By now, you are probably beginning to wonder if I plan to rhapsodize about every bite I ate during my recent visit to Peru. It’s tempting (and I did warn you I was going to milk the trip for every column inch I could get out of it), but I do need to move this along or we’ll still be in South America this time next year. So I’m not going to devote this column to describing a single amazing meal.
I’m going to describe two.
They couldn’t have been more different, though each was extraordinary in its own way. Taken together, they give the full flavor and paradox of a country that juxtaposes ancient and modern at every turn.
The first was at Central, a restaurant routinely ranked among the top dining spots worldwide. One of my travel companions had worked to score us a reservation several months before. We booked the 17-course “Elevations” tasting menu, but we were mostly going on faith and reputation. With course names like “Tree Skins” and “Humid Green,” and ingredients like huarango, olluco and caigua, we had no idea what to expect.
What we got was a tour of Peru and its native foods, from sea level to the mountains, transformed into exquisite small bites of unrecognizable but indescribably delicious high-end gastronomy.
Central’s perfectly trained staff translated and explained the ingredients and the “elevations” concept, which referred to Peru’s varied geography and regions.
In the low-elevation courses, fascinating bits of fish and seafood abounded — though without the waiters, I doubt I would have been able to identify the sea snail, razor clam or limpet in the mix, or even the scallop, octopus, crab or squid elements. The higher elevations yielded other equally unusual and transformed items like tree tomatoes and air potatoes and a fruit that resembles cotton.
This is one time I’m glad we stopped to photograph every course before we consumed it, as the menu I carried home is not sufficient to help me recall the beautiful, creative and sometimes totally weird items we ate. One of my favorite pics is of the strips of crispy piranha skin, served nestled among several very scary-looking piranha heads (which were there for décor, not degustation, I’m happy to say).
The second, equally memorable meal occurred about a week later, in a small hamlet called Amaru in the Sacred Valley, nestled below the foothills of the Andes along the Urubamba river. It also featured native Peruvian foods, but the similarity ended there.
After a bumpy ride over dirt roads snaking through steep, terraced hills, our small group arrived at the hand-built home of the community president and his extended family, who greeted us warmly, decked in their distinctive local costumes.
Off to one side, a fire was burning down to embers in a rock-lined hole in the ground for the pachamanca celebration the family was preparing for us. Pachamanca means earth pot, and it is literally that — a celebratory meal cooked buried among hot rocks in the excavated hole.
We watched as our hosts raked out the fire and carefully lifted out the blazing hot stones. Into the pit they placed a large sheet of wet paper, then added a variety of meats (some chicken, a little lamb and — because it was a very special occasion and we were honored guests — a skinned, trussed-up guinea pig). Other layers included numerous varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes, fava beans, plantains, yucca and corn cobs with giant kernels. Into the hole everything went, interspersed with the hot rocks, until it was filled to overflowing.
They poured in some stock, then covered the mound with more hot rocks and a layer of paper and cloth. Finally, they shoveled dirt on top and left it all to cook.
While the food roasted in the hole, the women demonstrated their spinning and weaving skills, a specialty of the village, and our host sat us down and told us more than you would believe there is to know about potatoes.
I could write an entire column about them and their deep roots (pun intended) in the Andes, but I’ll save it, because if you are like I was that day, you are probably anxious to get that food out of the ground.
Which eventually we did.
And it was a feast. One that —minus the chicken and lamb, which were brought by the Spanish — could have taken place in a pre-Hispanic Incan community. It didn’t have the sophistication of our meal at Central, but plain meat and vegetables, plainly cooked, have never tasted better.
And the guinea pig? (Because I know you want to know.)
No, it doesn’t taste like chicken.
The piece I had reminded me more of pork belly.
I can’t possibly replicate anything I ate at Central, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to dig a hole in your yard to cook guinea pig, so instead I’m offering a recipe for lomo saltado, beef stir-fried in a very hot wok, which is the national dish of Peru.
After Peru abolished slavery in 1854, the country welcomed 100,000 Chinese male contract workers from Canton. With intermarriage, they and their descendants were absorbed into the Peruvian population, as was their food. Restaurants featuring “chifa,” Chinese-Peruvian food, are more ubiquitous than fast food in America, and nearly everyone who cooks owns a wok so they can make this dish at home.
In Peru, this would be made with fresh aji amarillo (a hot yellow chili), but the chili paste I ordered is still en route from Amazon. So instead, I have substituted yellow bell peppers and some serrano chili for heat. Fresh aji amarillo peppers are nearly impossible to find here, but if you can acquire the paste, add some to taste in place of the serrano.
1 lb. sirloin steak, cut in thin slices
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 small red onion, cut in 1/2-inch slices
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and cut in 1/2-inch lengthwise slices
1 seeded and ribbed yellow pepper cut in thin slices
1/2 serrano chili, seeded and cut in very thin slices
2 Tbsp. Chinese soy sauce
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/3 cup beef stock
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
Note: This dish should be served with rice and French fries or steak fries, which you should prepare before you begin cooking the main course.
Rub the garlic, salt and pepper into the meat.
Place the wok over high heat. When it starts to smoke, add the oil. Then add the meat in small batches, stir-frying it so that it browns, about 2 minutes per batch. (If you add too much at once, it will steam instead.) Add all the meat back to the wok along with the onion, tomato, yellow pepper and serrano pepper and stir fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Don’t overcook; the vegetables should still be crunchy.
Add the soy sauce and vinegar by pouring them onto the side of the wok, then stirring them in. Then add the beef stock and cook for another minute or so.
Turn off the heat, add the cilantro and serve immediately, accompanied by rice and potatoes.