Traveler Mines Peru's Culinary Riches

Odyssey of the South American country turns up ceviche, 'jumping beef,' and a strong heritage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Americans flying into Lima from the north may wonder how the desolate vista below could possibly yield a single potato. But the seemingly endless expanse of wrinkled copper earth that is the Peruvian Andes gives way in all directions to fecundity; even the bleakest core of its mountain system spawns the head waters of the mighty Amazon River.

It is believed that Peru's most celebrated ancient tribe, the Inca, cultivated more than 100 different varieties of potato in this terrain more than 500 years ago. The mystery of Peru is not that it has vast agricultural resources, but that it has maintained them for so long.

Aided by a once-predominant Maoist terrorist group known as the Shining Path, the formidable terrain of Peru has thwarted tourism for many years. Now on the mend in the hands of popular president Alberto Fujimori, Peru has opened its arms to travelers seeking recreational, spiritual, and gastronomic adventure.

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Generous people

The people of Peru, like the mountains viewed from above, appear rugged and unapproachable, but - as I discovered on a series of trips to Peru - their faces often veil warmth and curiosity. Once, when lost on a hike through the Cordillera Blanca mountains, I came upon a potato farmer named Ciruhuamanca who took me to his house, a two-room stone hut where hundreds of guinea pigs ran loose on the dirt floor.

Ciruhuamanca's mother, who spoke only the ancient tribal language of Quechua, fixed me a bowl of guinea-pig soup featuring a rodent I had only moments before watched the woman chase around the hut. At last, my search for authentic guinea pig - known simply as cuy in Peruvian Spanish - had come to an end.

Other Peruvian delicacies are easier to find. Succulent ceviche - a raw seafood salad that usually includes any combination of octopus, squid, shrimp, and white fish - can be found in seaside towns along the Pan American Highway. Tumbes, a city on the border of Ecuador, is known for its cache of both river shrimp and ocean prawns. In the southeast, Lake Titicaca yields two delicate and sweet-fleshed fishes, trout and smelt-like pejerrey.

Throughout Peru, the national dish known as lomo saltado, or "jumping beef" (see recipe, left) represents a rare taste of beef in a country that favors such comparatively inexpensive meats as chicken, pork, and fish. Creole soup, a spicy chicken and sausage cream soup laced with the aroma of ubiquitous mountain savory, shows up on most cafe menus. A very spicy chile pepper, referred to in most of Peru as aji, adds a kick to more-mundane dishes.

Unlike the more pervasive influence of Mexican cuisine in the United States, the Peruvian repertoire often lacks a chile-pepper punch, relying on the depth of flavor over spice. Many dishes, such as the "dry stews" known as secos, have a richness that most Mexican fare lacks. Although rice is prevalent in Peru, potatoes provide the primary starch in most meals. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two styles of cooking is the absence of tortillas in Peruvian kitchens. True to their ancestors' recipes, modern Peruvian cooks instead prefer simple leavened flatbreads.

Diverse menus

Two restaurants in Lima explore the tremendous diversity of local cuisine, drawing upon recipes that have been tested, in many cases, for hundreds of years. The Ristorante Jos Antonio, located in Lima's San Isidro neighborhood, makes sampling anticuchos and tripas (beef hearts and intestines) an unexpectedly delightful dining expedition. Halfway across the city of Lima, whose population of roughly 8 million makes it one of South America's largest cities, lies Costa Verde, a first-class Peruvian restaurant that looks like a Hemingway haunt, complete with heavy wooden tables and walls festooned with stuffed big-game hunting trophies. The Costa Verde menu offers exotic cuts of meat typically elusive in Peru, as well as traditional Peruvian dishes.

One of the proprietors of Costa Verde, Raoul Modenesi Keslel, sent his nephew, Eduardo Hancock, to the US to pursue an education and an understanding of the restaurant business. Currently working as a waiter in the trendsetting restaurant Patria in New York City, Eduardo has combined business savvy and restaurant experience by helping Patria's accomplished chef, Doug Rodriguez, access many hard-to-find products that distinguish Peruvian cooking.

In June, chef Rodriguez plans to take his portfolio of South American dishes to Costa Verde for a special dinner commemorating the cuisine that inspired his restaurant's theme.

The cuisine of Peru is the most defined and sophisticated in South America, claims Mr. Rodriguez, a Cuban-American who has extensively mined the lower continent for its hidden culinary treasures. The dishes are pre-Columbian and have remained the same for centuries.

Inspired equally by history and food, Rodriguez asserts, "The most important foods of South America are influenced by indigenous peoples. My theory [on ceviche] is that ancient Indians on a fishing excursion had nothing but fresh fish and lemons, and one guy, in order to survive, found out that rubbing lemon on fish 'cooks' the fish."

Rodriguez's menu includes ceviches and other dishes based on Peruvian recipes. Although he admits that finding Peruvian products is getting easier, Rodriguez has his sights set on a wider, more consistent channel of distribution between Peru and the US.

Among the many cooks nationwide who have brought Peruvian food to the attention of the American palate is Boston chef Manuel Sifnugel. He recently introduced nightly Peruvian specials to his menu at Claremont Cafe. Although Sifnugel, who grew up in Lima, laments that most Peruvian dishes would intimidate his clientele, Peruvian jumping beef and papas a la huancaina continue to sell well along with Claremont's European-inflected fare.

Peruvians, like my hosts at one spectacular dinner at Jos Antonio, discuss their heritage, particularly when it comes to cuisine, with great pride. With secure leadership in Peru, new exporting channels promise to improve trade between the largely impoverished country and the rest of the world. And if demand for its cuisine keeps growing, Peru may soon host more culinary adventurers than anthropology buffs.

PERUVIAN

JUMPING BEEF

(Lomo Saltado)

1-1/2 pounds skirt or flank steak cubed into 1-inch pieces, fat trimmed

1 tablespoon lime zest

1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

8 tablespoons olive oil

3 red (Bermuda) onions, thickly sliced

2 garlic cloves peeled, minced

3 tablespoons tomato paste

3/4 cup cider vinegar

3/4 cup water

2 ripe red tomatoes, oven-roasted for 10 minutes, skinned, and chopped

4 jalapeo chile peppers, quartered. (Substitute aji, serrano, or habaero peppers.)

Dash of hot sauce or more to taste (Aji de Panca can be found in South American specialty markets, or use Tabasco)

2 cups white rice or Basmati rice

2 large Idaho potatoes, julienned

1 teaspoon oregano

In a large bowl, combine steak cubes and marinade of lime rind, cilantro, and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Let sit for at least 2 hours, rotating meat periodically.

In a heavy skillet, saut garlic and onions in a little oil for 2 minutes on high heat, turning frequently. Add tomato paste, vinegar, 3/4 cup of water, tomatoes, chiles, and hot sauce, and stir well in pan. Bring liquid to a full boil, then remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, steam or boil rice in 2-1/2 cups of water.

In large saut pan over very high heat, fry potatoes in 4 tablespoons of oil. Stir occasionally until potatoes are tender. Remove potatoes and place on drying rack or paper towels.

In the same pan, (which, preferably, should be smoking) saut the steak cubes for 5 minutes or until brown. Add all of the onion mixture and the oregano and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and let simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Serve meat on top of the rice, with the julienned potatoes as garnish.

Serves 6.

- Recipe from Manuel Sifnugel, chef, Claremont Cafe, Boston

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