By Carole Reedy
Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley aren’t the only popular attractions in Peru these days. The country that boasts 3,000 potato varieties is fast becoming a food and restaurant destination.
Everywhere you travel in Peru you experience the freshest ingredients. There’s an abundance of fruits and vegetables as well as an array of meats, including alpaca, guinea pig, and veal. Potatoes and rice and/or quinoa accompany most meals. Fish and seafood are available everywhere and there’s chocolate in abundance, chocolate the locals boast has won worldwide recognition and awards. In addition to the sumptuous Peruvian specialties, in the cities you’ll find other cuisines such as Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Thai. There isn’t a dietary restriction that can’t be resolved here. The challenge lies with making your choices at each meal.
Let’s hone in on the most popular of the Peruvian dishes. Although potatoes accompany many meals, you can also order them as a main dish or appetizer. My favorite is papa a la Huancaína, boiled potatoes in a creamy yellow pepper sauce. There’s also a potato stuffed with meat, appropriately called papa rellena.
Some travelers have a problem ordering alpaca after seeing the fluffy white animals in the wild. If you can overcome emotion, you’ll enjoy a tasty meat similar to beef. Others feel the same way about guinea pig, remembering them as childhood pets while facing them on the menu. (An aside here about the guinea pig: There is a painting of the Last Supper in a church in Cusco in which the main dish at the center of the table is guinea pig.)
Veal is also an excellent choice, as is fish, especially the sea bass, readily available on most menus and quite apparently fresh that day. For the most part, the food in Peru is not spicy, but be sure to verify with your waiter as there are a few chiles that can challenge the tastebuds.
The most famous of drinks is, of course, the pisco sour. Pisco itself is a brandy produced in Peru and Chile, developed by Spanish settlers to replace the brandy imported from Spain. Sip carefully if you’re not accustomed to it. It’s a strong liquor, but quite tasty when made into the sour drink. You’ll see a variety of pisco drinks on menus, my favorite the one made with the sweet orange-colored fruit maracuya.
Another popular drink is coca tea, which you enjoy preventively for altitude sickness. Doctors and locals alike recommend you drink it in the mornings, though not in the evenings as it may keep you awake. There are small amounts of cocaine in the tea so don’t carry any home with you.
The man: Gastón Acurio
Peruvian cuisine has recently undergone a transformation due to the emergence of one man: Gastón Acurio. His fresh take on Peruvian food now reaches a worldwide audience.
Acurio was born in Lima, Peru, where he started out studying law. He continued his studies in Madrid, but after visiting the restaurant of Juan Mari Arzak he left his dreams of the law behind for those of the kitchen. At the Cordon Bleu, he studied French cuisine and it is there that he met his future wife and business partner Astrid. They returned to Peru, bringing with them ideas for a French restaurant, but soon after decided to recreate Peruvian dishes and menus.
It all began in 1994 with the restaurant that shares their names, Astrid y Gastón, an avant-garde Peruvian eatery that reflects the Acurios’ commitment to quality and creativity. For several years in a row, it has appeared on the food industry list “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.”
In addition to Astrid y Gastón they’ve created several other restaurants. To name a few and describe them in the words of the founders: “Tanta is Peruvian homemade food in a familiar and cozy environment; Chicha is a vindication of Peruvian regional cuisine in a warm and haute cuisine environment; La Mar is a cervicheria; Papacho’s is an organic and artisanal cuisine proposal, where anything is ‘burgerable’.”
During my recent visit, I visited four of these restaurants in four different cities. In each, the food was creatively presented, fresh, the environment comfortable, and the staff attentive and friendly.
At this writing, Gaston has opened 34 restaurants in 11 countries, all dedicated to the Peruvian comida. Lima boasts the most, of course, with 18; Arequipa and Cusco house two each; and cities outside Peru include Barcelona, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Chicago, Ciudad de Panama, Madrid, Mexico D.F., Miami, and San Francisco, among others.
What’s the attraction that brings Gaston and Astrid such success and results in seating thousands of people daily in their locations? It began with a desire to recreate basic Peruvian dishes using the freshest ingredients in a pleasant presentation served in an ambiance of comfort with the best service (service throughout Peru in all sectors is the best in the world).
Let me cite a few examples: the popular guinea pig in Peru is usually served whole, while Acurio serves it in a crispy Peking-duck style, either as an appetizer or main course. Clever combinations occur in pasta dishes, such as artichoke ravioli or ravioli filled with veal. Common foods such as soups and tacos are transformed into sumptuous plates with surprise ingredients.
A vegetarian’s delight, spinach cannoli, tasted unlike any I’d ever had. The spinach was deep deep green, so fresh and flavorful I felt I was tasting spinach for the first time. This, I think, is Gaston’s secret: the food you eat tastes unlike anything you have known before, whether it’s a new food for you, like guinea pig, or an old standard, such as beef or pasta. The simplest vanilla ice cream in Gaston’s hands tastes like a cloud from heaven.