I love to travel. The older I get the more I want to see the world, experience different cultures and experience the food. These last few years I’ve been pretty lucky and been to some amazing places.
The most recent of these was Peru. When we planned to go to Peru the last thing on my mind was food. Everyone knows why you go to Peru and that’s to see the Inca remains, to walk the Inca Trail and visit Machu Pichu. If you’ve got time you also visit the birth of the great Amazon River and if edgy urban sprawls are your thing spend a few days in Lima. I’d resigned myself to this year’s holiday being a bit of a culinary desert, yes I’d get to eat some guinea pig and a bit of llama but as far as the cuisine went I wasn’t expecting a lot. The flights were booked way back in February though and the more I started looking into the place the more I noticed food being mentioned. Seemingly I was way off the mark. Whether it was ceviche, causa, chicharrones, anticuchos or lomo saltado everyone that had been spoke highly of Peruvian food. They also spoke of a national obsession with the country’s cuisine rating it right near the top of world when it came to food.
I could, and probably will, write about Peruvian food for a long time and have lots of photos of the various dishes to back up my ramblings. I think the number one dish in Peru though is ceviche and so that is where I shall begin. Ceviche is nothing more than seafood, for the most part raw but sometimes cooked and cold, which has been marinated in citrus fruit juice. If this seafood started off raw then the citric acid effectively cooks it, denaturing the proteins and changing it from translucent raw to opaque cooked in appearance. This is then mixed with red onion and chilli and normally served with the giant Peruvian corn, called choclo, and some cold boiled potato.
Ceviche is everyday food, eaten by everybody, but due to its reliance on fresh fish it’s something eaten early in the day, either for breakfast or lunch. They say you should only eat it near the sea too but one of my most memorable ceviches for me was from Cuzco Central Market and Cuzco is as far from the sea as you can get in Peru. I imagine they make it with freshwater fish there though as they have an abundance of lakes and rivers. Any guide book will tell you this market is not a tourist venue; it’s a local market for local people and if you visit you should keeps your wits about you. We went a couple of times and it’s certainly quite full on but it’s a must see if you’re there.
As well as the market stalls it also has a mass of prepared food stalls where you can pick up any number of cheap traditional dishes. On the last morning we had in Cuzco I’d still not eaten there and so at 7am I headed off with the girlfriend to find some breakfast. You could eat anything from Peru there but I wanted to challenge the strength of my insides so it was only ever going to be raw seafood from a streetfood stall of dubious cleanliness. For 80p I got a big mound of ceviche served with lettuce, seaweed and some cold sweet potato and outside of the nice long hair that was in my second mouthful it was gorgeous and I finished every bit. The nice lady whose stall it was then let us take some photos.
My first experience couldn’t have been more different than this though. I like to investigate the food of the country I’m going to visit and one name that kept popping up regarding Peru was Gaston Acurio. Gaston is the most famous chef and restaurateur in Peru owning a number of restaurants, appearing on TV and having loads of cook books out. The restaurant I first heard of, languishing in 76th of Restaurants top 100 restaurants, was Astrid y Gaston and so that was booked for the last night in Peru. He also runs a cevicheria called La Mar and so on our second day we headed across town for our first ceviche of the holiday. All the time in Lima mini buses fly around doors wide open with the conductor hanging out and calling for business. Knowing the general direction of La Mar this seemed the ideal opportunity to get ourselves involved so we flagged down a bus, squeezed ourselves amongst the locals and paid our 20p fare. The restaurant is only open for lunch and I’d heard it got busy so we made sure we turned up early and ended up being the first people let in.
We arrived ten minutes before opening so took the opportunity to grab some photos outside and then as soon as the clock struck 12 we were whisked inside. The restaurant is very cool inside and wouldn’t look out of place in a posh part of London. Not really knowing what was what I tried to order a variety of things from the menu, a dish that jumped out was a ceviche of black scallops and sea urchin so this was duly ordered and met with a ‘Are you sure?’ from the waitress. This is always a good sign so a ‘Si’ (I did a bit of Spanish learning before the Mandarin) was my response. Another dish I’d heard about was ‘Leche de tigre’ or milk of the tiger. This is the strained juice from ceviche making - so basically citrus juice, chilli, salt and anything that leaches out of the seafood – and is meant to be a fine hangover cure. In La Mar you got a flight of 5 different flavours so these were added to the order. Obviously this wasn’t all we had but I think the pictures will show them far better than I can write about them.
For me this meal was out of this world. I was blown away by the amount of new flavours, textures and colours. This was my first ceviche, the first time I’d had the subtle balance between sweet fish and sour lime, and what a first time – probably a bit of a high bar for any ceviche going forward. It was something very new which on its own wouldn’t be enough but it was so well executed too. It went straight into my top five meals of all time.
I made some at home recently from a cook book I bought in Peru. This post is kind of long anyway though so I’ll add the home attempts in the near future. The long and short of it though is order ceviche out or make it at home from a recipe and if you get the opportunity definitely eat at La Mar.