An article appeared recently in Viet Nam News about a Peruvian cooking class which took place recently in Ha Noi. The class was organized by the Peruvian embassy and was for invited guests only, mostly diplomatic staff around the city, some local chefs and various media.
A Peruvian chef cooked up a number of traditional dishes for the guests, most of whom had never sampled the cuisine previously. According to the writer of the article, there were many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as the Vietnamese chefs were surprised and delighted to learn many unique ways to prepare potatoes and corn.
Reading this article, I was filled with nostalgia for the time I spent in Peru. I have been there three times; in 2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in Lima for 6 months. Even if the country did not boast an exceptional cuisine, it would still be well worth visiting, given its astounding natural beauty and numerous archaeological treasures.
If Viet Nam is lucky enough to attract a Peruvian chef to come here and open a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City or Ha Noi, it will be time to celebrate. I think we are probably still years away from that happening, but who knows? The country is developing quickly and opportunities abound.
In the U.S.A., foodie types in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC have known about Peruvian cuisine for years. However, outside of those metropolises, it is still virtually unknown. Portland boasts one excellent restaurant, but when I was living in Seattle in 2011, it still did not have a Peruvian restaurant. I often sent emails to my friends in Peru, begging them to come to the Northwest and open a restaurant.
The staples of Peruvian cuisine are potatoes, corn, and chili peppers. The potato is native the Andean region of South America and there are somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties, depending on who is counting. When I was a young man, I remember reading Jack Weatherford’s classic book Indian Givers, in which he explained, in great detail, how native American foods, once introduced into Europe, changed the course of world history. The potato in particular was to have an astounding impact on population growth in Northern Europe.
The humble spud: so unpretentious, boring, and often ugly. Yet, it is so versatile, easy to grow, delicious and filled with carbohydrates and calories that it can sustain a population almost by itself. Recently, I introduced my Vietnamese girlfriend to the joy of fried rosemary potatoes, and she became instantly hooked.
There are many other native staples besides corn and potatoes, which are stars in their own right. Quinoa, for example, is slowly and steadily gaining popularity all over the world; its rich, nutty flavor, high protein profile, and easy preparation make it an ideal carb sidedish. It is now available in Viet Nam though it is prohibitively expensive. Kiwicha, which is known as Amaranth in most English speaking countries, is another delicious and nutritious grain, with an almost muciloginous texture. Kaniwa, which looks similar to Quinoa, is yet another. Maca, a tuber native to the Andes, is now a wildly popular add-on at smoothie bars in stores like Whole Foods Market. The tuber is ground into a fine texture, which can easily be added to shakes and smoothies or even sprinkled onto muesli and yogurt. Maca has a powerful physical and mental energizing effect. I once did a report on it for a nursing school class.
Peruvians eat meat dishes which are rarely seen outside South America, such as roasted Cuy (guinea pig), Alpaca, and marinated and roasted beef heart, called anticuchos.
These staple ingredients are just the base of the cuisine. From the numerous immigrant groups who came to Peru over the centuries, including the Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese and Japanese, a truly unique and wonderful fusion cuisine has developed. The chef Gaston Arcurio, who is a national icon, has done more than anyone to popularize it around the world. While living in Lima, I made sure to eat at least once in his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston, and it was an experience I will never forget.
A signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, and one served in every restaurant along the coast is ceviche, sometimes spelled cebiche. It a small, simple, and elegant dish made from fish which is marinated or ‘cooked’ in lime juice, with sliced onion, corn and often a side of sweet potato. You will often see a mixed seafood ceviche as well. Another well known dish is causa, which is made from boiled, mashed potatoes which are then artfully layered with other foods and presented in a colorful manner. Papa a la Huancaina is a dish of boiled potatoes which is layered with melted cheese and served on a bed of lettuce. It is extremely popular in Lima and featured on most menus.
Lucuma, native to Peru, is a fruit that is easy to become addicted to once you have tried it. Many restaurants in Lima serve it as an ice cream or smoothie flavor. Chicha Morada, a refreshing drink made of boiled purple corn (to lend color), cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and ice, was a daily staple for me. The Pisco Sour is the national cocktail of Peru. It is made from the Pisco brandy, key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. Though it will never achieve the fame of the mojito, it too is becoming well known around the world.
As Peruvian cuisine becomes known in new markets such as Southeast Asia, the never-ending story of food and cuisine cross pollination continues. Hopefully soon, average Vietnamese will have the opportunity to sample ceviche and causa, and Peruvians in Lima and Cusco will perhaps try their first bowl of Pho.