Marinated in the Morning, Grilled at Night: The Charms of Peru's Fusion Cuisine

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LIMA, Peru -- It's usually the sneakers that give Americans away when they travel abroad. But here, it's what you eat -- and when you eat it. Only tourists would think of ordering ceviche after 2 p.m. If the fish, which is "cooked" in a marinade of lime juice, onion and chili peppers, has been out of the water for more than 12 hours, most Peruvians turn up their noses. It simply isn't fresh enough.

It's easy for Peruvians to be particular about their seafood. Fed by the icy, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, the waters off the Peruvian coast are the most bountiful fishing grounds in the world. Which is why, seven days a week, starting at 4 a.m., fishermen at the Villa Maria market in Lima hawk Dover sole for ceviche, plus red snapper, tuna, scallops, squid and octopus just hours out of the sea.

Eating ceviche, the South American country's best-known dish, is a must in Lima. But there's so much more: tiraditos, a Peruvian take on sashimi; Chinese stir-fries spiked with Peruvian chili peppers; and sushi rolls filled with scallop and Parmesan cheese, a favorite combination in Lima.

"Right now, people want to discover new flavors," says Peru's most famous chef, Gaston Acurio, who owns 29 restaurants around the world. If the Japanese could persuade the world to embrace raw fish and seaweed, he reasons, "why can't we dream of doing the same with Peruvian food?"

Peru's campaign is well underway. In 2006, Acurio, 41, reportedly wowed the crowd at the prestigious Madrid Fusion culinary conference, which anointed Lima "the gastronomic capital of Latin America." More recently, chefs such as Todd English and food magazines have declared it the next big thing, praising the diverse ingredients and creative combinations of flavors. (Indeed, Peruvian cuisine might finally be the thing to redeem "fusion," which has been a dirty word in culinary circles ever since the 1990s brought us sesame-crusted everything.)

Hundreds of years of immigration have created a natural fusion of Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences. A wave of Chinese arrived in the 1850s to help build the railroads, bringing with them ingredients such as soy sauce and wok-cooking techniques. The Japanese came in the early 20th century to work on sugar and cotton plantations, and, according to the indispensable food guide "Eat Smart in Peru" (Ginkgo Press, 2006), they were instrumental in transforming ceviche from home cooking to restaurant fare. Asian influences are especially pronounced in Lima.

On the southern coast, where the Spanish brought African slaves, popular dishes include carapulcra, a stew of pork, dried potatoes and peanuts. In the Andes, the pre-colonial cuisine showcases such meats as alpaca and guinea pig, as well as potatoes, which originated in the area more than 7,000 years ago.

At the heart of all Peruvian cooking are its chili peppers, or ajis (ah-HEES). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ajis from the western slopes of the Andes and the jungle. The three most popular are aji amarillo, a delicate but piquant pepper that is a must in ceviche; aji panca, an earthy dried chili; and aji rocoto, a fiery chili that is commonly stuffed with meat and cheese for a dish called rocoto relleno, or added to spice up soups and sauces.

Indeed, it's rare to find a dish in Peru that doesn't include one of those three. At several cevicherias in Lima, I ate tiraditos, a Japanese-style ceviche where flattened slices, not chunks, of marinated fish are smothered in rocoto-spiked cream sauce. At Edo Sushi, a popular Lima sushi bar, I watched most locals forgo the purist nigiri that are in vogue in the United States for elaborate creations such as a shrimp tempura roll topped with flambeed tuna "bathed" in aji panca. (Sadly, when the menu said bathed, it meant it. The chili sauce overwhelmed the delicate fish, though wiping off half of it solved the problem.)

Aji panca is also the key ingredient in anticuchos, the Peruvian version of kebabs. Traditionally made with beef heart, anticuchos are marinated in a mix of vinegar, garlic, cumin and aji panco, then grilled.

Until recently, anticuchos were considered nothing more than a cheap, late-night street snack. But the growing pride in Peruvian cuisine of all kinds has created new interest in the humble dish. At a corner in the upscale neighborhood of Miraflores, crowds begin to gather before 7 p.m., when Grimanesa Vargas Araujo arrives with her cart. For more than 30 years, she has cooked her generous skewers of marinated heart, which tastes like a flavor-packed, chewy sirloin, on a small grill. She serves them with an ear of Peruvian corn and boiled potatoes for about $2. No matter how long the lines get -- at peak hours the wait can be up to 90 minutes -- she refuses to expand the size of her grill and risk not cooking each order just right.

"She was an anticucho maker five years ago. Now she's a personality," says Acurio, who accompanied me recently on a tour of anticucho carts. "Being an anticucho maker is not anymore a bad thing to be in your life. You are a recognized person because you are part of the tradition we are defending."

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