Superfood status… Michelin stars… Peruvian cuisine has come a long way since Paddington Bear, says Clare Finney
There comes a point in the life span of food fashion when resistance is futile. Pachamama is a case in point. Its head chef is Tom Catley, who signed up to the space – a former bolt hole beloved of Russian expats in Marylebone – with plans to open a Japanese steak house, when he saw where the winds of London gastronomic scene were blowing. “Peruvian cuisine was – is - quite clearly on trend,” the veteran of the Ottolenghi cult and the celebrated Nobu explains, over Pisco Sours in the calm before the storm of opening time at his restaurant. Once this drink – a frothy blend of grape brandy, sugar, Angostura bitters and egg white – would have completely bemused me; now it’s a Pavlovian reflex. Enter a Peruvian restaurant, and the very first thing you do is ask for a Pisco Sour.
In his decision to go Peruvian, a move which entailed a two month meal-a-thon around the country’s fields and fine eateries, Tom followed culinary vanguards Virgilio Martinez and Martin Morales. He himself is Asian – from Thailand, to be precise, where the flavours are strikingly similar to those he cooks now. “Lime, mint, coriander, red onions…” he lists “They’re familiar to me, and they’re familiar to Londoners, with Thai and Vietnamese joints everywhere these days.” What makes the Peruvian cuisine distinctive is its unique blend of Incan heritage, rich biosphere and the culinary and cultural effects of 500 years of immigration and imperial rule.
It’s called the original fusion food, and with good reason, encompassing as it does the palates of indigenous Incas, their Spanish conquerors, African slaves and labourers from China and Japan. Its malleable, mongrel qualities lent themselves well to Catley’s idea of blending Britishness into a Peruvian menu. “I learnt my trade in this country,” he says, “and we’ve amazing produce here now – not just the leeks and potatoes, but pak choi, bok choi – even lemongrass is grown by UK farmers these days.” To import from Peru seemed not just expensive, but entirely contrary to that just-picked, field-to-fork quality that is one of the most defining features of Peruvian food.
“There are markets in every district,” comments Dan Clark, a travel agent for South America. “Even the cheapest street food stalls rely on fresh ingredients.” With quality, home-grown produce more abundant than ever in London, it seemed ludicrous for Pachamamma to source from further afield. “Besides, we have similar flavors,” Catley points out. “They have plantain and sweet potato, we have pumpkins and squash, for example. We can play around while keeping the vibrant Peruvian tastes. Obviously we can’t substitute limes, coriander, or some of the more esoteric ingredients, but most ingredients we can get from Britain and work with.”
It’s this blend of familiarity and newness, he thinks, that has made Peruvian food so appealing amongst our restaurateurs and diners. Its ingredients and style lend themselves well to Anglicisation – they love the humble spud even more than we do, and are equally big on meat and grains – yet unlike our culinary obsessions with Italian, Mexican, Thai and so on, “Peruvian food hasn’t been overdone,” Catley says. There are no greasy Peruvian takeaways, no ‘Peruvian style’ options at Macdonalds, nor even Incanesque ready meals in the Waitrose £10 meal deal. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before some YO! Ceviche bar jumps on the bandwagon, sending plates of the iconic raw fish dish round the bar via a miniature Amazon river instead of a conveyer belt… but in the meantime there’s a plethora of ways to enjoy quality, gourmet examples of this vibrant cuisine around town.
Lima London is the most obvious starting point, being not just the first dedicated Peruvian opening in town but the finest, if you believe in Michelin stars. I do, because I’ve eaten there, and it’s the closest you’ll get without air miles to actual Peru. The brainchild of Virgilio Martinez, owner of Peru’s own favourite restaurant, Central, its arrival on these shores was the culmination of the gastronomic wave first noted by super chefs Ferran Adrian and Alain de Ducasse in 2011: a wave which, contrary to popular opinion, began not with Brazil’s World Cup, but when French-trained Peruvian chefs returned home and rediscovered their land’s great glut of ingredients.
“It started with the realisation that we had something good in Peru,” Martinez has commented. He and his peers applied their newly learnt cooking techniques to their larder: a larder which comprises a seafood-full Pacific, the fertile Andes of corn, spuds and tomatoes, and an Amazon jungle of herbs and fruits. The result? A savory mille feuille, in which each layer uses a different variety of Peru’s 2000 varieties of potato, an Italian risotto-style offering using the indigenous quinoa grain instead of rice, and the resurrection of traditional dishes that they were once mildly ashamed of their mums for cooking. “We have always been a nation obsessed with our food,” says Morale, a fact Catley affirms. “They are massive foodies – as bad as the Italians,” he grins. It seemed inevitable that when their day in the sun came, they would convert the world.
Aji de gallina (dubbed ‘Peruvian korma with punch’ by The Guardian) and loma satado (‘jumping beef’ with vegetables) made their way onto menus which would once have sniffed at them, alongside ceviche, a dish which, for all its urban aspirations, is “the definition of peasant food” according to Catley. From there these dishes journeyed to Europe with Morales, a music producer-turned-ceviche disciple, and Martinez. Their timing was perfect. Not only was our own food revolution in full swing, but our interest in nutrition and the environment made the UK fertile ground for the pair’s protein-rich, sustainably-sourced menus. Protein-rich quinoa, amino-acidy avocado and ceviche are familiar faces to us these days, but, as Martinez’s Mater Initiative (a team of chefs, scientist and ecologists travelling around the country finding unique edible ingredients) demonstrates, there are plenty more nutritional delicacies where they came from.
“When I was a little boy, my grandmother would send us an ‘encomienda’ (a large basket full of nutritious ingredients), every month from her village in the Andes. A note on the basket said ‘Con mucho cariño de Mamita Naty’ – ‘With loving care from Grandma Naty’.” recalls Morales. Though born in Lima and mostly raised in London, it was thanks to his mamita that he cooked with Peruvian ‘superfoods’ from a young age, and in an older one based his second restaurant around them. Entitled Andina – meaning ‘lady from the Peruvian Andes’ – the Shoreditch eatery pays tribute both to this nutritional gold mine, and to the ‘picanterias’: beloved family-run restaurants in the communities.
“Andean cooking is the soul food of Peru and the Andes are home to some of the world’s most nutritious ingredients,” he says. Just looking at his menu seems nourishing, with its promise of warm puréed lucama (a superfood that tastes like caramel), golden beetroot and salads with the Star Wars-esque, omega 3 rich sacha inchi oil. In an age obsessed with making the route to health and vitality ever easier, Peru is a godsend: there’s not many restaurants serving protein-rich grain in the guise of pancakes, seeds in the form of milkshakes and a nutritious, slimline versions of kebabs and getting praised for it by the likes of Giles Coren and company. Yet if Peru does succeed in converting the masses, it will be thanks to another ingredient, more elusive to source even than cushuru (a micro algae that grows 4000 meters above sea level in the Sacred Valley in the Andes)… Peru’s success will be down to the intangible, capricious, quicksilver element that is fun.
It’s partly the people. It’s partly the colours – of the food, and of the restaurants’ exotic surroundings. It’s partly – and I’ll be entirely honest here – the Pisco Sours. Enter Lima London, Ceviche, Pachamama or any one of Peru’s manifestations and you feel the weight lift as the charango starts to strum, the Piscos start flowing and the unfailingly smiley staff welcome you with what Morales calls “a large slice of chica.”
“Chicha? It’s a Lima thing,” he continues. “It means playful or cheeky, and it shimmies its way through everything we do.”