A lesson in the history and culture of Peru through its foods
We are sitting in the dining room of a spacious, sunlit, modern apartment located only a few hundred steps from a high cliff overlooking the Pacific. Gazing through the floor-to-ceiling windows at palm trees and waves meeting the shore, it would be easy to mistake Barranco, a middle-class district in the southern part of Lima, Peru, for an upscale California beach town like Marina del Rey or Santa Monica.
Our lunch table looks like a page from Fine Cooking photoshopped against the backdrop of a room whose décor is straight out of Architectural Digest. Elegant martini glasses are filled with moist flounder and shrimp ceviche served with sweet corn and slices of sweet potato, presented on earth-toned handmade ceramic dinnerware.
"Bon appétit," says our gracious host. She fills each glass with a second pisco sour before joining us at the head of the table. Pisco, a brandy made from fermented grapes, is the national drink of Peru. It can be sipped straight up or served as a frothy iced cocktail when blended with sugar syrup, key lime juice, egg white, ice and a few drops of Angostura bitters.
Getting to Barranco
Our ship, the Seabourn Sojourn, docked the afternoon before at Callao, a gritty seaport that is Peru's largest, where we caught a taxi for the 40-minute ride to Barranco. Founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1537, Callao was first pillaged by pirates and then ravaged by tsunamis, earthquakes, and long-term poverty. The neighborhoods on both sides of the stretch of busy road never recovered from their past. We pass scores of restaurants along the way called chifas, whose menus offer a fusion of Cantonese cooking with Peruvian ingredients.
The Wall Street Journal recently called Peruvian cooking "the next big thing" in gastronomy and we are eager to learn why. Our web research before the trip led us Penélope Alzamora of ATasteofPeru.com for a private, hands-on ½ day culinary experience that fit in with our time on shore. We emailed her from home and made reservations to meet.
Born in Lima, statuesque, and strikingly attractive with long, straight dark hair, Penélope looks as if she could be an anchorperson on primetime news. She was sent abroad by her parents during the siege of brutal, homegrown terror in Peru in the 80s and 90s called Shining Path) and studied hospitality at Newbury College outside Boston. She was trained in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, taught Peruvian cooking at the Tante Marie School of Cookery in San Francisco, and with her family has owned a chain of restaurants in Peru called Bohemia Café y Más, where she worked and partnered with legendary Peruvian chef, Gastón Acurio, inarguably the most famous chef in South America.
We start off the morning walking around her bohemian neighborhood that has an abundance of blossoming trees and colorful flowers. Barranco is known for its artists, writers, musicians, and intellects -- as well as its surfers and vibrant nightlife. The area mixes modern apartment buildings with colonial mansions, originally built as wealthy summer homes in the 1920s). Penélope introduces us to a sculptress-friend we meet crossing the street and she invites us to peek inside her studio.
We cross the romantic wooden Puente de los Suspiros (Bridge of Sighs) where lovers meet after dusk, passing the statue of Chabuca Granda, one or Peru's most beloved singers and composers. We stop for espresso at a 50-year mainstay of Barranco, Café Bisetti. Decorated with graffiti art and comfortable vintage furniture, organic Peruvian coffee beans are roasted fresh each day in a glass-enclosed laboratorio at the back of the store.
We make a brief deviation in route to check out Dédalo, an old mansion filled with contemporary Peruvian crafts, including some by Penélope's mother, Marilyn Deneumostier, who designs an exclusive line of stoneware and porcelain called Jallpa Nina. I can't resist purchasing a few small gifts to take home including a glass tray embedded with colorful seeds and corn kernels.
To Market We Go
Soon after returning to Penélope's apartment, we are buckled up in her minivan, heading off to the municipal market in the nearby town of San Isidro to buy ingredients for our cooking lesson and lunch. She prefers this market because it's clean, has the best fishmonger, and sells high quality fruits and vegetables.
As she drives, she talks about the mélange of her life, country, and food.
"We're a melting pot of cultures," she says, explaining that Peruvian cooking reflects the country's history. Waves of immigration since the Incas have included the Spanish, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese. "In the 80's, the best restaurants in Peru were French or Italian. There's been an amazing change," she says.
She proudly describes the growing emphasis on local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable foods but admits, "Eating healthy in Peru, or anywhere else around the world for that matter, requires education and money."
We pass the four-hundred-year-old olive trees in Olivar Park, which are so precious and beautiful they were declared a national monument in 1959. The market has a large parking lot and while Penélope shops, an attendant washes her car by hand, also watching over it. Security is a constant concern throughout the city.
Penélope's friendly with everyone from the fishmonger to the medicine man, who sells herbs to treat every ailment. We slowly walk from stall to stall as she introduces us to indigenous foods from the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. Many of the foods are believed to have special nutritional or medicinal benefits: maiz morado (purple corn); choclo (white corn with supersized kernels); fruits like pepino (a melon that tastes like a blend of cucumber and honeydew), tumbo (banana passionfruit), chirimoya (a creamy tropical fruit, sometimes called custard apple), sachatomate (an exotic cousin of the tomato), pitahaya (dragon fruits), aguaymanto (golden berry or gooseberry), and granadilla (similar to yellow passion fruit); seemingly ubiquitous chili peppers; and papas (potatoes) of different shapes, colors, and cooking properties (Peru is said to have thousands of varieties.)
"Peru has 28 different microclimates," she explains. "This makes for tremendous diversity in the varieties of fresh fish, seafood, and fruits and vegetables available from the ocean, the jungle and the highlands." She places all the ingredients for our lunch in a colorful straw shopping bag.
After returning to the apartment's sparkling, stainless steel kitchen, we wash our hands, roll up our sleeves, and begin preparing recipes that Penélope has learned from her mother and grandmother. She introduces us to her youngest son Madeo and his nanny before he's laid down for his nap, and a housekeeper assumes the role of sous-chef, helping us wash and prepare the ingredients for lunch.
Every South American country has its own variation of ceviche. The one we are making is marinated in key lime juice until the fish turns opaque. "No more than fives minutes or it will turn sour," says Penélope. It's mixed with red onions and an aji amarillo (yellow chili pepper) paste. She says it's better to squeeze limes by hand (as opposed to using a squeezer) to avoid the bitter taste of the rind.
First we make conchitas a la parmesana, an easy but elegant presentation of scallops baked in their shells with roe, made with butter, cheese, lime juice, pisco, olive oil, aji amarillo paste, salt and pepper.
Then we make a sudado de pescado y mariscos (fish and seafood stew) in a clay pot using grouper, scallops, mussel stock, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, onion, lime, and seasonings. This dish, too, is made with aji amarillo paste, which provides a tingling kick when added to anything. Acurio has called it one of the most fundamental ingredients in Peruvian cooking.
Penélope surprises us by bringing a traditional desert to the table, suspiro de limena con cherimoya. Made with dulce de leche, chirimoya fruit, and port meringue, the taste tickles our palates.
"Do you know there are more cooking schools in Peru than in Latin America?" Penélope asks, as we savor not only the tastes new to us but also the intimacy of a new friendship.
We didn't -- but we are heartened to hear this because it suggests that the current wave of Novoandina cooking from Peru, combining traditional native ingredients and diverse ethnic recipes, with modern styles of cooking and presentation, is only starting to crest.
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