The tastes of Lima
n her first ever visit to Lima, screen legend Miriam Goldschmidt arrived late for a press conference. “You must excuse me,” she said to the reporters, “I’ve been lost in contemplation looking out of my hotel window. This city is fascinating. Here the people on the streets don’t have shadows.”
Every Limeño knows who the chef of the moment is, which are the top cevicherias, where to find the best anticuchos (a brochette usually of heart) or who makes the tastiest causas.
The grey skies of the city always threaten stormy weather. Yet in Lima it hardly ever rains. The south-westerly moisture-laden winds from the Pacific are blocked by the Andes, creating a rain shadow on the western side of the Cordillera. Lima lives on borrowed sunlight and mestizo humidity, the product of both the Pacific and of the Andes.
But there are many Limas and each one has a distinctive taste. The products, the traditions, the peoples of Peru all make their way to their capital city. And the country does not lack for anything: Amazonian jungle, desert, the Andes, the Pacific coast, a biodiversity that in turn is celebrated in its food traditions. “Imagine,” says chef Mitsuharu Tsumura of the Maido restaurant, “for potatoes alone there are over 3,000 varieties.” The potato is of such importance that unique varieties are preserved, “signature papas”. In parts of the cordillera, specific varieties of potatoes are highly valued and like the petit terroir wines in Europe are tested and tasted in competition. Gastronomy in Peru is synonymous with anthropology. There’s even a variety of potato that mothers-in-law in some parts of the cordillera use to put future daughter-in-laws to the test; the shape and outer toughness of the potato makes it difficult to peel, so if the bride-to-be succeeds without destroying the potato, it’s a sign that she will make her future husband happy.
Gaston Acurio made it his objective in life to peruvanise the world and at the end of more than 20 years working at it he has almost achieved his goal. It is largely thanks to his efforts that Peruvian products and dishes are held in such high esteem. Specialised food critics rate him among the 20 most influential chefs in the world and the culinary success story of Peru cannot be understood without him. Since 1994, when together with his wife Astrid Gütsche he opened Astrid & Gaston in Lima, he has established some 50 restaurants around the world staffed by over 3,000 professionals.
When friends get together in Lima, the conversation invariably gets around to food and restaurants. Every Limeño knows who the chef of the moment is, which are the best cevicherias , where to find the tastiest anticuchos (a brochette usually of heart) or who makes the tastiest causas, (a dish of Inca origin, with a pressed yellow papa base, ground aji and lemon juice). It has always been that way. But in recent years, this passion for food has become part of the national identity. This is because, as Juan Carlos Adrianzén, coordinator and programme director at the National Theatre, points out “it is a reflection of the mix and influences that have been operating for centuries in Peruvian culture.” The pre-Columbian Andes recipes have been added to by the Spanish, the African slaves, the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century and the Japanese in the 20th century. Each and all of these influences have their own taste. In the popular neighbourhoods and in the elegant districts with a sea view, and in the affluent neighbourhoods linked along the Costa Verde cliff line. San Isidro, Miraflores or the Bohemian Barranco all boast restaurants where the palate is taken on a historical and geographical tour of Peru. Chef Hector Solis in Fiesta and Jose del Castillo in Isolina, the sophisticated restaurant in the port area, both celebrate Creole cuisine. In Maido restaurant, chef Mitsuharu Tsumurase offers the most exquisite fusion dishes of Peruvian foods with Japanese influences.
Chifa dishes are the fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine. They date from the end of the 19th century with the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants. Today Chifa has its temple in Chifa San Joy Lao, in the heart of Lima’s Chinese neighbourhood.
In the last five years, gastronomic tourism has risen by 20% in Peru.
The Central de Virgilio Martínez restaurant heads the vanguard of Limeña cuisine . The range of quality dishes on offer reflects the riches of Peruvian foods as defined by the altitude at which they are to be found. The experience is a journey that takes the table guest from the depths of the Pacific to the peaks of the Andes. Also not to be missed is the Astrid&Gaston restaurant, the flagship restaurant of Gaston Acurio. In Casa Moreyra, a 300-year old colonial house of the San Isidro hacienda, Gaston and Astrid have totally renovated their menu, though remaining faithful to their food philosophy of favouring Peruvian products.
The great food store
The Amazon region is one the most biodiverse places on the planet. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, chef and Amazonian researcher has said, “it is beyond comprehension that Limeños have been able to live with their backs turned on the Amazon, one of the planet’s greatest food reserves, and that international cuisine has not taken on board the rich range of tastes and products of enormous nutritional value to be found there”. From Amaz, his restaurant in Lima, Pedro Miguel proposes “to take to the world the gastronomy, culture and produce of the Amazon, but with a contemporary concern of getting the message out as widely as possible while at the same time conserving the food reserves”. And he is achieving precisely that.
In Ámaz, cook Pedro Miguel Shiaffino, creates his menus with produce from one of the planet’s richest food resources: the Amazon. “I had to create a restaurant totally dedicated to the study of products from the Amazon, to understand the foundations of its foods, to promote its culture, to tell the world of its importance and to preserve its life.” That is how Pedro Miguel defines the mission of his restaurant, which is admirable for the coherence of his mission statement and the powerhouse of tastes that he brings out of one of the regions with highest biodiversity and biological variety.
The list of culinary references is unending. Life in Lima is centred on food. Each passing week sees a new restaurant open its doors to surprise the demanding Limeñan preferences. In the last five years, gastronomic tourism has risen by 20% in Peru, according to the World Trade Organization.
But Lima isn’t only food, or the grey skies that make it possible to walk without casting a shadow, or the moisture laden air of the Andes that reaches to the Pacific. Ever since its foundation in 1535, Lima has been a City of Kings. What once was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru still retains the flavour of colonial times in the historic centre of the city. Casa Aliaga, next to the Government Palace, has been home to 18 generations of the descendents of Jeronimo de Aliaga, who accompanied Francisco Pizarro in the founding of the city.
There are still Aliagas living in the same house today, a residence that is now open to visitors. Within a few metres of the house are two jewels of 16th and 17th century religious architecture: Lima Cathedral and St Francis’ Church in whose catacombs – also open to visitors – lie the remains of 75,000 dead. Also in the centre of Lima is the Casa de la Literatura Peruana, the House of Peruvian Literature, where you can listen to poems recited in some of the 47 languages that are spoken in the country and discover the way in which Peruvian writers speak of their cities as places of destiny.
Lima is a modern city with a vibrant cultural life that is in constant dialogue with the past. The city is no longer “Lima the horrible” as it was named by Peruvian writer Salazar Bondy, and has become an appealing and attractive city.