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."

SeƱora Grimanesa, as she is known, has become a mini-celebrity in Lima. She has made TV appearances; she even has her own Web site. But Acurio is one of the country's most recognizable faces. After we arrived at the anticucho cart, it took only seconds for patrons to begin taking photos with their cellphones and lining up for autographs.

Acurio is promoting anticuchos himself at his newest Lima restaurant, Panchita, which opened in February. Just a few miles from Grimanesa's cart, the vibe -- and the prices -- are entirely different. Hunks of meat are on display at the entrance of the vast modern space, accented with vibrant red and dark wood. In addition to beef heart, there are anticuchos of beef, salmon, chicken and octopus that cost between three and six times as much as the ones on the street.

That, Acurio says, is the point: "Why, if we can go to hamburger restaurants and fried chicken restaurants, why can't we have a wonderful restaurant where anticuchos are the star? If we can have in the mind of people that there are great anticuchos, maybe they will think, 'Let's go eat them on the street.' We try to help each other."

Other street foods have made their way onto restaurant menus. Tamales now are frequently available at Lima restaurants. My favorites, however, were picarones, a kind of doughnut made from a yeasted pumpkin or sweet potato dough. Whether you find them late-night on the corner or at the local cevicheria, the ring-shaped fritters are served with a sugar syrup spiced with a magical blend of cinnamon, cloves, anise seed and orange peel.

The mix of fruit and spice is a common pairing in Peru. You'll find it in one of the country's most popular drinks: chicha morada, made by boiling dried purple corn with pineapple rind, cinnamon and cloves. The dark liquid is served like a nonalcoholic sangria, over ice with cut-up pineapple and apple. It's sweet for an American palate but not as sweet as the even more popular Inca Kola, an unnatural yellow-colored soda that smells and tastes like bubble gum. Peruvians swear it is refreshing on a hot day, and genuinely addictive.

Then there are potatoes. Peru grows thousands of varieties. While U.S. supermarkets offer about five kinds, the average market in Lima has a dozen or more. Potatoes are such a staple that it's not uncommon to be served rice and potatoes on the same plate.

By far the most ubiquitous potato dish in Lima is causa, which "Eat Smart in Peru" describes as limited only by the imagination of the cook. The basic dish consists of cold mashed potatoes, usually yellow but occasionally red or blue, flavored with chili peppers and Peruvian lime, then filled with seafood, chicken salad or avocado.

Causas are often made in a casserole dish, but they are sometimes rolled like a jelly roll and sliced or made in individual molds. By far the most interesting interpretation I encountered was at Chala, a restaurant in the bohemian neighborhood of Barranco. Here, the potatoes were stuffed with goat cheese, avocado and crab and, in a tip of the hat to Japan, crusted in panko flakes and then deep-fried. The trick, the chef said, was to fry the causa just long enough to be crisp on the outside yet still cold and creamy inside.

Acurio has anticuchos, causas, picarones and more on the menu at his new San Francisco cevicheria La Mar, his U.S. beachhead. Ceviche is the draw -- a gateway dish, if you will, to the broader canon of Peruvian cuisine. But there is one classic Acurio has left behind: guinea pig. The meat is a favorite in Peru, especially in the Andes, where there are restaurants called cuyerias dedicated to roasting the small rodents. The one time we tasted it, the meat filled a delicate ravioli. But the traditional presentation is whole, head-on, little feet pointing toward the ceiling.

It's not the kind of dish that will win the hearts or appetites of many Americans. But to be fair, you don't often find natto, a sticky, smelly Japanese bean paste, in many U.S. sushi restaurants either. To conquer the global food scene, you have to pick your battles.

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