Peruvian cuisine is the next big thing - but what is it?
When you ask a Peruvian to define their cuisine, it's never a quick answer. It seems to take, on average, quite a few minutes to clarify the matter. They're a passionate nation and give the Italians a run for their money when it comes to time spent talking about, shopping for, or planning the next meal or snack.
I found this out the long way round, by going to Peru and asking. I admit that I arrived in Lima with little more than a vague knowledge of quinoa, ceviche and avocados, plus a few enthusiastic emails and 'must eat' lists from Peruvian and non-Peruvian friends-of-friends.
Fortunately for me the Peruvians know their history, and are only too happy to share their knowledge. Often referred to as the original fusion food, and for good reason, Peruvian dishes are diverse and unexpected. The food is underpinned by Incan origins, which are still evident today, particularly in the use of corn, potatoes (of which more than 4,000 varieties are grown in Peru) and chillies. However it has also has been enriched, adapted and added to by centuries of immigration. The Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese and, most recently, Italian and French have all played a large part in what is known today as Peruvian food. This is seen in dishes such as the Japanese-influenced tiradito, a sashimi-style dish of raw fish 'cooked' in lime juice, or the popularity of chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food).
The diversity continues thanks to a vast natural larder, much of which is grown organically on a small scale. From the seafood-rich Pacific, to the fertile Andes where potatoes, corn and tomatoes grow prolifically, to the Amazon where an array of mysterious jungle fruits and herbs are sourced, inspiration is never far away. So it came as no surprise to learn that the secret of this addictively fresh, varied, mildly spicy cuisine is finally out.
A market stall in Lima.
On my return to the UK I met the contagiously enthusiastic Martin Morales, owner of the newly opened Ceviche, London's first modern Peruvian restaurant. He explained: "We have always been a nation obsessed with our food and we've got an incredible cuisine now, with lots of flavours thanks to the fusion of [our] indigenous background and 500 years of immigration. Now the rest of the world is finding out about it."
There has been a boom of quality restaurants opening in Peru's capital Lima that are gaining international recognition. Ferran Adrià, the godfather of molecular gastronomy, has recognised Peru as undergoing a 'gastronomical revolution'. And, for the first time ever, a Peruvian restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, made it onto the World's 50 Best Restaurant List in 2011.
Impressive though this is, home is still where the heart is for many Peruvians. Lunch is often the main meal of the day and it's enjoyed around the table at home, with the family. Favourite dishes might include aji de gallina, a comforting dish of chicken in a creamy sauce thickened with bread and sometimes ground nuts, or lomo saltado the much-loved chifa dish of stir fried strips of beef with peppers, aji chilli and soy. Soup is another favourite, from light broths to hearty, almost stew-like bowls of seafood or chicken.
Dan Clarke, who runs Real Peru Holidays, has been championing Peruvian food for more than ten years. He said: "The dishes you get in restaurants in Peru are really just dressed-up versions of what you eat at home - most Peruvian home cooks have no problem whipping up a quick ceviche or aji de gallina.
And whether it's a home cooked or restaurant meal, wherever you are, produce is almost always bought and cooked that day, and for that meal. There are markets in every district and even cheap corner restaurants rely on good, fresh ingredients every day. Peruvian fridges are usually just for milk and beer!"
Fancy trying your hand at a Peruvian dish? Take a look at our recipes for aji de gallina, sea bass and salmon ceviche, escabeche of sardines or Peruvian-style chicken and yellow pepper sauce with potatoes.