“How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” former French President Charles de Gaulle once asked about his native country. Good thing he never got around to governing Peru, a country with 2,500 soup recipes, more than 3,000 different types of potato and 2,000 species of fish.
As one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, supporting jungle, high mountains and coastal desert, Peru calls upon a formidable stash of raw materials to concoct its cuisine. Aside from hauling in one of the world’s biggest asparagus crops (186,000 tonnes) and netting more fish than anywhere outside of China, the country has gifted the global kitchen with the ubiquitous potato and the equally omnipresent tomato, two vegetables that trace their origin and early domestication back to the Peruvian Andes.
Left to marinate for several centuries in a post-colonial melting pot stirred at intervals by African slaves, Chinese labourers, indigenous Quechua, Spanish settlers, Italian immigrants and – more recently – dynamic local chefs, this rich homegrown bounty has been transformed into exciting fusion dishes.
Although Lima is Peru’s largest population centre, it is Arequipa, the nation’s second city that claims – not without merit -- to be guardian of the country’s most varied and inventive cuisine. Those keen on tradition can hunt down the real deal in generations-old picanterías (literally, “spicy restaurants”), while for modern sophistication, look for somewhere with a Novoandina (New Andean cuisine) moniker.
Kick-started in the 1980s by an audacious band of culinary experimentalists that included Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, Novoandina has brought flair and creativity to Peruvian cooking without straying too far from its three main building blocks of potatoes, corn and aji (spicy red chili peppers).
In Arequipa, Novoandianan restaurants still devote a large proportion of their menus to the common garden spud, but prepare it in a multitude of novel ways. Pastel de papas is a potato pie made with milk, eggs, cheese and aniseed. Ocopa Arequipeña consists of boiled potatoes doused in a pungent sauce of oil, garlic, onions, peanuts and cheese, accented with the sweet and minty Peruvian herb huatacay. The national spice-of-choice, aji, is best enjoyed in the signature Arequipa dish, rocoto relleno: spicy red peppers stuffed with ground meat and potatoes, and topped with cream and cheese. But it is also found in many salsas, salads and causas (mashed yellow potato dumplings).
While always honouring tradition, Novoandina chefs have broadened Peruvian menus by placing these reinvigorated standards alongside more offbeat inventions, such as shrimp fishcakes and alpaca stroganoff. Chef Acurio’s boldly experimental Chicha restaurant (named after a fermented Andean corn drink) has an eclectic menu that illustrates the incredible breadth and diversity of Peruvian cuisine. Highlights include cerviche – Peru’s famous raw fish dish marinated in lemon, salt, chilli and onions – available in dozens of different renderings, and cuy, a shock for anyone who has ever had a pet guinea pig, but a rich treat to Andean natives who have been eating it since pre-Inca times. Acurio puts a clever twist on cuy by serving it “Beijing-style” with purple corn pancakes, red peppers and pickled daikon. The equally ambitious Zigzag restaurant helmed by Swiss-born chef, Michel Hediger juxtaposes traditional alpaca steaks cooked on hot stones with interesting experiments in Peruvian-Italian fusion food, most notably gnocchi made with quinoa, a rice-like grain grown in the Andes that was once the sacred food of the Incas. Acurio tries similar tricks in another of his restaurants, the Trattoria del Monasterio encased in Arequipa’s emblematic Santa Catalina monastery, where local prawns are made into lasagna.
For a real spit-and-sawdust Arequipa eating experience, however, give the experimentalists a swerve and visit a picantería. These traditional, only-in-Arequipa restaurants are usually located in suburban areas and inspire fanatical local followings. Eschewing the gimmickry of the posh city centre eateries and generally only open for lunch, picanterías serve huge crowds of diners at communal tables in an atmosphere of organised chaos. Do not expect standard menus; the dish selection is largely determined by the day of the week. On a very crowded soup list, chupe de camarones is the crème de la crème, an Arequipan specialty that uses the city’s legendary river prawns submerged in a rich broth of milk, tomatoes, spices and hot peppers. It is traditionally served on Fridays; try it at Tradición Arequipeña where pan pipe-wielding music groups compete with the cacophony of hungry diners.
A further indication of Arequipa’s food obsession can be seen in the amount of gastronomic schools that lie dotted around the city. If you are visiting, you can learn the basics on a one-day cooking course with AI Travel. Peruvian food has gone international in recent years with television chefs such as Acurio taking the likes of cerviche and lomo saltado (a Chinese-Peruvian fusion dish made with shredded beef) into the mainstream. In 2004, The Economist stated that “Peru can lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines” while, two years later, Lima was recognized as the gastronomic capital of Latin America by the International Summit of Gastronomy in Madrid. Proud Arequipeños might beg to differ, but that is another story.