How Peru’s food culture propelled Lima to the reputation of ‘the world’s best restaurant’

The capital’s four spots on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list owe as much to the bounty of its indigenous people as to the creativity of its chefs.

A dish called Amazon Connection is on the tasting menu at Central Restaurant in Lima. Dishes include Arapaima fish belly salted with turmeric and achiote, served with fermented cassava and cecina infusion, or smoked pork. (Angela Ponce for The Washington Post)

MORAY, Peru — Chef Virgilio Martínez chews on raw purple tubers as he listens to his Quechua-speaking subsistence farmers explain Andean techniques for sheltering from the elements.

Broad beans are planted together with pukutu, a colorful and rare ancient variety of maize, explains Kuleto Kusipaucar. Heavy rains destroy corn, but beans grow. If conditions are drier, beans will not grow, but corn will.

“I wish I had more time to listen,” said Martinez, 46, who was honored this year as the founder of the world’s best restaurant. “Every time I do it, I learn something new.”

The men stand in a field overlooking Moray, a huge pre-Columbian basin made up of concentric layers carved into the mountainside above the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru.

Thought to have been used as an agricultural laboratory, moray eels have surprising effects. As it descends into the bowl, the temperature will rise. Modern researchers believe that the Incas used terraced rings to adapt crops to different elevations for their highly vertical empire.

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Moray is where Mr. Martinez built the Center for the Martel Initiative, a modern culinary research institute focused on the study of local traditions and ecological knowledge, which led to Mr. Martinez’s status as a gastronomic rock star. pushed up. In June, Martinez’s flagship restaurant Central in Lima was named number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, perhaps the industry’s most influential list. It was in the top 10 for years.

This honor, voted by more than 1,000 international experts, cemented Peru’s place in the culinary world. With innovative tasting menus that showcase Peru’s breathtaking geography and biodiversity, Central ranks four of Lima’s top 50 restaurants more than any other city in the world. I was allowed to.

It was the personal talent and drive of Mr. Martinez and Lima’s other top chefs that allowed the gastronomic scene of the troubled and developing Peruvian capital to triumph over established powerhouses such as Paris and New York. A lot depends on it. But it’s no coincidence that they’re Peruvian, and their creativity has been forged in this South American country’s highly original and diverse national food culture, finally making it one of the best in the world. It’s starting to be recognized.

No matter where you go here, Peruvians of all races and classes love not only eating but talking about food, and there are countless mouth-watering options to suit any budget. Most recipes can only be found in Peru. Always made with fresh ingredients.

“The best thing about Peru is the food. There are so many dishes and ingredients,” says Pamela Clemente, a fruit vendor, munching on ceviche, Peru’s national dish, at an open-air market in Lima’s gritty La Victoria district. (32) says.

“I don’t know what Peru would be like without our cuisine,” she says. “We will have no country.”

Anthropologist Alexander Huerta Mercado believes that in a society whose self-esteem has been shattered by rampant corruption, political dysfunction, the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world, and a string of failures for the national soccer team, cooking is the key. is an eternal source of collective pride. And pure joy.

“Most Peruvians have never visited Machu Picchu,” says Huerta Mercado, a professor at the Catholic University of Peru. “But the food is different. Any foreigner in Peru is asked right away if they like the food. They shouldn’t answer ‘no.’ Chefs are cultural heroes here. Everyone wants to be one. ”

Martínez’s center opened just before the pandemic, bringing together chefs, botanists, anthropologists, artists and more to create new and sustainable ways to harness flavorful and nutritious ingredients from the Andes, Amazon and Pacific Coast. We are researching methods.

Farmer Cusipaucar and other locals work on three acres of land next to the moray eel, harvesting native crops such as tubers ululco and mashua, and herbs such as huacatay, a locally grown marigold commonly used in Peruvian cuisine. are doing. The villagers keep half of their produce. The rest go to Martinez’s little restaurant here, Mill and Central.

Kushpaukkar, 58, grows 50 varieties of potatoes, but can only sell four because there is no commercial demand. He told Martinez that he counted 80 Andean plants that were traditionally consumed for food or medicinal purposes but are no longer used by nearby communities. “That’s my biggest worry,” he says. “We will lose them forever.”

Martinez nods and promises to put endangered species in Mater’s botanical garden. “Tell me which plants, which species,” he says. “We are completely aligned. We can help you.”

Martínez’s relationships with artisan suppliers such as Cusipaucar, Pacific fishermen and Amazonian indigenous communities have shaped Central’s tasting menu, Mundo en Desnivel, or “The World on a Slope.”

Featuring many plant-based dishes, each of the 14 courses lists the altitude at which the ingredients were harvested (often wild-foraged), transporting diners to all parts of Peru. We will take you on a lively voyage. Throughout, Martinez delights in throwing curveballs at his customers with unexpected textures and flavors that belie the food’s appearance.

Highlights include a dish called “warm sea” from 15 meters above sea level on Peru’s north coast, crispy clams and ahi limo, and a refreshing grouper soup with Peruvian fiery chili peppers. Extreme Altitude from 4,200 meters above sea level on the Altiplano. It includes five types of corn, crunchy Andean amaranth seeds, and delicate sweet potato leaves. And in the Amazon Waters, 190 meters above sea level, there’s salted packu, a meat-eating river piranha herbivore, watermelon slices, and coconut and coca foam (yes, the source of cocaine).

In the sleek, dark salon in the bohemian Lima neighborhood of Barranco, long, minimalist stainless-steel windows overlook the dozen or so chefs in black T-shirts and aprons. Some of them come from as far away as France and Spain. kitchen.

The friendly and efficient atmosphere is a far cry from the bullying that is notorious in restaurant documentaries. Martinez said he experienced such a kitchen in London. There he worked “in fear,” a feeling he says is the exact opposite of the “meaning” he is now trying to construct.

Martinez’s work breaks with Peruvian tradition. It’s light and airy, and the flavors are kept subtle so that one course doesn’t overpower the others. Traditional Peruvian cuisine is all about bold, intense flavors, including native chile peppers.

Many of the country’s most famous dishes – aji de gallina, a chicken recipe similar to korma. Arroz con mariscos, a seafood rice dish influenced by paella. And its vast desert temples with French influences might best be described as comfort food.

Peru’s culinary excellence is also due to its vast natural food store. Its tropical latitudes, which vary greatly in elevation from the Andes to the Pacific coast, are home to nearly every type of ecosystem on Earth, and therefore crops and livestock. It famously contains more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, as well as all kinds of herbs, cereals, legumes, and agricultural products new to most foreigners. Additionally, Peru’s Pacific waters are extremely rich in plankton, thanks to the Humboldt Current.

Peruvian cuisine, or “battle” in local slang, spans from the unique indigenous traditions of the coast, mountains, and rainforests to waves of voluntary and involuntary immigration from Spain, Africa, Italy, and China. It combines a variety of influences. And especially Japan. This blend of geography and history explains the primitive soups that gave rise to Peruvian cuisine. But no one has pinpointed the proverbial lightning strike that brought it to life.

Huertamercado has a theory.

Peru’s culinary genius, he says, is the result of the “precariousness” of life in a chaotic society lacking the rule of law. “There is no tomorrow, no concept of the future,” he says. “Peruvians live in the eternal present and need instant gratification and sensory overload.”

Some of those influences can also be seen in ceviche. Thought to have pre-Columbian roots, it was once treated with the juice of acidic local fruits such as tambo, known in English as banana passion fruit. Today, tambo has been replaced by lime, which was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors. Large fish fillets with extra-large corn kernels and steamed sweet potatoes are a later addition, inspired by the sashimi brought over by the Japanese in the early 20th century.

Peru’s next most famous national dish, lomo saltado, is made by sauteing shredded sirloin in a wok with sliced ​​tomatoes and red onions, seasoning with soy sauce, cumin, and aji amarillo, a mild and unique Peruvian yellow chili pepper. Season with. The classic presentation includes rice and fatty fries made with floury, highly absorbent Peruvian yellow potatoes. But there is also a version made with taktakku, a hearty Afro-Peruvian mixture of rice and beans seasoned with pork fat.

Traditionally, many of these recipes were served exclusively at home. The template for the most exclusive restaurants was French cuisine. Lima’s predominantly white elite disdained local recipes, even seafood, the centerpiece of modern Peruvian cuisine.

But over the past two decades, a generation of young chefs has returned from culinary schools in Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere, training new skills and techniques in traditional Peruvian home cooking and bringing working-class standards to the table. Recovering it and breathing new life into it. Martinez denies “French hegemony” and asks, “Why does a meal have to start with champagne?” Where is that written? ”

Martínez and other chefs are looking to improve Peru’s increasingly threatened crop diversity, which is sustained by smallholders while agricultural exports based on intensive mono-crop cultivation are booming. He has been the strongest advocate of conservation.

Peru just renewed a 10-year moratorium on sowing genetically modified organisms. This is the basis of large-scale agriculture in the United States and is seen as a threat to the traditional custodians of the country’s diverse foods, farmers who typically work just an acre or two. The move was supported by Martinez’s mentor, Gastón Acurio.

Mr. Acurio is often credited with starting a culinary renaissance with the opening of his restaurant Astrid y Gastón in Lima in 1994, but it was not until the rapid rise of his disciples that it became Peru’s most famous restaurant. He was a famous chef. His unique ability to straddle the cultural divide between Lima’s elite and the rural underclass has made the 56-year-old briefly a pollster in the 2016 presidential race until he himself was excluded from the race. came out on top. (He didn’t show any interest in running.)

Still, Peru’s gastronomic revival faces obstacles. Fast food chains are expanding their footprint here, and obesity rates, one of the lowest in Latin America, are on the rise. “We’re importing the North American model of bulk food,” Martinez warns. “It’s the food that makes you sick.”

After Central won this year’s world rankings, some were cynical about its tasting menu costing $384 in a country where the Food and Agriculture Organization says half the population now experiences food insecurity. A voice rose.

Mr. Martinez said he directly employs about 100 people while paying above-market rates to often humble suppliers and building stable, long-term relationships with them. Central raises Peru’s international profile and attracts tourists.

Although he avoids political posturing, his vindication of indigenous knowledge stands out in a society motivated by the massacres of anti-government protesters by security forces in December and January 2023. was a highly political act, the Organization of American States concluded, and was due to “serious stigma” against indigenous peoples. Andean people.

“I hope this restaurant gives meaning to the responsibility of providing fine cuisine in a country full of contradictions, where there is hunger, things don’t work, and there is a lack of civic consciousness,” Martinez said. says. “It’s about accepting that it’s a small bubble and what you can do from there.”

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