Firing up a pachamanca.
Firing up a pachamanca.

Quinoa on the side

Peru's best-known export is just the tip of the cornucopia for this biodiverse country

“Squeeze gently, gently," Penelope Alzamora says, the undercurrent of anxiety in her voice belying her warm encouragement to my maiden attempt to concoct a Pisco Sour. True to my Indian sense of thrift, I’d been trying to extract every bit of juice from the Key lime but the last drops, Alzamora informs me patiently, would be bitter and would throw off the balance of the cocktail.

In a way, it summed up my food experiences in Peru over the previous 10 days. Even as the world sits up to take notice of the immense possibilities of Peruvian foods—thanks to the super-success of indigenous quasi-grains like quinoa (to the extent that we now grow it in India) and ambitious, future-ready chefs like Virgilio Martinez (of Central restaurant, Lima)—within the country itself there is a sense of, dare we say, graceful reconciliation, as different strands of its history come together in glorious, celebratory fusion on the plate.

The best part of it, to my mind? Chefs may be at the forefront of popularizing Peruvian cuisine globally, and First Lady Nadine Heredia may have single-handedly taken quinoa to the world—she was a UN Food and Agriculture Organization ambassador for the grain in 2013, when Peru reportedly exported quinoa worth $45 million (around 279 crore now), up from $34 million the previous year—but in Peru, the global attention has translated into increased awareness of, and respect for, its separate legacies, be they Incan or immigrant or imagined. And, perhaps for the first time in its history, there’s space, infrastructure and support for each of them.

Ceviche—raw fish in Key lime juice, seasoned with onion, garlic, celery, chilli, salt and pepper
Ceviche—raw fish in Key lime juice, seasoned with onion, garlic, celery, chilli, salt and pepper

From the adventurous traveller’s point of view, it’s perhaps lucky that the most frequented sights of the country are coexistent with some of its least-known foods. On my Sunday drive to the Sacred Valley watered by the Urubamba river, my olfactory senses pick up the smoky scent of fresh barbecue long before I spot the colourful family groups dotted across the green, sun-bathed hillsides. “It’s customary on weekends, to come out into the countryside, build a waytea (earthen oven), and cook a picnic meal," my guide Fernando (who uses only one name) says. “But since the food goes directly on the fire, we use only vegetables that can be peeled once they’re cooked. For meats, we use a pachamanca, a crude oven fashioned out of mud or stone, topped with a grill, on which we place the chicken or pork or beef."

Penelope Alzamora’s fish stew. Photo: Pedro Chincoa
Penelope Alzamora’s fish stew. Photo: Pedro Chincoa

My holy grail for Peruvian protein, however, is more down to earth, though quite as cuddly. In Ollantaytambo, the oldest living Inca settlement in the world, we step into a home that predates the Spanish conquest. Immediately, a pack of little quadrupeds run amok over my feet, grunting for the bunch of fresh greens in my hand. Food, needless to say, was a central part of Incan life—standing on the Ollantaytambo temple ruins earlier, we had espied a grand granary perched high up on the opposite mountain, the better to protect the harvest—and these squealing guinea pigs were as much part of life then as now.

To emphasize the point, the rodent shows up yet again, most unexpectedly, in the stunning Cusco Cathedral. Among its prized collection of artworks is an 18th century depiction of the Last Supper, executed by a local Quechua artist under the supervision of the Spanish. It is familiar in all respects but one: Taking pride of place on the table is the guinea pig.

A Pisco Sour.
A Pisco Sour.

While the hard-scrabble Peruvian Andes are the mother lode of many crops that are staples in India and across the world today—potatoes (Peru boasts of 3,800 varieties), maize, cassava—the Incas, I am told, were always keen to extend their influence east, to the super-fertile Amazon basin, overflowing with highly prized fruits and vegetables. They never succeeded. But it takes a trip to the river to understand why the masters of the mountains were ready to brave the inhospitable jungle and its hostile tribes to lay their hands on the vast tropical bounty.

“Guess what this is?" asks Adonayar, the major-domo aboard the Delfin I, holding up a large shell split into halves, showing seeds covered in a white, gelatinous goo. “I promise you, you’re all familiar with it." We hazard guesses, from a kind of gourd to an unknown fruit. As it turns out, we’re all wrong: This is the fruit of the Theobroma cacao, the source of all chocolate. The white goo is the much-coveted cacao butter; the “seeds" it encases are the cocoa beans. He encourages us to taste it: The fat coats the tongue but only the most imaginative can find a resemblance to chocolate.

One after the other, Adonayar (who uses only one name) presents them to us: the citrusy sidra, the juice-hero camu camu, the ridge-skinned sugar-alternative agave, the Brazil nut, the Brazilian guava and the granadilla, a member of the passion fruit family. Later, as dolphins and kingfishers dip into the Rio Marañón for their lunch, we tuck into a carpaccio of paiche, a huge Amazonian fish, agave and camu camu ice creams and salads.

With road networks improving and food emerging as a major draw for international tourists, markets in Lima, on the Pacific coast, are well-supplied with produce from all over the country. Wandering around the Mercado Municipal de San Isidro with Alzamora on my final day in Peru, I find myself identifying the Andean maca, a gnarled root vegetable with legendary medicinal properties, from the organic farm at El Albergue, the distinctive purple corn maiz morado, the camu camu, the high-altitude, life-sustaining coca leaves, the passion- fruit family member tumbo—the last two would feature in the tasting menu at Central, my last meal in Lima (Hunger Games blog, “Travel At The Table", 16 September)—and falling in love with the bright red, orange and yellow chilli peppers, all generically known as aji.

In Alzamora’s kitchen, we use a paste of the mildly hot aji amarillo in Conchitas a la Parmesana, a dish of broiled scallops, and a fish stew, and the fiery aji limo minced in a ceviche of Peruvian flounder. Like most modern chefs in Lima today, Alzamora unselfconsciously braids together the strands of the country’s varied heritage with her own ingenuity to create dishes that bow to the past while welcoming the future.

It seems only fitting that we wash down the meal with my Pisco Sours, the distilled brandy of the locally grown quebranta grapes set off by sugar syrup, egg white and Key lime juice. Her admonitions worked: The cocktail is perfect, with not a single tinge of bitterness.

A guide to eating in Peru

Multiple varieties of corn at the El Albergue organic farm
Multiple varieties of corn at the El Albergue organic farm

u El Albergue (www.elalbergue.com) is a fabulously quaint hotel located at the Ollantaytambo train station, with its own on-site organic farm

u La Casona (www.inkaterra.com) is a majestic manor house, said to be the first Spanish structure in Cusco

u Central (www.centralrestaurante.com.pe) is a cutting-edge restaurant that has helped put Peruvian food on the world map

u ‘Delfin I’ (www.delfinamazoncruises.com) is a three-tier boat that offers a complete Amazon experience.The trip to Peru was facilitated by Aracari (www.aracari.com), which specializes in customizing tours for independent travellers.

A series that looks at food through the perspective of travel.

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