Tunta. Mashwa. Bark. I’m staring at a menu in Lima’s leafy Miraflores neighbourhood, feeling a Wonka-esque sense of wonder. Titled ‘Mater Ecosystems’, the menu themes a 12-course meal by altitude, ranging from 65ft below sea level to 12,800ft in the Andes, celebrating Peru’s biodiversity with dishes so breathtakingly beautiful they could break Instagram.
I need to Google several of the ingredients (tunta is a type of sun-dried potato; mashwa a flowering plant — both grown in the Andes; bark is… well, bark). But that just adds to the experience. A decade ago, who would have thought it possible? Lima is making me fall in love with food all over again.
The restaurant is Central. Its chef is Virgilio Martínez. Bestubbled, handsome, floating between guests at their tables and the symphony of sous-chefs working behind a glass wall next door, he’s the poster boy for the Peruvian capital’s white-hot food scene. “I’ve always seen myself as a boy from Lima, living in a bubble,” the 39-year-old tells me. But this is no ordinary bubble.
A few weeks after my visit, Central retains its number-four spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants — one place ahead of Copenhagen’s Noma. My lunch dishes include ‘Close Fishing’ (10 metres below sea level), a simple but vibrant arrangement of delicate octopus pieces beneath egg-white ‘coral’, dyed with squid ink. ‘Low Andes Mountains’ (1,800 metres) comes in an earthy-red bowl, filled with air-dried beef, airampo (a purple prickly pear cactus from the Andes) and a kaleidoscopic splash of quinoas.
“There’s a creative awakening in Lima,” Martínez continues, referring to the new generation of chefs, producers, foodie entrepreneurs and diners that’s found the confidence to just be “what they are”. But the journey is only beginning. “Now,” he smiles, “we have to think beyond trends.”
Leading the South American charge on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants along with Central are Maido (ranked 13) and Astrid y Gastón (30). But this is about more than accolades. Peru’s natural pantry ranges from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes and Amazonian rainforest. Its spread of fauna, flora, climates, soils and ecosystems makes Scandinavia look like a 7/11. Market cevicherias (ceviche stands), street sangucherias (sandwich shops) and hole-in-the-wall huariques (traditional restaurants) serve up mouthwatering fare for a couple of sols. Locals know their food (one of my favourite discoveries is lonche, a light, chatty meal enjoyed between lunch and dinner), and neighbourhoods like Miraflores and Barranco are sizzling. Forget backpackers tucking into badly cooked guinea pig on their gringo trails, tourists are finally realising Machu Picchu can be joined by magic on the plate.
“Peruvian people are the hardest to please,” says 26-year-old Cesar Bellido, head chef at a San Isidro restaurant many consider the engine of Lima’s gastronomic revolution — Astrid y Gastón. “All of what we’re doing comes from traditional food, from home cooking. You start with the most basic ingredients, although very honed. You see the Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and native influences. But it all starts very simply.” Established in 1994 by Gastón Acurio and his wife, Astrid Gutsche, Astrid y Gastón has blossomed from a pioneering Peruvian restaurant into a food empire stretching from Caracas to Madrid. Its colonial-style Casa Moreyra mansion has become an icon. From Bellido’s eagle-eyed attention to a team of tweezer-toting chefs through Gastón’s experimental kitchen and Astrid’s adventures in chocolate, it’s the Modern Peruvian mothership, a place that celebrates identity as much as a new way of eating.
At Surquillo Market, a few blocks from Kennedy Park in Miraflores, I pick my way through the raw ingredients of a revolution. Workers shift crates around a Catholic shrine; stalls bulge with exotic produce. There’s lucuma, a mango-like fruit that grows in Andean valleys and emits hints of butterscotch when cooked. There are teensy tubers (ulluco), red-hot rocoto chilli peppers, golden aguaymanto berries and ice cream beans (pacay), whose black beans are squirrelled away within a white, cottony pulp. There are grains and spices, boxes of corn, key limes, avocados, cassava and potatoes (Peru has 3,000 varieties, my Condor Travel guide tells me). Amid the colour, ceviche stands are cranking up for the morning trade.
“Everyone comes here — the rich, the poor, even Gastón,” says one lady, as she’s showing me her husband’s stall. A blackboard is propped up on its counter, bearing the words ‘El mar en tu boca’ (‘The sea in your mouth’). Behind it, chunks of sole are chopped. Thunk. Splat. Squelch.
Ceviche is the closest thing Peru has to a national dish. Combining raw fish with a citrusy marinade, crunchy corn and soft sweet potato, infused with ginger, coriander and chilli, the freshness of its ingredients is key. Later, at nearby Lima 27 restaurant, I watch as chef Alcides Alegre puts his own twist on this classic — arranging cubes of fish in a circle in the bowl, scattering his garnishes and pouring a marinade that quickly turns the surface of the fish white. The flavours come in intense bursts — the acidic key lime, the sharpness of the onion and chilli, the chunky corn, the accents of sweet potato — all seeming to converse around the plump fleshiness of the sole. From market stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants, from grandmother’s recipes to game-changers like Central and Astrid y Gastón, everyone has a favourite ceviche.
Peru’s diversity goes deeper than its produce, of course. Lima has its indigenous and Spanish influences, but the city also boasts thriving Japanese and Chinese communities, and strong European links (two of my guides have Irish ancestry). Limeños love their chaufa, a casual, comfort-food mix of Cantonese and Peruvian ingredients and traditions. Japanese influences shine through in dishes like tiridito, with its petal-thin, sashimi-like slices of raw fish served in citrus-spicy sauce. At Maido, I try chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s hymn to Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese fusion) — a tasting menu whose dishes include a gigantic Amazonian snail, guinea pig dumpling with spicy ponzu sauce and soba noodles made from purple Amazonian potatoes. It’s another, epic culinary journey — and I only get the menu after the meal.
At Ámaz — whose chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, is another of Lima’s gastro-geniuses — I’m confronted with still more flavours and combinations. There’s river dorado, slow-cooked in a bijao leaf with jungle spices, turmeric, bitter orange, onion, sweet chilli and tomatoes. There are scallops with camu camu, a rainforest fruit hailed for its health benefits. Chonta palm tree shavings are rendered as waif-like tagliatelle around sustainably farmed palm tree hearts and sweet plantains. Schiaffino has forged relationships with producers in the remotest parts of Peru to tell the story of the Amazon region with serious pizazz on the plate. “When I first came here, all the flavours were new to me,” my waitress, Lucero Baca Galiano, tells me. “You compare and contrast them to things you know, before getting to know them as flavours themselves.”
City by the sea
Bit by bit, Lima is changing. In times gone by, the traveller’s rule of thumb was to get in and out quickly, moving on to the more obvious attractions of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Now, eye-catching art and design scenes are emerging to complement the restaurants and chefs that have made it the culinary envy of Latin America. There’s a cautious optimism, a sense that decades of economic chaos, terrorism and hyperinflation could now be in the rear view mirror.
Still, it’s not an obviously alluring city. Modern Lima dates from 1535, when it was established as a coastal base by the Spanish conquistador Pizzaro, although Inca settlements stretch back way further, as evidenced by the mudbrick pyramids still dotting its suburbs. Today, the city sprawls like a South American LA, with around 10 million residents, ranging from the relative opulence of Miraflores to the tumbledown slums stacked up its surrounding hills and mountains. Chorrillos throbs with tuk-tuk rickshaws. In Old Lima — home to the city’s colonial set-pieces — you might see a Mercedes followed by a battered minivan with a ticket seller hanging from the doorway. Lima is low-rise and, aside from its colonial centre and oceanside bluffs, rarely beautiful.
I visit in July, in the midst of winter. The city wakes up hazy, sea blending with the horizon in a feather-grey blur (“We call it garua,” my guide says. “It’s like the belly of the donkey.”). The notorious mist is due to the city’s position between the Andes and Pacific, but it doesn’t stop any enjoyment of the water. No other South American capital faces the ocean like Lima, and I see surfers carrying their boards through Miraflores, paragliders riding thermals above the bluffs, and couples canoodling in the necklace of parks along its cliffs (look out for the statue of Paddington Bear, who came from ‘darkest Peru’). In summer, the sunsets here create what’s called el cielo de brujas (‘the sky of witches’).
As the days go on, the heat picks up, and I use the time between meals to explore the city’s other attractions. In Callao, near Lima’s port, a rundown centre is being rebooted by a surprising bloom of galleries and street art fanning out around Casa Fugaz, a converted 20th-century market building. In Lima’s old town — by turns crumbling and elegantly colonial — the Basilica Cathedral of Lima contains the tomb of Pizarro. Nearby, the 17th-century Church and Convent of Santo Domingo contrasts cedar and mahogany ceilings with colourful tiles from Seville. Outside the monolithic Government Palace, a military band plays popular classics (was that really the Star Wars theme?), while a Peruvian woman in a boxy bowler hat sells trinkets from a basket. Around the corner, the waitress at Bar Restaurant Cordano, a spit-and-sawdust bar, slices cured hams and slips the pieces into butifarra rolls with pickled onions and chillies.
Barranco is another district on the turn. When I check into Hotel B, a Belle Époque mansion rebooted as Relais & Chateaux’s first Lima hotel, my eye is drawn to a black tie on the bed. It’s not a hint, or a leftover from some illicit tryst. It’s the do-not-disturb sign, paired with a note instructing guests to hang it on the door handle when they want privacy. Walls are crammed with head-turning artworks, rooms individually designed, and the barman whips me up a mean pisco sour with coca. It’s the perfect base for exploring a neighbourhood where hot new galleries sit next to derelict mansions; where old-school peñas (music clubs) pump out Afro-Peruvian folk near funky additions like Isolina (the restaurant serves its modern twists on traditional, Criollo cooking in enamel bowls), where street art adorns walls a stone’s throw from Mario Testino’s MATE gallery.
The ripple effects are spreading, too. During my week in Lima, I take an overnight trip to Pisco, spending a night at Hotel Paracas that comes with a 4WD excursion into the desert. The experience is in stark contrast to the shanty towns along the four-hour, rubbish-strewn highway drive (a far remove from the Andean landscapes of holiday brochures). The skies bloom a bit bluer here, and our dune-bashing ends with a barbecue beneath the stars. The sun goes down, and I sit on a rug in a tent lit up like a spaceship. Prawns, beef, chicken, cassava and potatoes are all brought, course by course, and the crystal-clear constellations are cherished all the more after Lima’s fug.
Would one fly 6,000 miles for Lima alone? Public transport is tough going, there’s serious logistical jujitsu required to get your restaurant bookings in a row, and the gulf between salubrious suburbs and slums is as jarring as you’ll find in a big South American city. But the place is definitely having a moment, and there’s a vibrant food scene. I find Peruvian pisco, a grape brandy dating back to the Spanish settlers, undergoing a renaissance. It’s the same story with chocolate and coffee. Barista and coffee entrepreneur Harrysson Neira pours me a sample of the latter in his cafe at Maria Deplacer, a boutique food court in Miraflores. He tells me how he takes a plane, a bus and then walks for two hours to meet one of his producers. “Peruvians are coffee drinkers but they drink bad coffee,” he says. He wants to change that, turning one of Peru’s main exports into a brand as refined as Lima’s new cuisine.
Back in Barranco, I spend one of my final evenings taking in the district’s buzzing nightlife. I veer from Juanito de Barranco — a dive bar where an old guitar man serenades customers on a battered instrument — to a cheap ceviche, a tart pisco sour and some traditional tunes at Sóngoro Consongo, an old peña set in an adobe house near the Bridge of Sighs (‘barranco’ is Spanish for ‘ravine’).
“This is home cooking,” says its owner, Hernan Vega, joining me for a drink. “To be alive and to share with friends. This is the spirit of Lima. It was the same feeling 100 years ago, and it’ll be the same feeling in 100 years’ time.”
Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct, non-stop from Gatwick to Lima three times weekly, with return fares from £650, including taxes and fees.
Metropolitano buses connect Barranco, Miraflores and San Isidro with the city centre, although routes are limited. Minivans and taxis are plentiful, but rates need to be negotiated. Condor Travel offers themed city tours, ranging from the half-day ‘Flavours of Peru’ to a gastronomic bike excursion in Miraflores.
When to go
Lima has a subtropical climate, with temperatures ranging from around 12-30C. December-April is the summer season. June-October brings grey skies, but crowds are smaller and surfing is still an option.
How to do it
Rooms at Hotel B from £280 a night. Hotel Paracas has rooms from £180 a night. Condor Travel’s tours can be booked with Rainbow Tours. Rainbow’s Peru packages include an 11-day Gourmet Peru and Amazon in Style itinerary from £5,685 per person, with flights.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)