LIMA, PERU — Gastón Acurio pops a fried Andean corn kernel in his mouth. Peruvian cuisine, the acclaimed chef pronounces, is about to take the gastronomical world by storm. He dips a yucca chip in the aji amarillo - yellow chili - table sauce and smiles.
Move over, sushi. Make room, pizza. Step aside, tacos. There's a new fish on the block. Ceviche: raw fish (or shellfish) diced in cubes and marinated in lime juice, coriander, and hot peppers, served with raw onions, sweet potatoes, and corn. It's Peru's flagship dish, the epitome of the cultural and geographic fusion that defines this society, and has come to define its food: Inca hot peppers, potatoes from the Andes, Spanish onions, limes from the coastal valleys, Chinese spices, and a Japanese approach to preparing the fish, fresh out of the Pacific Ocean.
Just as sushi bars, pizzerias, and taquerías have taken over the international food scene - from Jerusalem to Nairobi to American strip malls - so, Chef Acurio has designs for Peruvian cuisine and the ingredients unique to this country. He envisions suburban supermarket shelves filled with Peruvian spices and fruit like the small, tart yellow limes so critical to the cuisine.
Mexican restaurants were hard to find outside the Western Hemisphere 20 years ago, and now they're as ubiquitous as Starbucks, points out the Cordon Bleu-trained Acurio, who owns a dozen restaurants in Peru and around South America. "Why can't we dream of 200,000 Peruvian restaurants in 20 years?"
The ceviche arrives at your table here, at Acurio's hip La Mar cevichería a few blocks from Lima's beach boardwalk, in a cocktail glass, garnished with ginger. And that's just the appetizer. For, while a cevichería serves ceviche, of course, it also offers much, much more. Like antipasti is to the pepperoni-and-cheese slice, yakitori is to the California roll, and chile relleno is to the basic burrito - so a cevichería features causas (Peruvian yellow potato topped with fish), anticuchos (Peruvian kebabs) and tacu tacus (fried fish on beds of creamy refried Peruvian lima beans and rice) to go with the beloved ceviche.
And all this, promises Acurio, nodding to some fans beaming at him from across the room, is coming, very soon, to a cevichería near you. The US, for one, seems ready for this "next big thing" in cuisine. Last year, San Francisco's Peruvian Limón restaurant got a nod as Bon Appetit's "Hottest Cuisine" of the year. In Portland, The Oregonian named the Peruvian Andina restaurant of the year. And, this year, in Seattle, talk of the town is the Peruvian restaurant Mixtura.
Meanwhile, master chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of the famed Nobu restaurants in London, New York, Beverly Hills, and Tokyo frequently mentions his three years in Peru as one of the greatest influences on his style, leading to the creation of such dishes as yellow tail sashimi with jalapeños.
Acurio, whose TV cooking show has made him a veritable superstar from the Amazon basin to any Andean cranny that can receive a TV signal, is the face of this culinary revolution that started here a decade ago.
Back then, there was not one cooking school in the Peruvian capital, says Acurio. Now, there are 22 - more, he boasts, than in any other city in the world. These days, TV cooking shows (especially his) are all the rage, cookbooks (Acurio has several) are bestsellers, and it's near impossible for a visitor to get through a day without being asked with faux modesty: "So, what do you think of our food?"
"Experts say Peruvian food is the third best in the world," explains taxi driver Fermin Correro, striking up a midnight conversation with a tired new arrival at the airport. "French is the best (though I have not tasted it myself to confirm), Chinese (if you like that sort of thing) is second, and we are third." Of course, he adds, "I don't think the experts tasted great tacu tacu."
"Peruvian cuisine ... is one of the most cultured, varied, and exquisite cuisines that humankind has created on earth," half whispers food sociologist and restaurateur Isabel Alvarez Novoa, sitting at the bar of her El Senorio de Sulco restaurant, sipping a purple drink made of traditional red corn and cinnamon. To begin with, she explains, there is the country's enormous biodiversity: Peru is home to some 80 types of the world's 104 biological zones, which produce an amazing assortment of fresh ingredients.
But beyond that is the "historical process," she says. With all due respect to Machu Picchu, the most lasting contributions of the Incas to the world were potatoes and chilies, she says. Incan cuisine, over time, became fused with new ingredients - such as olives, grapes, rice, chicken, and dairy products - introduced by the Spanish conquerors who arrived in the early 1500s and the African slaves who came with them.
After independence in 1821, European immigrants added French, Italian, and German twists. Chinese laborers, who arrived in the mid-19th century as cheap plantation labor brought new frying techniques and soy and ginger. And, finally, the Japanese, at the turn of the century, imported a love for fresh, raw fish and seafood, and opened the first of the now omnipresent cevicherías that Acurio hopes to export worldwide.
It all came together, says Ms. Alvarez, when the years of Shining Path terrorism abated and restaurants in the capital started opening, showcasing all these different tastes and influences.
"In the '90s we began to blossom and feel proud of ourselves, of our architecture, our designs, our cultural heritage - and our food," says Acurio. "The secret ingredient to this whole revolution was believing in what you have. Loving it."
It was only a matter of time before modest neighborhood cevicherías became mod ceviche bars, with Latin lounge music and attractive waiters with black bandanas around their heads. Simple shrimp-and-rice dishes became shrimp-grouper-mango-avocado-caviar and-rice teasers.
"Seductive, no?" smiles Acurio.
The most mod of the mod, La Mar opened a year ago. Tradition is served here with a twist: A dash of olive oil. A pinch of mild chili. A drizzle of coconut milk. But, similar to Lima's thousands of old-fashioned cevicherías, La Mar has a thatched roof, is open only for lunch, has reasonable prices, and never takes reservations. The atmosphere is loud and fun. Meals take hours.
A group of retired ladies with large hairdos are spearing black sea scallops drenched in lemon and chili. A little boy, out with his parents for a birthday treat, is getting into dessert: crunchy, chocolaty profiteroles, filled with light green ice cream made of lucama, an Incan fruit with a bright yellow pulp. In the corner, a young man takes out a small ring and proposes to his girlfriend. A pastry chef, watching from behind a blender, blushes. A slow, Latin love song comes on.
In three months, a second La Mar is scheduled to open in Lima. Then Mexico, where four franchises have already been bought. Panama and Brazil are next. And by 2007, San Francisco and London will have their own La Mars.
"It's going to happen, it's happening. Cevicherías are going mainstream," says Acurio. "Sushi bars have nothing on us."