Hola from Lima, Peru, the gastronomical capital of South America… if not the world !
I once read that without Peru, the Irish would have no potatoes, the Swiss would have no chocolate, and the Asian continent would be without chilis. That may be true, since Peru is home to so many of the ingredients we value in today’s cooking. But what’s more is that Peru embraces its agriculturally rich and diverse landscape, and its history of cultural mashups-both from being colonized and an influx of immigrants-which has led it to experiment with and celebrate its cuisine with panache. So, gastronomical capital? It’s likely.
Like so many visitors to Peru, Lima was not my destination. Plan a trip to Peru, and everyone will likely tell you to either avoid Lima or to lower your expectations to very, very low. That may be true, but for someone who enjoys food: Lima is the place to be.
We had 36 hours/one full day in Lima, and so I made a reservation at Central Restaurant, currently the fourth-best restaurant in the world (if you buy into ratings like that). Top restaurant or not, it was amazing. The twelve course tasting menu explored the diversity of Peru, with each course focused on an elevation. For example, we started off with “Spiders on a Rock” at -5 meters, which was a bite of sargassum, limpet, and crab. But, as expected at an avant-garde cuisine, it wasn’t always so obvious what we were eating. So much of the ingredients were transformed into creative, delicious dishes. We ate things that we’d never even heard of such as tunta, a freeze dried tuber dating back to Incan times. We ate things that we were familiar with in new ways, like clams and cucumber. My favorite, no surprise, was the “Close Fishing” course at -10 meters made up of octopus, coral, and barquillo.
It was a great experience, but perhaps my favorite part was when we were invited back in to the kitchen. As soon as we entered through the glass door, we were greeted with a resounding “Hola!” from the kitchen staff and were explained some of the highlights of the restaurant, such as the green roof with garden that supplied some of the ingredients we had eaten earlier. Getting to be so close, and be so welcomed, to the work done in the kitchen was a treat.
Despite the incredible meal we were expecting at night at Central, we still ate very well throughout the day. Because, I needed to eat ceviche, the famous Peruvian chopped fish dish. No promise of a 12-course meal was going to put me off of enjoying a relaxing lunch with some seafood. So we headed over to La Mar to indulge in some of the best. And oooh it was good. Traditionally, ceviche is accompanied by sliced sweet potatoes and corn, two foods found in great variety throughout Peru. I ordered the local catch of the day, topped with squid chicharrón (aka fried calamari). The citrus-chili broth, known as leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk), was so good… it really stood out as one of the most flavorful things I’ve eaten. The raw fish is marinated in the leche de tiger for upwards of a half-hour, which denatures the proteins in the fish and turns it an opaque color. Not exactly cooked, but not exactly raw.
Keith, not a huge fan of seafood, ordered causa Limeña, a layered potato salad-type dish. Lots of regions have their own versions of causas. The Lima-based version normally consists of that is layered with tuna, avocado, and tomato with hardboiled egg on top, but this one substituted chicken for tuna. It was beautiful and delicious.
Another dish I tried specific to Lima was the super sweet Suspiro a la Limeña, aka the lady from Lima’s sigh. It’s made from manjar blanco caramel (or, dulce de leche) and topped with sweet meringue and dashes of cinnamon. It was so rich and sweet, I couldn’t even finish the small portion I got.
In other news, I kept hydrated in fashionable form, with both coffees with a beautiful view and pisco sours with a beautiful view. Pisco sours are the national drink of Peru; supposedly originating from Lima; made with pisco (a brandy), lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, and Angosturra bitters. It was quite good, and I made a point to try a few around Lima, including a nice little seaside bungalow bar and Ayahuasca, this gorgeous and awesome converted mansion in Barranco. Our Airbnb host warned us that pisco sours go down smooth but hit you hard… I will neither confirm nor deny this statement. 🙂
In all, I enjoyed the 36 hours I had in Lima. Sure, it isn’t exactly a destination I’d center a trip around, but my (somewhat low) expectations were far exceeded. Lima is crazy, the traffic is terrible, and there may be only a few worthwhile neighborhoods to visit (I guess we only visited Miraflores and Barranco, where we stayed)… but I can’t think of another place where I ate so well within a 24-hour period, and for that reason, Lima wasn’t too bad at all.
PS: If you want to see more of my travel photos beyond food, head over to this site.