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Traveler Mines Peru's Culinary Riches

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

By Evan MallettSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1996



LIMA, PERU

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.

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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.

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.