April 2015- I’ve a troubled relationship with Peruvian cuisine. Unless you eat at top restaurants Maida or Nobu where the menu is mouthwatering but at prices eye-watering, it’s kinda … overrated? I ate it. I learned how to cook it. Desperately tried but just could not fall in love with it. (Yes, I’ve dined at Nobu twice.) I get what the fuss is all about but it doesn’t hit the right spot as Italian or Thai.
Lima is a foodie destination, can’t argue with that. Ingredients are absolutely fresh and unique – how could they not be? Peru is the laboratory of the Gods with 27 (count ’em!) climate zones busting with flora and fauna, some of them still to be discovered. There’s incredible bio-diversity in everything from fiery and fragant aji (chiles), over 2,000 natural varieties of potatoes (some are pink striped!), superfoods (quinoa, anyone?) and fish from both a rich coastal current – the Humboldt – as well as the Amazon system.
If you visit Tokyo for the sushi, it’s a given that you gotta visit Lima for the ceviche and tiradito.
You can eat Peru’s history at a single meal. When Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed in the 1500s, the native Peruvian diet comprised corn, innumerable tubers ( potatoes, yucca and olluco), quinoa, squash, chili and peppers, beans and avocados.
The Spaniards brought meats (chicken, pork and lamb) wheat, barley, milk and cheeses and Moorish ingredients such as cumin, citrus fruits and olives. The Amerindian culture later absorbed African slave populations and later Japanese, Chinese , Filipino immigrants in the 19th century and the cuisine gained ginger, soy sauce, noodles, sashimi and strifry cooking methods. And has added a dash of German ingenuity and Italian flair.
The chefs in Lima are truly admirable, creating desperately needed employment and creating well-deserved buzz for the country. The most exciting and innovative promote nouveau Andean cuisine (cucina novo Andina) using little known berries, snails, flowers of the region. Restaurant Central’s clever “menu de alturas” offers a tasting menu based on elevation of the source of ingredients.
LOCAL FOOD SAFARI
Top Lima restaurants are expensive and bookings hard to come by. But there’s a vibrant food scene for you to discover outside of gourmet Michelin starred eateries. Eating like a local at a fraction the price, you’ll still get to gorge on ceviche, tiraditos, criollo cuisine and Chinese stir fries at informal dives like huariques, chifas and market stalls. (Note that these places serve ceviche only served for brunch or lunch to maintain freshness.) Best of all, you get close up and personal with lovely Limeños and their fascinating neighborhoods.
A quickie foodie-pedia of the various cuisines before you dive in. Cuisines are defined by ehtnicity and by region
Nikkei – the hottest of the cuisines worldwide was born when Japanese miners arriving in the 1880s began using local chiles, limes and most importantly seafood that were considered dogfood, tourguide Jose said lobsters and scallops were even dumped. Originally, ceviche marinaded for hours even days – Japanese cooks allow only a few minutes in leche de tigre (tiger’s milk— a lime, garlic, chili, and seafood stock dressing) ) just before serving. Japanese perfectionism + Peruvian ingredients = elegant sophistication with kickbutt flavor. Displayed artfully on a plate.
Peruvian traditional – Spanish influenced, includes causa (mashed potato stuffed with variety of tuna crabmeat or chicken, sometimes layered with boiled eggs and/or avocado, tomato); ají de gallina (chicken stewed in herbs and thickened with bread) and tamales (masa stuffed with meat); Rocoto Relleno (fiery red chilis stuffed with seasoned minced beef or pork, onions, eggs, olives and baked covered with cheese); Papa a la Huancaína (boiled potatoes in a creamy yellow Huancaina sauce of sweet red and orange hot peppers, cheese, milk and aji amarrillo – a spicy yellow chili).
Criollo – My least fave of the cuisines as African-influenced dishes tend to be heavy, with a nose-to-tail food palate. This includes anticuchos ( charcoal grilled marinaded cow hearts) ; tacutacu (seafood atop a twice-cooked peanut torta) and caucau (tripe and potato stew)
Chifa– Chinese Creole-Peruvian fusion birthed the most popular local dish, lomo saltado, a stirfried steak frites seasoned with cumin and soy sauce, and cooked at high heat in a wok with onion, tomato and chiles. Fragrant and addictive arroz chaufa, is a dark fried rice spiked with soy sauce and spices, studded with egg, chicken or pork and spring onions. There’s also the usual noodles and wontons but they’re similar, and of a rougher quality that what you’d get in Chinatowns around the world
Coastal Cuisine – is more than just Nikkei, and includes a variety of fish soups and stews with Spanish ingredients and cooking techniques. Escabeche de pescado is fish sautéed with onions, hot peppers and cumin. Chupe de camarones is a rich soup of crayfish, milk, potatoes, aji amarillo and eggs with a side of corn and caramelized onions.
Mountain Cuisine, aka Cocina Novoandina – now the hottest of the cuisines focuses on molecular spins and innovative uses of rare and newly popular ingredients from the Andean mountain range in the northeast of Peru. Its humble roots -pardon the pun- were based on potatoes, corn and small portions of meat (mainly chicken and cuy chactado, guinea pig) and techniques included frying, grilling or pachamanca, a slow-cooking method of burying seasoned meat, herbs and vegetables on a bed of hot stones. River trout is a common local fish, served grilled or raw. Other traditional dishes: Olluquito con charqui (Olluco is a crunchy potato-like tuber; Charqui is sheep or llama jerky).
“Jungle” Cuisine – This is the most unique and localized of Peru’s cuisines and mostly using bananas, plantains and yam-like manioc (locally called yuca, not to be confused with yucca). Chicken is common, supplemented occasionally wild deer or pig. Masato (cassava beer) is a local specialty. The Amazonian basin is fertile ground for chefs discovering and reinventing tribal dishes – the paiche, a large Amazonian river fish is making a comeback after almost being fished to extinction for its sweet and firm white flesh.
Cebichería Bam Bam
Jr. Huáscar & Pj. Santa Rita, Surquillo (Right behind Surquillo Mercado Uno)
price 15-18 soles per dish
Bam Bam in 2015 was voted by locals as one of the top cebicherias. Dining here has the added plus of sightseeing – you can browse the nearby Surquillo Mercado Numero Uno market for exotic fruits and vegetables, plus try out a variety of home-style Peruvian dishes.
The best thing at this eatery is the open kitchen starring chef-owner Elí López Tuya. Keep your eyes peeled and dining becomes a free lesson on how to make the dishes!
His traditional approach involves multi-step cooking the seafood with local lime juice, timing it to the split second, stirring, waiting a bit more, salting (I hope the second batch of white crystals he added wasn’t MSG), adding leche le tigre (the citrus-based ceviche marinade) to slow the cooking, adding more juice and handfuls of finely minced onions and herbs.
I love the story of the chef’s humble beginnings. Starting out with a street cart, this nephew of street food local legend Juana Tuya Zúñiga went on win the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy’s competition for the best market ceviche. They still go by the tagline given by one of the judges – “ceviche with feeling.”
You can’t miss the place, with its blue walls and life-size poster of chef Eli posing with super chef Gaston Acurio out front. The open cafeteria-style restaurant is charming with a wide street-front doorway, and there’s a crowd by 1 pm, so try to go early. Service as well as the crowd are friendly and the famous chef even good-naturedly posed to mimic the poster overhead. My taxi driver Francisco, wife Maurya and their 4 year-old son joined me to dig in. My mains were delicious and fresh.
My Ceviche con conchas negras (blood clam with its black leche le tigre) was tender and mild. But the slippery texture of the plump, meaty clams might be a bit much for those who’ve never tried it before. I grew up on similar clams in Malaysia but this is the first I’d seen them outside of Southeast Asia.
In comparison, the cooking juices in my Ceviche Mixto (mixed seafood ceviche of seabass and octopus) were a touch too strong on the lime. My companions gorged on deep fried calamari and ceviche mariscos. Both were delicious, especially the crunchy-salty deep fried seafood.
Other items to try include the refreshing purple corn drink, chica morada – I must have polished off four glasses. But the root veg and deep-fried corn sides weren’t to my taste, seemed bland and were unnecessary carbs.
Tip: Don’t over-order! The portions were so large it was impossible to finish. And after the pig out, you can check out the neighboring Mercado Numero Uno. You can view the ingredients in all their freshness and if you’ve any room in your tummy, try foodstalls serving cheap Criollo food.
Surquillo Mercado Numero Dos
Jr. Leonardo Barbieri 760, Surquillo
There are several popular cebicherias within Mercado Dos, with lusciously fresh ceviche made the traditional way. I’m listing this particular one only because the owner, Rosita, has sold the best seafood in this mercado for decades, right next door.and…I think I’m in love with her gorgeous smile.
The cebicheria benefits from her in-depth knowledge and fresh produce. While the food and surroundings are humble, it’s honest and cheap. It’s also entertaining to watch the expressive, joyous and generous Rosita in chatting and distributing advice to her clients as you dig in.
San Ambrosio Jr. 401, Barranco.
Tel – 247-5232 | Open Daily, 10 am to 6 pm.
La Onceava is a hidden gem with great flavor and value for money, located at the border of the Surco and Barranco District. Serves ceviche, tiradito and causa.
Evidence of its popularity adorns its walls in the form of numerous articles and awards. Owner Consuelo Flores has been a fixture in the area, rising from humble beginnings peddling ceviche from a cart 20 years ago.
The pleasant outdoor and indoor restaurant, with a small outdoor bar, is decorated to give a relaxed and cheerful beachy feel, completely at odds with the pedestrian neighborhood. The menu is extensive, covering criollo and seafood.
Causa, and a wide variety of tiradito, ceviche and baked rice dishes are popular, reasonably priced and generously portioned. All the dishes we samples were packed with flavor, presented tastefully, in huge abalone and scallop shells.
The towering golden Causa was absolutely gorgeous – fluffy potato layers bursting with a luscious filling of smooth, meaty crab filling, avocado and vine ripe tomatoes. Topped with oozing, thick and tangy aji amarillo sauce thickened with mayo. Yum!
The seabass used for both ceviche and tiradito was fresh and tender. The fish in the tiradito was sliced the thickest of all the restuarants I’d tried but it worked amid the sea of mildly spicy-tangy aji amarillo and aji rocoto sauces.
The ceviche “cooking liquid” of lime and leche le tigre was perfectly balanced, resulting in juicy yet firm mouthfuls of fish.
Finally, the addictive seafood and rice atamalado (baked dish) redolent with aji rocoto, stock and local spices and local queso was complete overkill but worth the pain of python-like stretching of our stomachs.
The meal was perfectly paired with Cusqueña De Trigo, a simple but deliciously refreshing wheat beer.
Onceava’s menu includes shellfish (including crab and black clams when in season), octopus, and fish chicharrónes (batter-coated and deep-fried crisp).
Avenida la Mar, 2339 | San Miguel, Lima lima 32, Peru
tel – 634-7200
One bite of the chicken and I was a goner. Not only Blew My Socks Off, completely shredded them. Pollo a la Brasa equalled if not beat gai yang from Chiangmai, Hong Kong’s roast goose, or Malaysian poached chicken for flavor.
The secret is a witch’s brew of sweet and malty Peruvian black beer, soy sauce, cumin and local herbs. And the result is a flavor bomb – crisp, laquered, salty-sweet-spiced skin and juicy aromatic flesh. And the kicker is the aji amarillo and aji rocoto with mayo dips. I’m planning a return to Lima for this chicken and to hunt down a recipe. We also ordered the Lomo Saltado which was tasty but didn’t really reach the heights of Hong Kong stir-fries, so didn’t really light my fire. And the service was amazing. Two waitresses, the manager and chef serenaded me for my birthday, offering free chocolate cake topped with a candle and posing for photos with ear-to-ear smiles.
Plaza Mayor de Santiago, Surco District’s Criollo cuisine
Surco isn’t a tourist destination despite boasting many plazas and parks and the University of Lima. Take a wrong turn to the east and you could end up in grim, dangerous-looking streets.
But head to the main square – Plaza Mayor de Santiago de Surco – and be charmed by the local night scene. Families with smiling children, church-goers and romantic young couples throng here on Friday and Saturday nights. Local stalls sell popular local delicacies, drinks and desserts.
The square, with its quaint wrought-iron gazebo was filled with couples and young families enjoying the dust-free night air. The church of Santiago Aposto nearby was full to bursting. Built by the Jesuit Juan Rher in 1571 the Baroque building had the pretty daffodil yellow facade of the many churches in Peru. We hunted down criollo anticuchos, grilled beef hearts, chicken and melt-in-the-mouth picarones to order, a not-too-sweet deep-fried doughnut better than any I’ve tried in the U.S.
Luis, my taxi driver, brought me here seeking Criollo dishes one Friday night and it made for a fabulous dive into local life and eats.
I’d read about anticuchos, grilled beef hearts, an oft-mentioned local fave, and was determined to give it a try. We decided on one of the many restaurants a block away from the square.
Sadly, the heavenly scent of cumin, charring fat and meat as the chef grilled our orders was not equalled by the meal itself. The beef heart tasted rich but the intense depth of flavor was ruined by the tough, almost rubbery, texture.
My friend Luis’ chicken, grilled skin on, was finger licking good though. If you’re not keen on Criollo cuisine, there are Chifa-style grilled chicken restaurants in the neighborhood.
After our pig out, we were drawn by a deep fried-cinnamony scent to a small stall at the square where a young man was busy cooking up picarones. As delicious as New Orleans’ beignets these yeast-risen Peruvian donuts are actually made of flour, eggs, a local squash and sweet potatoes then fried to golden perfection. The final touch – a good soak in syrup made from local sugar. The light syrup impart a delicate but distinct aroma to the dough that I wish could be duplicated in Hong Kong.
“Great for after-anticuchos dinner,” Luis grinned, watching me burn my tongue as I devoured the steaming dessert and snort up the puddles of syrup.