A wide array of home grown foods, delicate sauces and regional specialties: Peru has a surprising cuisine and we have been lucky enough to be enjoying as much of it as possible over the last couple of weeks. The occasion was my brother’s wedding. We booked in a couple of extra days to do some sightseeing, and of course dining.We started in Arequipa, which is a culinary rival of the larger capital Lima. Arequipa is known for Rocoto Relleno, a hot pepper stuffed with diced beef in a light sauce. Sauces are no small matter in Peru. The various shadings and flavors seem to allow the chef a chance to show off some originality, while staying in the traditional comfort zone. No matter what our pleadings (in my poor Spanish none the less) we never did get the truly hot version of rocoto reserved for locals. Chicharron in Peru is often served as a fried slice of pork belly, fat and meat in layers like a cake. It’s quite different from the pork skin version in Mexico. Adobo is a Sunday tradition in Arequipa, where it is served as a stew with pork shanks. Once again the spicy, complex flavor is a revelation.
Aji pepper sauces come in several basic forms in Peru which are expanded and refined by the chef. The yellow, green and peanut versions also have regional variations. The Ocopa Arequipena is a peanut based sauce often used to top potatoes or served with fried queso. The Veggie Eater found a terrific rendition at Sol de Mayo, a huge and beautiful courtyard restaurant in the Yanahuara district of Arequipa. We enjoyed getting out of the tourist areas and into the residential neighborhoods. However, there are plenty of great places to eat in central Arequipa. We enjoyed Lomo Saltado and pasta at La Trattoria del Monesterio, which is located in the walls of the famous Santa Catalina Monastery. You’ll see Italian names and menu items all over Peru, and many of the pastas we sampled were delightful. The influences of other cultures have created a fusion of cuisine before the word ever was popular in cooking. The Chinese influence can be seen in more than just the proliferation of Chifa restaurants, but also in the use of sauces and noodles in modern establishments.
Seafood is quite important in Peruvian cuisine. The Pacific waters off the coast offer some of the most abundant fishing in the world. They bring it to the plate with an astounding variety of ceviches. At the wedding they came out one after another in shot glasses. Some were super spicy and others creamy and tangy. The so-called “tigers milk” from the spicy versions (the citrus based juice) makes for a great kick in the pants at the bottom of the glass. It’s an eye-opening accompaniment to the many, many Pisco Sours (like a much better version of a margarita utilizing the national liquor Pisco). Needless to say it was a fun wedding.
All of this prepared us well for a one-day stopover in Lima before heading home. We hadn’t planned any eating excursions but a friend from the hotel said that we needed to try Astrid and Gaston. It’s the original headquarters for what is becoming the global cooking empire of Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio. You can see him just about everywhere on Peruvian TV (I tried to nap one afternoon and ended up watching him make various aji sauces). Now we don’t usually worry about visiting celebrity chef restaurants, but his dedication to promoting the Peruvian cuisine and culture goes straight to the plate at Astrid and Gaston. The various rooms look pieced together from whatever they were before restaurant life and with tremendous effect. The restaurant décor combines modern style with traditional tile and wood for a comfortable and luxurious space.
We start with an appetizer of potatoes, yucca and corn. It’s a virtual tour of the country, turning the traditional ingredients into fun, little fritters artfully displayed on the plate with tiny cubes of traditional Andean highland cheese. One bite might reveal corn and the next purple potato. Three cold aji sauces make sampling and dipping a tasting delight.
Aji de Gallina is a classic Peruvian comfort dish of aji sauce and pulled chicken. The Astrid and Gaston staff doesn’t stray far from the original. The savory sauce and chicken seem like an old childhood friend given a modern make-over.
Veggie Eater: Peru is a remarkably veggie friendly country. Just try “vegetarian restaurants and Peru” in a Google search and you will see how accommodating they are. Perhaps it’s because they cater to the granola munching backpackers and hikers from Europe; perhaps it’s simply a sign of how friendly they are. Even with extremely limited Spanish, one can easily discern veggie items as virtually all restaurants have a “vegetarian platas” section on the menu. Granted, these dishes are essentially ovo-lacto. The cuisine is chock full of potatoes, fresh farmers cheese, eggs, and corn. However, we found quite a few veggie only restaurants, which also clearly delineate vegan options. If daring, opt for the salads; they are wonderful and on our trip no GI issues ensued. Potatoes come in every conceivable form. And I must say the Italian food offerings in Peru were better than what I can typically get in Nashville. Sadly, I’ve developed quite a fondness for the Pisco Sour…
Meat Eater: Peruvian food options in the Nashville area have been few and fleeting. Peruvian Corner downtown and El Inca in Antioch have shut down. Cuzco Latin Cuisine in Murfreesboro is the only current place we could find. If you know of others, or restaurants offering Peruvian menu items, please let us know. Okay, now who is ready for another Pisco Sour?