conquered the Inca empire in the sixteenth century, cuisines from several continents have simmered together in a natural fusion. This includes the indigenous Quechua cuisine, Spanish, African (from slaves brought to Peru), as well as Japanese and Chinese (from labourers who came in the nineteenth century).

Vir, JVirgilio Martinez

Peru is also rich in ingredients, including many we are familiar with. To prove this point, Virgilio Martinez (chef patron at Central Restaurant in Peru, and the impending London restaurant, Lima) says, “Think of gnocchi pomodoro. The two main ingredients in this dish, potato and tomato, are both from Peru.” “Now,” he adds, ”we are getting our ingredients back.”

There are, in fact, at least 2,000 varieties of potato native to Peru. Studying in culinary institutes abroad, Virgilio remembers learning to make French dishes with just one type of potato. “I came back to Peru, and there were thousands. I thought, come on, as if I’m not going to use these!” he says. Now, one of Virgilio’s signature dishes includes a savoury mille feuille, in which each layer uses a different variety of potato.

Virgilio- Seared Bay Scallops With Confited Aji Limo Chili Pepper And Herbs From The Andes With Naval Avocado Terrine.Virgilio's seared bay scallops with confited aji limo chili pepper and herbs from the Andes with naval avocado terrine

It is precisely this thought process that has instigated the gastronomic movement in Peru. Coinciding with economic growth and a governmental shift towards openness, changes began in the 1990s. As a teenager, Virgilio remembers Peruvian food being unfashionable and even feeling embarrassed when his mother served it to his friends, but he tells me, “now it is the opposite.”

“It started with the realisation that we had something good,” Virgilio argues. Peruvian chefs who had trained abroad, returned to Lima, mostly intent on opening French fine dining restaurants. With a new knowledge of advanced, modern cooking techniques, many saw the potential in combining these with Peru’s native ingredients. A rediscovery and reinvention of Peru’s own rich food heritage began, and a new cooking style was born, called Novo Andino (or New Andean).

Founding fathers of the movement include Bernardo Roca Rey, whose invention of quinotto (Italian risotto using the indigenous Quechua grain quinoa instead of rice) has become legendary, and Gastón Acurio, Peru’s own super-star chef, as prolific as Gordon Ramsay, with Jamie Oliver’s crusading philanthropy rolled into one.

Starting with a French fine dining restaurant, Gastón Acurio began introducing Peruvian dishes to the menu. These soon took over, and before long Acurio was offering only modern Peruvian food, and now owns several Peruvian restaurants around the world. This includes international chain Astrid y Gaston, where Virgilio was head chef in Bogota and Madrid.

Ceviche Founder Martin Morales And Ceviche Head Chef Ale Bello. C. David LakeCeviche founder Martin Morales and head chef Ale Bello, photo by David Lake

The son of a former prime minister, Acurio brings a touch of marketing sheen to this movement, reminding us it is not just about good food. It is about national pride. For Martin Morales (owner of Ceviche restaurant, which opens in Soho in March), the link is clear.

“We have been obsessed about our dishes for as long as I can remember, ” he tells me. “That’s all we ever talked about in Peru and in the last ten years, we have found a greater sense of national pride in our cuisine.” “It has changed a lot,” Virgilio confirms, “before, we dreamed about going to Miami and Europe, now we dream about going to Machu Picchu and the Andes.”

Seabass Ceviche Prepared By Ceviche's Ale BelloSeabass ceviche prepared by Ceviche's Ale Bello

This movement is also about growth and regeneration. We met Virgilio at London’s Cookbook Café, where he held a week long pop-up as part of the embassy sponsored Flavours of Peru festival. Here, Virgilio offered traditional but refined versions of Peru’s most famous dishes.

Talking us through his causa, a cold potato cake made with aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chilli peppers), Virgilio explains the importance of producers to the chefs, and of chefs to the producers. “Causa is about the aji, and the producer of the aji is in the Andes, with no education. If chefs make this dish well, so that it is eaten all over the world, then the producer of aji will lead a better life.

Peruvian food has become known as South America’s finest, with Lima dubbed the Paris of the Americas, and its chefs considered hot commodities throughout the continent. There is also an annual food festival, Mistura, meaning mixture. Here every aspect of Peruvian food and everyone involved is celebrated; top chefs, those Andean farmers growing aji and potatoes, and street food hawkers, whose food attracts queues down the street.

The first wave of this renaissance has made food a national obsession in Peru. Now, Peruvian cuisine is going global, as it attracts the attention of top international chefs. It was skills learnt in Peru that lead Nobu Matsuhisa to place ceviche alongside sushi on his menu, giving him the unique edge that made his name. Mistura festival has attracted visits from Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli) and René Redzepi (of Noma), chefs behind the world’s best restaurants. Both are impressed by Peruvian cuisine, and the creativity of Lima’s restaurants.

Adria is working on a documentary on Peruvian food, and Martin Morales has been the proud recipient of an email from Redzepi stating “For me ceviche is one of the best foods of the world, I utterly love it…When are you opening?”

Peruvian food is taking on the world, and London is next. “It’s going to happen in London soon, that’s why we are here,” Virgilio says. Although born in Peru, Martin has lived in London since the age of eleven. Few are better placed to see the change in how Peruvian food is represented here. “Our food has great tastes and flavours and up until now there hasn’t been a place in London that has captured this,” Martin argues. Martin and Virgilio are set to change this, but as Martin points out, this is only the very beginning.”

 

More Information

EAT MORE

Lima
Chef Virgilio Martinez distils the Peruvian references from his ultra-inventive dishes at Central restaurant in Lima, into more accessible and purely Peruvian cooking at his first London restaurant. Set to open in Shoreditch, in Spring 2012. www.limalondon.com

Ceviche

Opening in Soho in March 2012, Martin Morales will share his passion for Peruvian food at this cevicheria style restaurant and pisco bar. www.cevicheuk.com

 

LEARN MORE

The Art of Peruvian Cuisine by Tony CusterThis hefty tome is the leading English-language guide to modern Peruvian food. Recipe previews are available below. www.artperucuisine.com

Cooking Up Dreams (De Ollas Y Suenos, 2009)

A manifesto for Peruvian gastronomy; the documentary explores all facets of this diverse cuisine, explaining why and how the movement has taken shape. 

Follow @penelopewalsh on Twitter

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