Food Quest: Cocina Andina
by Marla Norman, Publisher
With 7,000 different types of potatoes, 35 varieties of corn, 15 different species of tomatoes, 20 native fruits, peppers, beans and grains such as quinoa, plus the first peanut, you’d almost think that Peru was the original Garden of Eden.
The astoundingly broad range of plant species in Peru was developed by the Incas, who were predominantly an agrarian society. The Incas were also particularly adept at high-altitude farming and built spectacular terraces that extended up the sheer sides of mountains. These terraces, with their varying altitudes, allowed the Inca farmers to experiment and develop plant hybrids — with hundreds of different potatoes providing the most jaw-dropping proof of Incan botanical ingenuity.
The Spanish Conquistadors returned to Europe loaded with Incan gold, but even more valuable were the means of propagating tomatoes, beans, peanuts, chili peppers, and corn. Potatoes, of course, became a vital European food staple.
And here’s a bit of interesting historical trivia: Europeans initially considered potatoes to be inedible, useful only for feeding livestock! It wasn’t until French chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began to host elaborate state dinners, featuring pommes de terre, that Europeans saw potential for the humble potato.
While Parisians were contemplating the first French Fries, Spaniards continued to bring new foods to America: rice, wheat, garlic, artichokes, onions, cucumbers, carrots, celery, lettuce, eggplant, grapes, olives, and a variety of spices. It also seems likely that the Spanish were helpful in creating one of the most celebrated Peruvian dishes, ceviche or cebiche. Spaniards, who brought citrus fruits such as limes — essential to ceviche preparation — may have influenced the original dish, which in turn seems to have roots in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Prior to the Spanish invasion, the indigenous Andean diet consisted primarily of corn and potatoes with meat limited to alpaca and guinea pigs. Cuy Chactado or guinea pig is a dish still extremely popular in the Peruvian highlands. Typically, the guinea pigs are kept by locals in their huts until required for a dinner. Cuy is usually served fried or in a dish called Pachamanca with other meats and vegetables.
More recently, Asian immigrants have influenced Peru’s coastal cuisine with dishes using seafood and tiraditos based upon sashimi preparations. Also enormously popular is Chupe de Camarones a type of shrimp cioppino, demonstrating the country’s Italian influence.
At the forefront of the Peruvian food scene is Gastón Acurio, whose ingeniously reimagined Peruvian dishes have produced some of the most unique and sought-after plates in the world. International uber chef Ferran Adrià says simply: “God has spoken — the future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru.”
Gastón Acurio was supposed to be a lawyer, but he abandoned his studies, moved to Paris and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. There he fell in love with cooking and a pastry chef, Astrid Gutsche. The two married and in 1994, opened their first restaurant, the now mythical Astrid y Gastón, in Miraflores. There, diners are as amazed by the whimsical and imposing platings as they are by the flavorful Lomo Saltado (tenderloin), Chupes (fish stews) and Chochinillo (suckling pig).
Now, Acurio Restaurantes operates 44 restaurants in 13 countries, including two locations in the U.S., La Mer, in San Francisco and in Miami. Meanwhile, back in Peru, Gastón is so popular he’s constantly being asked to run for President. He regularly issues press releases to assure his fans he is only interested in cooking.
Or, at least anything related to cooking. In addition to his many restaurants, Acurio has founded a culinary school in Lima for underprivileged students. He is also part of the International Advisory Council of the Basque Culinary Center, which was founded by Ferran Adrià. And, he hosts a popular weekly cooking show in Peru — that is strictly about food, no politics!
Peru is filled with extraordinary restaurants, here are several more TCO favorites specializing in traditional Peruvian cuisine:
El Señorio de Sulco
In addition to enjoying the excellent menu, be sure to tour the Huaca, a 1,500-year-old pyramid.
(Gastón Acurio’s Cusco restaurant)