Kate Lewin hunts down Berlin’s finest Peruvian food…
‘Peru, Peru. My heart’s lighthouse’
Morrisey wrote the above line after a rapturous reception in the Peruvian capital, Lima. He wasn’t specifically referring to Peruvian food, but he may as well have been since the country’s cuisine has certainly prompted many an accolade over the last couple of years.
It all began with the backing of world-renowned chef Ferran Adria, who visited the country in 2012 and described the gastronomic boom as the most exciting he’d ever seen. There followed an explosion of new openings in London and New York, many winning rave reviews, Michelin Stars and ‘Cookbook of the Year’ accolades. Underlining all the hype, Peru has been declared the world’s leading culinary destination by the World Travel Awards four years in a row.
Interestingly, it was a German influence that helped focus the world’s attention on this long-overlooked food haven. The awakening happened at a small restaurant in Lima called Astrid & Gastón. Astrid, a German and Gastón, a Peruvian had studied cooking together in Paris and they served stylish Parisian cuisine until one day they decided to serve Gaston’s native dishes with the same exacting standards and dedication.
This decision and its resulting success inspired an entire generation of young chefs, and eventually helped transform Peruvian food’s journey from a local concern to an international trend. In Lima, Astrid & Gastón is now as much a cultural centre as it is a restaurant and the Astrid & Gastón empire spans about fifty restaurants all over the globe.
But what is it about Peruvian gastronomy that has inspired so many? Well, the breadth of options in the Peruvian diet is difficult to comprehend. As an easy introduction let’s start with some numbers. Peru is home to 2,500 varieties of potato, around 1,500 miles of coastline and 491 national dishes according to the Guinness Book of Records.
The Peruvian larder is a hymn to its natural resources; a vast stock-pot of fire, colour and texture. Andean vegetables such as potato, cassava, plantain and chilli peppers (known nationally as aji) are harvested every year in near ritualistic form. Fruits such as lucúma, physalis and camu camu add bittersweet notes of colour. Then there’s the native super foods: avocado, quinoa, amaranth, chia, maca and mate; magical morsels packed to the brim with nutritional value.
Here in Berlin, our Peruvian restaurants present the country’s vast cuisine with pride. Most menus begin with a Causa; cool potato cakes layered with meat and vegetables and named, some say, after the Andean word kausay meaning ‘sustenance of life’. At Serrano in Charlottenburg they serve their Causa Bicolor—made from delicious red and yellow potatoes marinated in lime juice—with huge prawns mixed into a salad with avocado. The composite layers are delicious, and the dish itself a work of art.
Then of course there’s Ceviche; Peru’s national dish. Traditionally made using seafood harvested straight from the endless miles of coastline, mixed with onions and sweet potatoes and served swimming in Leche de Tigre; a thrilling mix of lime juice, chilli and salt which ‘cooks’ the fish in front of your eyes.
Cevicheria in Kreuzberg pays homage to its namesake and serves ceviches with the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and freshness. Try their Ceviche de calamares con apio, palta y crema de kion for an unbelievable introduction to just how delicious raw seafood can be: every mouthful will serenade your palette. Being incredibly healthy, it’s no wonder Ceviche is big news: it’s naturally gluten and dairy free, and vegans are easily catered for – Cevicheria’s Ceviche caliente de zetas de cardo con endivia, choclo y camotes glaceados is one example, featuring warm oyster mushrooms, native choclo corn and sweet potatoes.
Anticuchos are the street-food of Peru. Grilled skewers of meat often found on roadsides, they carry flavours you wouldn’t expect. Ox-hearts are marinated for hours before going up on huge grills alongside chicken livers, quinoa-coated prawns and octopus. Thick chunks of meat are furnished with exacting measures of chilli and spice. There’s no wizardry in this sort of cooking, just natural ingredients prepared with passion and flair.
At Berlin’s latest Peruvian hotspot Chicha, they serve Anticuchos de Corazon from their lava stone grill. The heart melts in your mouth; a true testament to the skill of the cooking. Owner Robert and his team take the time to present and explain every element of the dish. By doing so they hope to re-shape attitudes to what might otherwise be seen as a ‘difficult’ cut of meat for many. Also served from their grill is Cuello de Cerdo, using pork neck. Again, it’s the exacting marination and cooking technique that’s key to the dishes’ wonderful flavour.
As for the other 485 national dishes, well a trip to Restaurant Paracas (Wilmersdorf and Kreuzberg) will provide a quick introduction to many. Check out Aji de Gallina, Lomo Saltado. Papas a la Huanciana, Seco con Frejolas and Jalea Mixta. These dishes will carry you to the heart of Peruvian cooking. Aji de Gallina is a traditional Andean stew with shredded chicken in a wonderfully creamy chili sauce, a real family favourite on cold days. And Lomo Saltado is the epitome of Peru’s Chinese immigrant influence (Chifa). Chifa cooking is big news in Peru and Lomo Saltado marries tender strips of beef, vegetables, soy sauce and chilli in a flame-licked wok, often served with rice.
And of course, we couldn’t write about Peru without a special mention to that versatile Peruvian elixir—Pisco. Technically it’s a grape brandy, but that doesn’t give this silky spirit the kudos it deserves. Pisco is a small town in Northern Peru and distilling it is big news across the country. In 2011, Peruvian Pisco, in addition to winning more than twwenty gold medals for taste alone, won the distinction of the best liquor in the world at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
Pulling up a chair at Chicha’s new pisco bar in Neukölln will provide an enjoyable introduction to the spirit. Chicha, a Peruvian word meaning playful or cheeky, sums up the cocktail list here perfectly: classic serves of Pisco Sour, Pisco Punch and El Capitan as well as their own mixology masterpieces such as Through the Grapevine which fuses the spirit with German Riesling. Whilst you’re sat at the bar, take time to appreciate the original Chicha Art posters and colourful artworks that adorn the restaurant walls, all created by artist John McCam.
By now you may well be wondering what a Peruvian dessert looks and tastes like. The good news is that, Peruvians being known for their sweet tooth, Postres (desserts) are big news. Look out for Alfajores bicuits filled with dulce de leche, Suspiro meringues with a fruity mousse or Picarones which are fluffy pumpkin doughnuts served hot with chocolate. Failing these, try anything that has lucúma or dulce de leche inside—it’ll warm your heart like a lighthouse.