IT may be on the other side of the planet and over 30 hours by plane from Singapore, but there are compelling reasons for Peru to provoke positive interest as a travel destination. Its ancient culture and the lure of the great outdoors (including a spectacular World Heritage Site that has been proclaimed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World) have long been high on the visitor hit list but in recent years, the multi-faceted Peruvian kitchen - in particular Cocina Novoandina (New Peruvian Cuisine) - has grabbed the attention of culinary explorers everywhere.
Spurred by a combination of unique factors, notably the country's melting-pot culture, well-travelled chefs influenced by the gastronomic revolution in places such as France and Spain, plus a younger generation of local chefs dedicated to modern cooking techniques and working with high-quality indigenous ingredients, Peru is arguably the Next Big Place on the global dining scene.
While their quality may vary, Peruvian restaurants are de rigueur in major cities across the Americas, and outposts have sprouted in London and even Hong Kong. Chefs such as Gaston Acurio, Rafael Osterling, Pedro Miguel Sciaffino and Virgilio Martinez are serving as culinary ambassadors by reinterpreting their native cuisine with enthusiasm, imagination and a degree of daring.
The results have been impressive.
"Lima, it's a delicious city," says Maria Julia Raffo, a culinary guide with specialist travel company Aracari, as we navigate the traffic-clogged streets of Miraflores, one of the 43 districts in the capital and home to possibly the best collection of restaurants in the country. Here, and in the neighbouring districts of San Isidro (the city's most upscale area) and Barranco (where the vibe is distinctly more edgy), trendy cafes, restaurants and bars are a ubiquitous sight.
At lunchtime, the more popular cevicherias (specialising in raw seafood marinated in citrus juices), chifas (Chinese-Peruvian restaurants) and simple sandwich bars are crammed with customers. During dinner, the offerings at many of the top restaurants may lack the slick sophistication found in major cities but the emphasis on freshness and indigenous produce is evident. At any time of the day, pisco (Peruvian grape schnapps) is the beverage of choice.
Lima is home to the most creative chefs in the country, but traditional dishes still lie at the core of Peruvian cuisine. The menu in a typical Peruvian restaurant may include ceviche (cubed seafood) and tiradito (finely sliced fish fillets, minus the onion found in ceviche), lomo saltado (stir-fried beef strips served with rice and potatoes), causa (mashed potato) with seafood and in the mountain regions, papas a la huancaina (potato with cheese sauce).
With fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean and a dizzying array of crops native to the Andes region, including over a dozen types of tomato, 35 varieties of maize and, amazingly, several thousand varieties of potato, the combinations available to creative chefs are virtually infinite. Among some of the more interesting items are coca, consumed in various (mostly legal) forms, grains such as quinoa and kiwicha, a sub-tropical fruit called lucuma that is used to make ice creams and desserts, and a variety of hot peppers known collectively as aji.
Outside Peru, Nobu Matsuhisa and, more recently, Gaston Acurio, have been primarily responsible for fuelling interest and promoting Peru-influenced cuisine to the world at large. Chef Nobu, whose eponymous fusion-style restaurants first featured Peruvian ingredients 25 years ago, is a Japanese-born chef whose career has been defined by his experiences in South America. Other top chefs are getting in on the act and the so-called Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) food movement is set to expand further with the opening in Barcelona later this month of Ferran and Albert Adria's restaurant, Pakta.
Chef Acurio is a home-grown talent who trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and is now a prominent name on the culinary scene, with dozens of restaurants throughout the Americas and elsewhere. His flagship Lima outlet, Astrid y Gaston, is currently No. 35 on the much-watched San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants list.
My culinary guide Ms Raffo says: "Gaston had the vision to put Peru onto the international culinary scene but now, he is more of an entrepreneur." Indeed, at Astrid y Gaston, Chef Acurio is nowhere to be seen, leaving the kitchen duties to head chef Diego Munoz instead.
"Gaston is more of a brand now," says Penelope Alzamora, a culinary specialist who runs A Taste of Peru, which offers customised food tours in Lima and may include a trip to the market followed by a cooking session at her home. She is a former business partner of Chef Acurio's - they started a restaurant together in 1994, about a year before Astrid y Gaston opened. "In the 1980s, the best restaurants in Lima were French or Italian and in the decades before that, everything was imported from Europe - including food, arts, fashion and architecture," she said.
She adds that when Astrid y Gaston first opened, it was a French restaurant. "Then they realised that local ingredients were great and started to introduce them to the menu," she says. "It's the freshness of ingredients and the combination of flavours - the different cultures like Inca, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and African."
She adds: "In the past decade, Peruvians started to value more than ever our culture. We have healthy grains like quinoa, a lot of seafood and an appreciation of seasonal ingredients. Young chefs went away, learned new techniques and gave more emphasis to the ingredients. But the important thing is still the traditional dishes, because the new stuff is not something you can eat every day."
Modern Peruvian cuisine is best reflected in popular Lima restaurants such as Rafael, Malabar, La Gloria and Central. "I think we are just starting on the road to international recognition," says Rafael Osterling, who describes the cuisine at his restaurants Rafael and El Mercado as down-to-earth contemporary Peruvian. "We have the talent, the ingredients and the knowledge, but we are not too many - I can count the really good chefs in Lima on two hands," he says. "We started a decade ago to put some restaurants around the world - but it's still difficult to find good ceviche in London."
Chef Osterling adds: "In Lima, you eat really well with not too much money. When we started Rafael 12 years ago, only 5 per cent of the clientele was foreign, now it's about 60 per cent."
He says that during the 1990s, many chefs travelled abroad to learn about modern cooking techniques and presentation. "We learned to work with ingredients in a much better way and explored new ingredients that we didn't use before. In the 1990s, nobody was using tuna - it used to be US$2 a kilo."
He adds: "We discovered that there are 3,000 kinds of potato - we use about 20 to 25 kinds. What we really need is really good chefs abroad. We don't have the army - France produces chefs like chickens, its tradition. In Peru, you need dedication, a solid middle class. A new generation is coming and everything is changing, but it takes time.
Calle Santa Isabel 376, Miraflores, Lima
Tel (511) 242-8515
VIRGILIO Martinez is a new-generation Peruvian chef (and former executive chef at Astrid y Gaston) who has been earmarked for culinary stardom. His three-year-old, 75-seater restaurant Central is elegant and sophisticated, with a menu that is modern and exciting, inventive and focused on a strong commitment to the environment. The tasting menu is called "Experience Origin" (S$136) and pretty much sums up the chef's philosophy.
The 10-course menu is dedicated to showing the diversity of ingredients from the region and shows where each of the main ingredients comes from. There is Lower Andes Water Shrimp, for example, and Suckling Piglet in High Altitude Grasses. The a la carte menu features dishes such as Amazonia Arapaima and crunchy bay scallops. The Root Vegetable dish (quinoa, milk, herbs and grasses) was a tasty but healthy alternative, the slow-cooked leg of suckling goat was rich and thick with flavour, accompanied by a goat cheese mash worthy of Robuchon.
Central features an elaborate back-to-roots approach, executed with precision and skill.
The dining room is sleek and contemporary; the kitchen, seen through a glass wall, is all shiny stainless steel and copper pots and populated by a large team of serious-looking cooks.
Last year, Chef Martinez opened Lima, a well-regarded restaurant near Charlotte Street in London - proof perhaps that even if you don't make it to Peru, Peru will soon come to a town near you.
By Geoffrey Eu
Astrid y Gaston
Cantuarias 175, Miraflores, Lima
Tel (511) 242 4422
DINNER at Lima's (and probably South America's) best-known restaurant begins when you are presented a souvenir booklet and DVD that speaks of the philosophy behind the food. "Potatoes from the earth, corn from the shadows, tomatoes from the sun," it reads.
The 17-course tasting menu (about S$156) that follows is thoughtful, thorough and visually spectacular, showcasing local ingredients and flavours in interesting combinations. The opening "Nature" dish is a variety of snacks atop a nest made from palm tree vines and includes a shot of pisco in the form of a mini-egg, complete with sugar shell.
Next, a dish of crunchy quinoa and tiny wild tomatoes arrives on the table, served in a ceramic bowl made by a local artist. Then comes a steady procession of dishes - Huamantanga potato and pine mushroom on a slab of warm white marble; lima bean spheres with chopped squid, shaved nuts and a soy-and-squid broth; a scallops-and-corn dish that is a modern take on a traditional combination.
The central portion of the meal features seafood. There is ceviche, of course, served the traditional way as well as in a version where the citrus juices resemble a small pile of snow. Cuy, or guinea pig, has been an Andean delicacy since pre-Inca times. At Astrid y Gaston, the dish was given a Chinese twist, served with a sweet and sour sauce and tasting something like roast pork.
The dining experience is multi-faceted, incorporating the food, the presentation and even the crockery. The current interior looks a little dated - the restaurant is slated to move into tonier digs later this year - and lacks the polish of the tasting menu but the cuisine at Astrid y Gaston has no lack of quality or inventiveness. Our waiter says: "His wife (Astrid) comes in a lot, but Gaston, sometimes he comes often, sometimes he doesn't come for a month - he'll be at one of his restaurants, but there's no telling which one."
By Geoffrey Eu
San Martin 300, Miraflores, Lima
Tel (511) 242-4149
Av. Hipolito Unanue 203, Miraflores, Lima
Tel (511) 221-1322
RAFAEL Osterling's eponymous restaurant has the kind of cool, casual vibe found in popular big-city establishments: the bar is buzzing, the dining area is filled to capacity and there is a sense of people having a good time. The food is also pretty good, and a typical meal will cost an average of S$60-$80.
The bar menu features eclectic tapas-style items such as tuna toast with burrata, salmon satay with Thai red curry and crushed eggs with potatoes and Iberico sausage. The restaurant menu offers an appealing selection of contemporary European-style dishes with a Peruvian twist. It's mainly about the ingredients and using modern methods to enhance the flavours.
We sampled a variety of dishes. The tiradito "apaltado" - slices of raw lemon sole with avocado, palm heart and Creole relish - was big on freshness, acidity and purity of flavour. A grilled sea scallop dish, served with lemon, honey butter and crispy garlic was light, tender and very fresh. There was also a pork belly confit with sweet potato and foie gras with peaches, followed by gnocchi with crayfish ragout and a Thai fish curry.
"We do fresh, tasty, happy food - I'm trying to do better things with local products," says Chef Osterling, who shuttles between dinner service at Rafael and lunches at his modern ceviche joint El Mercado. El Mercado is in an unfashionable section of Miraflores, opposite a row of car workshops; dishes there include tacu-tacu, a classic dish of rice and lentils and a super tasty crayfish stew.
He adds: "Here, the food is real. I have never been in fashion - there's no foam and many dishes have remained on the menu since the beginning. The food is not complicated or mysterious - you taste it and you feel nice."
By Geoffrey Eu