Here's a trend that's had a five-year gestation period but now seems about to happen: I'm talking about Peruvian cuisine, one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse in the world. Its food has been cross-pollinated by indigenous Andean Incas, by hoards of Chinese and Japanese people who came (sometimes involuntarily) to work, by Italians who arrived in large enough numbers to have impact ... and by the global Internet, which has prompted "modernization" of traditional food all around the world.
So there's a "nueva cocina" at work in Peru just as there's a "nuova cucina" in Italy and a new-New American here in the US.
We had our first taste of Peru more than 20 years ago when Nobu Matsuhisa opened his seminal Matsuhisa restaurant in a Los Angeles strip mall. In this teeny restaurant, he presented newfangled ceviches along with numerous "Japanese" dishes in forms that seemed justifiably exotic to the area's culinary cognoscenti -- as he did triumphantly years later at the first Nobu in New York. He learned them while working in ... Peru.
Both the raw fish and his cooked Japanese dishes weren't quite so exotic in Lima where dozens of "cebicherias" lining the shoreline toss their seafood with intensely sweet-acid local fruits and seasonings. What did we know? We, along with the rest of America, had sampled only far more restrained Mexican ceviches, and until we visited Lima five years ago we'd never heard of tiraditos or causas or lomo saltado. Or cuy, for that matter, a national favorite of roast guinea pig, served to the table in its alarming entirety.
I am reminded of all this because Peru's most famous chef, Gastón Acurio, opened La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in New York last week, following an earlier one on the Embarcadero in San Francisco (with others in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Panama and Colombia). The new restaurant's design, built on the bones of Danny Meyer's former Tabla, is lackluster, and greeters at the door could do well to get their act together, but the food goes from high note to high note.
Tiraditos are long strips of raw fish, as opposed to cubed slices in ceviche, and in Peru they're both marinated briefly in tamarind or passionfruit or lime or green or ripe mango, with rocoto (an incendiary Peruvian jalapeno-shaped pepper) or aji Amarillo, a bright yellow, more benign pepper that makes a visually stunning background sauce. These ingredients are, in combination with onions and shallots, mixed with juices from ceviches or tiraditos and the resulting marinade is called Leche de Tigre, or tiger's milk or, more mythically, Peruvian Viagra.
(In all fairness, I should note that creative ceviche isn't confined to Peru or to La Mar. SushiSamba, with hot-hot locations in New York, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, has been mixing Peruvian, Japanese and Brazilian flavors for years and their menus are, if anything, even wider ranging.)
A sleeper on La Mar's menu, in my opinion, are its causas. These are colorful, inventive mashed potato dishes, often layered with green avocado or yellow peppers or purple or sweet potatoes plus crab or chicken or seafood salads. La Mar, a nueva cocina restaurant, has a causa repertoire that pushes the envelope: tuna tartare with wasabi aioli and flying fish roe; and dayboat octopus, piquillo peppers, quail egg and black olive emulsion. I can see these as snack food or even substitutions for vegetables on lots of domestic restaurant menus.
But the real trend-potential are anticuchos. These are appetizer portions of skewered meats (and sometimes seafood or poultry) that are the Latino equivalent of Japanese yakitori or Malaysian satays. You find them largely in Peru, Chile and Bolivia along with Mexico, served with aggressively interesting sauces. Now that our country has become small plates crazy and customers demanding ever more snacky things instead of whole meals, these anticuchos might be the next big thing. We had the Andean classic: beef heart grilled rare with huacatay sauce, huacatay being a fragrant green leaf that's also called black mint and tastes like a pungent combination of basil, mint and cilantro. "It was the winner of the evening," said Martin Jones, vice president of food and beverage for Starwood Asia-Pacific, who was exploring the new restaurant with us.
Thankfully, there was no guinea pig to be had at La Mar. I believe that it tastes like rabbit. Pisco sour, anyone?
For those eager to try a pretty authentic tiradito at home, you might enjoy a recipe from my newest cookbook, Radically Simple.
Begin with thin slices of impeccably fresh raw fish and top with my tart elixir of a whole pureed lemon, olive oil, and garlic.
12 ounces raw halibut or red snapper, sliced paper thin
1 small lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium clove garlic
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh chives
handful of tender mesclun, mache or pea shoots
Arrange the fish slices in a tight circle without overlapping in the center of 4 large plates. Sprinkle the fish lightly with salt. With a small, sharp knife, cut the rind and pith from the lemon; quarter the flesh and remove the seeds. Process the lemon (including the rind and the), oil, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a blender until very smooth. Spoon the dressing over the fish to coat completely. Sprinkle with chives and coarsely cracked black pepper. Garnish plates with mesclun, mache or pea shoots. Serves 4
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