High on Peru

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By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Take one part Incan and one part Spanish. Mix well. Add influences of African, Chinese, Japanese and Italian. What do you get? Peruvian -- the cuisine that legendary French chef and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier called one of the best in the world -- after only French and Chinese. Considering its status, it's also a cuisine that has been relatively overlooked. Until now.

Alejandro Riveros, head of public diplomacy for the Embassy of Peru, has made it his mission to promote the sophistication, innovation and most importantly, taste, of foods from back home. Last night the embassy invited 1,000 people to sample food and drink at a reception supporting the recent signing of a free trade agreement eliminating import tariffs on goods exchanged between Peru and the United States.

"We want our food to be as well known as Thai is in this country," says Riveros. "We want 5,000 -- no 10,000" -- restaurants in the United States. "We want Peruvian restaurants everywhere."

Riveros is working with investors and top Peruvian chefs to open a high-end restaurant in downtown Washington to showcase the country's cooking. (There are a number of Peruvian restaurants in the area, concentrated in Arlington and Gaithersburg.) Riveros believes Peruvian food is unique because "of the more than 100 climate zones in the world, we have 84." Peru has "every different ecosystem, from desert to jungle to snow-capped peaks and down to the sea where the cold currents from the South Pole are great for seafood."

The staples of Peruvian cuisine -- potatoes, yucca, corn and chili peppers -- were provided by the Incas centuries ago. Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the 16th century brought citrus fruit, wheat, rice, cattle and pigs as well as European-style desserts. Africans introduced spicy, vinegar-marinated beef and fish on skewers.

Then came the Chinese, who came to build railroads. They introduced soy sauce and fresh ginger as well as stir-fry cooking. Japanese arriving in the early 1900s to work on sugar and cotton plantations brought their love of seafood and techniques for preparing it simply and beautifully.

For most Washingtonians, though, Peruvian cuisine is rotisserie chicken. When Victor and Nelly Solano opened the carryout El Pollo Rico in Arlington in 1989, few people in the area had ever heard of Peruvian-style chicken.

Today this Lima favorite is widely popular at lunch and dinner with lines to the door of El Pollo Rico at peak hours. Fans love the crispy skin, succulent, smoke-scented meat and creamy, chili-spiked dipping sauces. Competitors such as Crisp & Juicy, Señor Chicken and Inkas' Empire have followed. Now there are similar chicken operations in just about every suburb in the region, and an aroma of pollo a la brasa -- Peruvian rotisserie chicken -- fills the air.

But Peruvian chicken is not served at the Embassy of Peru.

Ambassador Eduardo Ferrero and his wife Veronica recently hosted a dinner party for 70 at the embassy residence in Forest Hills. Moments before guests arrived, executive chef Jose Luis Herrera raced from one end of the large kitchen to the other preparing a dozen main courses for a buffet.

It was best to stand back. Herrera is the size of a linebacker, and the country's fusion cuisine, coming together piece by piece over several centuries, is complicated.

In the embassy kitchen, Herrera pours a creamy, purple, Italian-style olive sauce over thinly sliced octopus. The next minute he's toasting Andean corn for a Japanese-inspired, citrus-marinated fish dish, seviche. And on to a Chinese stir-fry of beef tenderloin and red onions seasoned with soy sauce and tossed with french fries.

No buffet would be complete without a causa -- a layered torte made with cool mashed potato, an Incan favorite, filled (in this version) with tuna salad, festively coated with a colored mayonnaise sauce. For dessert he has made a Spanish, port wine-flavored custard topped with meringue and a touch of cinnamon.

In an adjoining pantry, blenders are churning the national cocktail, pisco sour, first popular in the 1920s. "It's all in the proportions," says Marcelino Lazaro, who has tended bar at the embassy for more than 20 years. Pisco, a clear grape brandy, is combined with Key lime juice, sugar and a dot of bitters. It's sweet, then sour, and strong on the alcohol. Like much of Peruvian cooking, it packs a punch.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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