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Published: February 23rd 2011
Lunch had never been so decadent.
Mid-day meals have always been sort of a drag for me. Usually I would choke down a Powerbar or do my best to jazz up a turkey sandwich by applying some sort of condiment like spicy mustard.
In Lima, I was driven through streets of graffiti covered buildings dodging stray (but curiously clean) dogs, out to the popular local spot La Doceava, a cevicheria located on the outskirts of Miraflores. Interrupting thoughts of a "bad part of town" before I could suggest we turn back, blue umbrellas bloomed over white clothed tables on a cobblestone patio morphing the dusty wrong-turn into a swanky outdoor lunch area. Visited by construction workers and movie stars a like, this little gem was a local hotspot all of my guidebooks failed to mention because of its off the grid location.
Senor Coletti, Steph and her brother Gino brought me here to feast on the region's raw stock of ocean organisms after mentioning ceviche in reference to my research on Peruvian cuisine consisting of youtube-ing Anthony Bourdain episodes. White, porcelain plates with exquisite sculptures of marinated marine life arrived almost immediately after ordering and for this
I was thankful these three Peruvians drove me out to the middle of no where.
While digging into a light and citrus-y entree does just feel so right when your sitting out in the sun, it is the digestive forethought of acidity first, starchy stomach-settling foods later that brings crowds here so early in the day. Ceviche is the go-to lunch dish in Peru, a refreshing mixture of fish that is cooked by marinating it in citrus juice paired with sides of canchita (toasted corn kernels) and boiled sweet potato. When lunch hour hits, the thousands of cevicherias located in Lima start their rush, many not even staying open for dinner. Local ingredients and quick preparation make this national dish available in the most polished, fine dining establishments around or at the stands in the food market when your in a hurry and dining on a dime.
One by one, we began to dig in, myself reaching for the colorful potpourri of mussels, onion, tomato, and chilies called chonchitas a la chalaca. Ceviche made with mussels set in their shells each like a tiny, fishy bouquet. Nixing the utensils after cleaning out the
good stuff, shamelessly we lifted the shells to our mouths to drink the juice that some use as a hang over cure. (I imagine it helps one of two ways, it kills anything in your stomach or detox by purging.)
With the abundance of seafood available due to Lima's close location to the coast, there are hundreds of concoctions of ceviche to choose from. Ceviche tends to vary depending on the culture of the region and what is available, pairing the marinade to accent the flavors of the fish while also "cooking" it through a process called denaturalization.* A sampler of ceviche four ways arrives piled high in large wine glasses, brimming with fish, shellfish, calamari, octopus, shrimp, herbs and spices. Their tastes playfully scaled from fruity and flowery to creamy and spicy. It is really these variations that makes ceviche so delightful to eat because while our four samples showed the fun and flexibility of the recipe, a single dish will have a surprising array of flavors tap dancing across your palate.
This made a nice pre-course to the much more filling causa con pulpa de cangrejo, a decadent, meaty cake of crab,
pureed potatoes with milk, avocado and egg stacked on top of one another dribbled with a thick, creamy yellow pepper sauce. Literally translating as "the cause with crab meat", there are various stories retelling the origins of the dish, however in all of them "the cause" refers to sustenance that food brings in life. A fitting name for a dish made with the signature ingredients of Peru; potatoes, seafood, and peppers.
Last, because no trip to a seafood restaurant in any country is complete with out fried calamari or in Spanish, chicharron de calamar. A new Englander myself, I grew up with trips to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and was practiced at chowing down on a heap of coiling, battered baby tentacles tossed in a paper plate so popular at the salty, seaside joints. Shocked, a bowl of golf ball sized nuggets were placed before me crisp with a tender middle, garnished with battered straws of seaweed playfully tangled on top. This and the sweet glass of Chicha Morada, the non alchoholic chicha made from purple corn, soothed my throat made raw by the acidity and tartness of the marinades.
Peruvian cuisine has only recently
come in to its own with restaurants focusing on filling their menus with the traditional dishes of Spanish and Indian descent. Top chefs are thrilled to explore the gastronomic potential these fresh, unique local resources have to offer. However, the allure of Peruvian food is in its history, an endearing blend of native traditions influenced by immigrant techniques.
In dishes such as ceviche, its complex succession of flavors is attributed to Lima's great location for fresh fish, the Spanish onions, the Indian chiles, and the Japanese preparation. Peoples of China, Italy, West Africa, and Japan upon emigrating to Peru adapted their recipes with Peruvian resources to replace what was otherwise unavailable in their new environment.
One of the leading forces behind Peru's recent attention is restaurant revolutionary Gaston Acurio who continues to develop and export Peru's pride by setting up restaurants world wide. Dusting off the traditional recipes, Acurio's career serves as a call to arms, as he develops future business plans to make the recognition of Peruvian food akin to that of Mexican in the United States. In its budding, Peruvian cuisine has been redefined as both authentic and innovative.
choosing a restaurant, quality ingredients abound, the investment is in the chef's name, service, location and the presentation.
Jr. San Ambrosio #420- Barranco, Lima
2. La Mar
Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores
One of several restaurants set up by Gaston Acurio that also serves up a beautiful view.
*The word cooks is in quotes because the fish it not actually cooked, no heat is applied. Denaturalization refers to the chemical change of proteins induced by the citrus juice making it safe to eat. However, because denaturalization is not as effective as cooking with heat, be aware that the recipe calls for the freshest fish for safety and taste.
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