How Peruvian food (finally) conquered the world
Author Jolyon Helterman Photography Musuk Nolte
LIMA, PERU – Hailing Peruvian cuisine as the Next Big Thing has long been a favorite sport of culinary pundits. Bon Appétit called it as far back as 2005, and again in 2008. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal and at least a dozen respected food scribes touted Peruvian grub as the it cuisine. But a critical mass of cebiche enthusiasm never quite materialized.
In 2013, however, with Lima’s Central Restaurante cracking the coveted “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list and Astrid & Gastón (also in Lima) leaping 21 spots to No. 14 from the previous year (the highest jump on the same list), it’s safe to say that food from the land of the Incas has finally become hotter than an aji amarillo chile. In short, you’ll want to commit the name of that pepper—Peru’s preferred source of culinary heat—to memory, along with causa (potato terrine), tiradito (sashimi-style ceviche), and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef and peppers).
“The way Lima’s food scene has grown in the last five years is incredible,” says Virgilio Martínez, chef of Central Restaurante. “I haven’t seen anything like it here before—people coming in for the weekend just to eat, from Europe, from America, even Asia.”
Tracing the origin of any food trend is tricky, but a decent starting point for this one might be Mistura, this food festival in Lima that was founded in 2008 by Gastón Acurio, whose culinary empire includes seven outposts of his flagship restaurant, Astrid & Gastón, and five locations—including New York and San Francisco—of his upscale cebicheria, La Mar. The festival has brought international attention to the diverse bounty produced by Peru’s 84 microclimates. Think pristine seafood, obscure jungle ingredients like the quinoa-esque cañihua grain and the cherimoya fruit, and 4,000 varieties of potatoes.
Last year, however, is when the buzz started to go truly global. First, there was the launch of celeb chef Richard Sandoval’s Raymi in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, and then, earlier this year, London fell hard for the trend with the arrivals of LIMA in London (another of Virgilio Martínez’s spots) and Ceviche Peruvian Kitchen. Other recent high-profile openings include Above Eleven in Bangkok, Juvia in Miami and, perhaps most notably, Pakta—a 32-seat nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese fusion) eatery in Barcelona from molecular-gastronomy kingpin Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli fame.
When asked if the buzz could be a flash in the sartén, Martínez shakes his head.
“This curiosity in food from our country will only make local chefs more excited to experiment with dishes and ingredients from the wildest parts of Peru,” he says.