• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

How Peru’s food culture pushed Lima to ‘world’s best restaurants’ fame


Jan 8, 2024


The capital’s achievement — four spots on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — owes as much to Indigenous bounty as to chefs’ creativity

A dish on the Central restaurant tasting menu in Lima called Amazon Connection. It includes arapaima fish belly cured in turmeric and achiote, served with fermented cassava and infused cecina, or smoked pork. (Angela Ponce for The Washington Post)

MORAY, Peru — Chef Virgilio Martínez chews a raw purple tuber as he listens to a Quechua-speaking subsistence farmer describe an Andean technique for hedging against inclement weather.

Broad beans and pukutu, a rare, multicolored, ancient variety of corn, are planted together, Cleto Cusipaucar explains. If there are heavy rains, the maize will fail but the pulses will thrive. If conditions are drier, the beans won’t grow, but the corn will.

“I wish I had more time to spend just listening,” says Martínez, 46, who was honored this year as creator of the world’s best restaurant. “Every time I do, I learn something new.”

The men are standing in a field overlooking Moray, an enormous pre-Columbian basin of concentric tiers dug into a mountainside above Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Thought to have been used as an agricultural laboratory, Moray is home to a surprising effect: As you descend into the bowl, the temperature rises. Modern researchers believe the Inca used the terraced rings to acclimatize crops to different altitudes for their highly vertical empire.

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Moray is where Martínez has built a center for his Mater initiative, a contemporary culinary research institution anchored in the study of local traditions and ecological knowledge, which has helped propel the chef to rock star status in the gastronomic world. In June, Central, Martínez’s flagship restaurant in Lima, was named number one among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, arguably the most influential such list in the industry. It had ranked in the Top 10 for years.

The honor, voted on by more than 1,000 international experts, cemented Peru’s place on the culinary map. Central, with an innovative tasting menu that showcases Peru’s breathtaking geography and biodiversity, led a cohort of four Lima restaurants in the 50 Best — more than from any other city in the world.

How the gastronomic scene in the capital of troubled, underdeveloped Peru came to triumph over established powerhouses such as Paris and New York owes much to the personal talent and drive of Martínez and Lima’s other high-end chefs. But it’s no coincidence that they are Peruvian, their creativity forged in this South American nation’s highly original and varied national food culture, one that is finally being recognized as one of the world’s greatest.

Wherever you go here, Peruvians of all races and classes love not only to eat but also to talk about food, with myriad appetizing options for all budgets. Most of the recipes can be found only in Peru; they’re invariably made with fresh ingredients.

“Food is the best thing about Peru. We have so many dishes and ingredients,” says fruit seller Pamela Clemente, 32, as she tucks into a ceviche, Peru’s national dish, in a street market in Lima’s gritty La Victoria district.

“I don’t know what Peru would be like without our cooking,” she says. “We’d have no country left.”

In a society whose self-esteem has been battered by runaway corruption, political dysfunction, the world’s highest covid-19 mortality and the serial failures of the national soccer team, anthropologist Alexander Huerta Mercado says, cuisine is the one enduring source of collective pride — and sheer joy.

“Most Peruvians have never visited Machu Picchu,” says Huerta Mercado, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “But food is different. Any foreigner in Peru will straight away be asked if they like the food. You’re not supposed to answer no. Chefs are cultural heroes here. Everyone wants to be one.”

Martínez’s center, inaugurated just before the pandemic, draws together chefs, botanists, anthropologists, artists and others to investigate new and sustainable ways to harness and use the flavorful, nutritious ingredients from the Andes, the Amazon and the Pacific Coast.

Cusipaucar, the farmer, and other locals work three acres of land next to Moray, harvesting endemic produce such as tubers ulluco and mashua, and herbs such as huacatay, a local marigold used heavily in Peruvian cooking. The villagers keep half the produce; the rest goes to Mil, Martínez’s small restaurant here, and Central.

Cusipaucar, 58, cultivates 50 varieties of potato, but can market only four, for want of commercial demand. He tells Martínez that he has counted 80 Andean plants, traditionally consumed for food and medicine, that are falling out of use among neighboring communities. “It’s my biggest worry,” he says. “We’re going to lose them forever.”

Martínez nods and promises to include the threatened varieties in Mater’s botanical garden. “Tell me which plants, which seeds,” he says. “We’re completely aligned. We can help you.”

Martínez’s relationships with artisanal suppliers such as Cusipaucar, fishermen in the Pacific and Indigenous communities in the Amazon, has shaped Central’s tasting menu, Mundo en Desnivel — loosely, World on an Incline.

Heavily plant-based, it takes diners on a brisk voyage across Peru, noting for each of the 14 courses the altitude at which the ingredients were harvested — in many cases, foraged in the wild. Throughout, Martínez delights in throwing curveballs at diners with unexpected textures and tastes that belie the food’s appearance.

Highlights include a dish called Warm Sea, from 15 meters below sea level on Peru’s northern coast, a breezy broth of grouper with crispy clams and ají limo, a fiery Peruvian pepper; Extreme Altitude, from 4,200 meters above sea level in the altiplano, with five varieties of corn, crunchy Andean amaranth seeds and delicate sweet potato leaves; and Amazonian Waters, from 190 meters above sea level, with cured pacu, a herbivorous cousin of the flesh-eating river piranha, watermelon slices and a foam of coconut and coca (yes, the basis for cocaine).

In the sleek, dark salon in the bohemian Lima district of Barranco, diners can view a dozen or so chefs in black T-shirts and aprons, some from as far afield as France and Spain, through a long window into a minimalist, stainless steel kitchen.

The atmosphere of congenial efficiency is a far cry from the bullying made infamous in restaurant documentaries. Martinez says he experienced such a kitchen in London. There, he worked “with fear,” an emotion he says is antithetical to the “meaning” he now tries to construct.

Martínez’s creations break with Peruvian traditions. They are light, even airy, and their flavors are kept subtle to avoid one course from overpowering another. Conventional Peruvian cooking is all about bold, intense flavors, including from native chile peppers.

Many of the country’s most celebrated dishes — ají de gallina, a korma-like chicken recipe; arroz con mariscos, a paella-influenced seafood rice dish; and an extensive pantheon of deserts, a legacy of French influence — might best be described as comfort food.

Peru’s culinary excellence is partly the result of its expansive natural pantry. Its tropical latitude, with huge variations in altitude from the Andean peaks to the Pacific Coast, hosts almost every kind of ecosystem, and therefore crop and livestock, on Earth. Famously, that includes more than 4,000 varieties of potato, but also all kinds of herbs, cereals, pulses and produce new to most foreigners. What’s more, Peru’s Pacific waters are exceptionally prolific, thanks to the plankton-rich Humboldt current.

Peruvian food — or “combat,” in the local slang — fuses a range of influences, from distinct Indigenous traditions on the coast, in the mountains and the rainforest to waves of immigration, voluntary and involuntary, from Spain, Africa, Italy, China and Japan, among others. That blend of geography and history explains the primordial soup that gave birth to Peruvian cuisine. But no one has pinpointed the proverbial lightning strike that sparked it into life.

Huerta Mercado has a theory.

Peru’s culinary genius is the result of the “precariousness” of life in a chaotic society with patchy rule of law, he says. “There’s no tomorrow, no concept of the future,” he says. “Peruvians live in a perpetual present, and we need immediate gratification and sensory overload.”

Some of those influences can be seen in ceviche. Thought to have pre-Colombian roots, it was once cured with juice from acidic local fruits, including tumbo, known in English as banana passion fruit. Today tumbo has been replaced by lime, introduced by the Spanish conquerors. The large cuts of fish, served with outsize kernels of corn and steamed sweet potato, are a later addition, borrowed from sashimi brought by Japanese in the early 20th century.

Peru’s next most celebrated national dish, lomo saltado, is made up of strips of sirloin stir-fried in a wok with sliced tomatoes and red onions and flavored with soy sauce, cumin and aji amarillo, a mild, uniquely Peruvian yellow chile pepper. The classic plating includes rice and fat fries made from floury, absorbent Peruvian yellow potatoes. But there is also a version with tacu tacu, a hearty Afro-Peruvian mixture of rice and pulses seasoned with pork fat.

Traditionally, many of these recipes were served exclusively at home. The template for the poshest restaurants was French cuisine; Lima’s largely White elite looked down on local recipes — even on seafood, a centerpiece of the contemporary Peruvian board.

But in the last two decades, a generation of young chefs has returned from culinary schools in Europe, North America, Japan and beyond to train their new skills and techniques on Peru’s traditional home cooking, reclaiming and giving new life to working-class standards. Martínez, rejecting “French hegemony,” asks: “Why does the meal have to start with champagne? Where is that written?”

Martínez and other chefs have been the strongest voices for conserving Peru’s increasingly threatened crop megadiversity, maintained by small farmers while agricultural exports based on intensive single-crop cultivation have boomed.

Peru just renewed a 10-year moratorium on sowing genetically modified organisms, a cornerstone of U.S. Big Ag that’s viewed as threatening to Peru’s traditional custodians of the country’s diverse ingredients, farmers who typically work only an acre or two. The move was championed by Martínez’s mentor, Gastón Acurio.

Acurio, often credited with kick-starting the culinary renaissance with the opening of his Lima restaurant Astrid y Gastón in 1994, was Peru’s most famous chef until his protégé’s meteoric rise. His unusual ability to straddle the cultural gulf between the Lima elite and the rural underclass saw the 56-year-old briefly lead polls in the 2016 presidential race until he ruled himself out. (He had not indicated an interest in running.)

Still, Peru’s gastronomic revival faces obstacles. Fast-food chains are growing their footprint here, and obesity rates, among the lowest in Latin America, are rising. “We’re importing the North American model of mass food,” Martínez warns. “It’s food that makes you sick.”

After Central’s triumph in the world rankings this year, there was snark about the $384 cost of its tasting menu in a country where the Food and Agriculture Organization says half the population now experiences food insecurity.

Martínez says he employs around 100 people directly while paying above-market rates to — and establishing stable, long-term relationships with — his often humble suppliers. Central has also raised Peru’s international profile and attracted tourists.

Although he eschews political posturing, his vindication of Indigenous knowledge is a profoundly political act in a society where security forces’ massacring of anti-government protesters in December and January 2023 was motivated, the Organization of American States concluded, by “major stigma” against Andeans.

“I hope this restaurant is giving meaning to the responsibility of doing haute cuisine in a country full of incoherences, where hunger exists, things don’t work and there is a lack of civic awareness,” Martínez says. “It’s about what I can do from what I accept is a tiny bubble.”


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