Why Lima?

I traveled to Lima, Peru last May. Why Lima? My friend, who was planning a trip there, enthusiastically declared Lima to be the next great world culinary destination. My friend’s enthusiasm was not based on nothing. Over the past year or so, Lima has been breathlessly talked about in international culinary circles. Nicholas Gill writes about Lima on his blog, New World Review and in the New York Times, and it’s a perennial topic on Matt Goulding and Nathan Thornburgh’s ultra-literate travel blog, Roads and Kingdoms. Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post wrote about Central Restaurant last year. The Guardian wrote about “Peru’s Fantastic Food Revolution” in September, 2012.

There’s more than just media attention: Culinary godfather Ferran Adrià and his brother, Albert, opened Pakta in Barcelona, which focuses on Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei cuisine. The worlds’ top chefs visited Lima in in 2011 for the Mistura International Gastronomic Festival. Two Lima restaurants appeared on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Even Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown in Lima a few weeks prior to our visit.

There really was no questioning that Lima had arrived as the hot culinary destination. So, largely on a whim, I decided to join my friend and two other friends, and head off to Lima. With reservations for Central, Astrid y Gastón, Ámaz, Manifiesto, Maido, and the cevicheria, El Mercado, our forks were ready to dig into Peru.

This would not be my first experience with Peruvian food. Chicago has a respectable showing of “homestyle” Peruvian cooking at places like D’Candela, Taste of Peru, 4 Suyos, Rios D’Sudamerica, and many other restaurants. Delicious pollo a la brasa is not hard to find in Chicago; neither are causas, ceviches, antichuchos nor chaufas, Peruvian-style fried rice. Going to Lima gave us the opportunity to see what this batch of vanguard chefs were doing to elevate their cuisine, as well as to taste Peru’s treasure trove of uncommon, untranslatable ingredients and various sub-cuisines that barely materialize stateside.

At the end of it, it was not necessarily the chefs who impressed me (though some did). Instead, I was floored by Peru’s unique ingredients and subcuisines. During a market tour, we tasted many exotic fruits and vegetables that are not available anywhere in the U.S. Ceviche, the Peruvian national staple, is not typically eaten long after noon, when the fish is no longer considered to be fresh enough (probably due to the onset of rigor mortis). The cuisine of the Amazon region — as interpreted by Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino at Ámaz (and featured on Bourdain’s show) — is largely unexplored and unfamiliar to most diners. Italian immigration in Tacna in Southern Peru peeked through the preparations by Chef Bocchio (who is of Italian heritage) at Manifiesto.

I was less impressed with the Chifa and Nikkei fusion cuisines (Peruvian-Chinese and -Japanese cuisines, respectively) that were influenced by Asian immigration to Peru. Chifa, in particular, tasted similar to overly sweet, cornstarched Ameri-Chinese of the 1950s (MSG and all). Gastón Acurio’s Chifa restaurant, Madam Tusan’s, seemed like a PF Chang’s facsimile, right down to the perky ’80s pop music. I was impressed with the skill and precision of American-trained Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura at his Nikkei restaurant, Maido, which served some genuinely delicious dishes. Nikkei cuisine in general, though, walked too close to the Amer-Asian fusion trend that raged a decade ago, and still seems to thrive at many Japanese restaurants in U.S. cities. Although Peruvian-Japanese fusion is distinct in that it arose from immigration and not from a manufactured foodie trend, there are certainly examples of American fusion that came about organically, too. It’s worth recollecting that the Western hemisphere — South and North American countries alike — experienced large-scale waves of immigration from certain parts of the world that influenced foodways or resulted in a subcuisine. For example, Southern Italian immigrants to the U.S. had to adjust their foodways for lack of certain ingredients or to suit local tastes. Is red-sauce Italian-American food a subcuisine of the U.S.? Seems a stretch, and that’s sort of how I feel about Nikkei and Chifa. Maybe this sort of Asian-fusion is more novel in Barcelona, which perhaps explains why the Adrià brothers were so taken with it.

I have more specific thoughts to follow about my meals at Manifiesto, Central and Astrid y Gastón. There is some talent there that’s understated, and some that’s overamplified. More later.