This investigation of Peru’s history and its native riches is echoed by my other tour guide for the trip: British writer and filmmaker Hugh Thomson’s “Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru,” an engrossing volume on Incan and pre-Incan civilizations. What captured my attention most was the chapter on Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady’s recent excavations of the Caral site in the Supe Valley north of Lima, where she and her team unearthed houses, an amphitheater, temples and pyramids that date back as far as 2600 B.C.
“At a stroke it became clear that Peruvian civilization was by far the most ancient in the Americas and one of the most ancient in the world, comparable to India, Egypt and China,” Thomson writes.
(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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This revelation, confirmed only in the early 2000s, has to do something to a country’s collective psyche, I thought. Peru suddenly went from a New World land, conquered and colonized by Spain, to one of the birthplaces of civilization — one that had to regularly contend with El Ninos, disastrous floods and earthquakes so violent that they would practically wipe the land clean. Peruvians could rightfully claim that they’re descendants of some of the baddest, most ingenious people to roam the earth.
Many of these thoughts were rattling through my head when we finally dined at Malabar in the San Isidro district of Lima, where I sat mesmerized by my seviche. Schiaffino’s appetizer incorporates Japanese and Incan influences while completely ignoring Spain’s central contribution to seviche, the lime. Sliced sashimi-style and shaped into flower petals, the sole in Schiaffino’s seviche is “painted” red with the fruit from the Andean airampo cactus, then flash-marinated in the juices of the tumbo, a tart, floral fruit believed to have been used by the Incans in their raw-fish preparations. The dish is equal parts art, history, nationalism and genius. It’s also delicious.
Celebrity chefdom is still a relatively new concept in Peru, a fact that’s hammered home when I ask for the chef’s name at Pescados Capitales, a sin-obsessed sevicheria that’s among the best Lima has to offer. (Look up “sin” and “seafood” in Spanish; you’ll get the joke.) Our waitress, Romina, tells me that his name is Willy Castillo, but then quickly interjects that he’s “not famous.” The restaurant is famous, she adds, he’s not.
Malabar’s Schiaffino, by contrast, doesn’t have such an identity problem. With his sophisticated takes on Amazonian fish and produce, he is one of Peru’s reigning celebrity chefs. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Schiaffino bends and blends ingredients to his will, creating dishes that speak of Peru but aren’t always easily identifiable as Peruvian — at least not without a guide to the flora and fauna of the country. His paiche entree is downright delicate for such a hulking fish: a small fillet perfumed with a fermented yucca broth and tapioca pearls stained black with squid ink. The flavors are unexpected and lush — lobster and sweet peppers among them.