By Guy Wilson
In the midst of the gloom and uncertainty of the Covid-19 lockdown, let me teleport back to my Year Abroad (making sure not to come across as gloating to those of you for whom that experience has been cut short). Let’s take a trip to Lima, the coastal and subtropical capital of Peru, where I worked as a volunteer English teacher for two hectic months. Whilst I could ramble waveringly and non-sequentially about every idiosyncrasy of this fascinating city, I would be here all day – perhaps I should, I’ve done my daily run so there’s nothing else to do…
No, let’s talk about Limeñan gastronomy.
The month is April, the year is 2019 and the time is lunchtime – good, it’s been a long morning of drumming into 13-year olds that the word “tough” is pronounced differently to “though”. As I hesitantly, or perhaps daringly, place down my food tray in the school canteen – next to yet another teacher whose face I don’t recognise (I teach in the second largest school in all of South America) – what is likely to follow is a prolonged interview of curiosity. Today was no different. I unknowingly seated myself next to a secondary school History teacher, whose name I don’t think I ever found out (I hope I asked him – such rudeness is not very English). What I notice in these kinds of conversations, is that although these Peruvian natives are interested in my background and the quirks of my home country, they are far more intrigued by how I receive their own culture. It’s as though they are appealing for approval, digging for the high praise that many English volunteers before me have so often given to such an intriguing country.
Mr Historia, as we shall call him (as a laughably poor attempt to mimic the exuberance of a Spanish-sounding name), went straight in. “So, what do you like most about Peru so far?” (accompanying his question with a cheerful Peruvian smile). My response is alarmingly instinctive by this point, both for having been asked the question more than fifty times, and for the simple fact that my go-to answer has become more and more justified by the day: ‘Definitely the food’. Mr Historia, like every other interviewer, beamed with childish delight at this response. I think maybe because it’s not everyone’s response – he’s probably come across many a fussy Brit or American who is missing Mummy’s homemade, extra-cheesy Macaroni Cheese.
Those close to me will know that I enjoy food; in abundance. My (arguably odd) passion for all varieties of flavoured crisps is based on something of an addiction to flavour. My personal theory is that the more flavours and ingredients intertwined, the better. By extension, the more ambitious, the better. Peruvian food is by far the most flavoursome I have sampled so far in my life, and though my scope of world travel is nowhere near extensive (this was my first excursion outside of Europe), I have been to many European countries and, in most cases, tasted their very best offerings. Peruvian food can be flavoursome, tangy, spicy, fresh, Indian-influenced, Chinese-influenced and it can be all of those at the same time. In case you think I’m lying, let me show you my three absolute favourite Peruvian (and notably Limeñan) dishes (many variations of all of them exist) and explain why I believe they are exceptional.
Peruvian food can be spicy, fresh, Indian-influenced, Chinese-influenced and it can be all of those at the same time
Before I came to Peru, Cerviche and Pisco (a Peruvian grape-based spirit) were the only names of Peruvian food and drink cited to me in conversation by a small handful of well-travelled Brits. Cerviche, when described to me, was an eye-opener and truthfully, it was a turn-off. The dish’s immediate uniqueness is the use of raw, salt-water fish. I certainly haven’t ever eyed the raw cod delivered by our Grimsby fishmonger back at home, and licked my lips.
The fish is “cooked” (partially toughened) by marinating in the acid of citrus juice; often a combination of lime, lemon and orange juice. All that is left to add before refrigerating the fish is some salt, sliced hot pepper and sliced red onion. After two hours in the fridge, the dish is ready to serve, topped with more onion and chillies, and often accompanied with some form of Peruvian corn (there are innumerable kinds) and potatoes. The salty, citrus balance of the fish is genuinely divine and the flavour of the fresh red onion soaking up the lemon juice is simple yet astoundingly pleasant. Oddly, when I try to imagine the texture right now, I am unable to. The texture evidently didn’t stay with me and I think that’s a positive. It means that I was probably distracted by the vibrancy of the flavour, and more importantly that the texture was inoffensive. All in all, my favourite Peruvian dish so far, and yet probably the simplest to cook – provided that the necessary fresh ingredients are to hand. It is undoubtedly best at seaside restaurants, where the fish is caught, skinned and boned, and immediately tossed together with the other ingredients, placed in the fridge, and ready to serve with less than a day from the sea to the plate. Still not convinced? Just try it.
- Lomo saltado (‘Salted Loin’)
I have been lucky enough to be treated to this Peruvian showstopper nearly every weekend since my arrival in Lima. The father of my host family rises before everyone else on a Sunday morning to prepare food for the mid-morning, and I often wake up to an intoxicating oriental scent and the sound of a sizzling pan. The dish is one of the more subtle examples of a heavy Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine. So that I don’t bore you too much with the history, it suffices to say that many Chinese workers migrated to Peru in the 19th century, when the Pacific became a key highway for world trade, and when coastal commercial agriculture in and around the Peruvian capital was abundant. These workers arrived to help manage the workload, and with them brought the essence of their oriental cuisine. The dish is essentially a stir fry and certainly carries a subtle oriental tinge, proven by the necessary inclusion of soy sauce. It’s impeccable when served with white rice (which certainly tastes better here) and a compliment of vegetables –chips are an optional extra. Like many gastronomic labels, the name of ‘lomo saltado’ (‘Salted loin’) does little to summarise the overall character of the dish.
- Arroz Chaufa (‘Fried Rice’)
An unrivalled version of this dish can be found in any Chifa restaurant in Lima. Chifa is the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian gastronomy, and this plate is a foremost example of its produce. The ratios of Peruvian to Chinese are the reverse to those of Lomo Saltado, where Chinese influence was subordinate Peruvian dominant. It is essentially a Chinese dish glossed by the variety and vibrancy of Peruvian ingredients. The key spices are ginger and soy sauce, and other essential ingredients include chicken, rice, omelette egg, scallions, while the inclusion of pineapple and salami is an audacious and ingenious Peruvian touch. Once again, the flavours are the furthest from mundane and they really excite your taste buds. I could eat this dish every day for a year and not get tired of it. If Peruvian food alone is excellent, imagine it fused with one of the undisputed best cuisines in the world. Chifa is a must try.
Peruvians are, and should be, endlessly proud of their food. As a direct result, they make ample time to enjoy it
If I could make one critique of Peruvian gastronomy it would be one that, I believe, comes with the nature of a less-economically stable and still-developing country (which, after two months in Lima, I well and truly perceive Peru to be): the overexploitation of meat. I have, on several occasions, both at school and in my Limeñan home, been served a large slab of leather-esque beef on a bed of rice. This is certainly not a dish that Peruvians gloat about, nor do I believe that it’s at all a staple of their true cuisine. It’s close to an equivalent of the Spanish Tortilla to the people of Madrid – a dish you serve when you don’t have a better idea, or the time to be more creative. Personally, in this case, I would prefer rice with a condiment of vegetables and sauce. And perhaps my slightly growing inclination towards veganism and appreciation of the damage which excessive meat consumption is doing to the planet, shapes my view of this kind of meat-based dish as wasteful and unnecessary. If I’m going to eat meat, I want it to be incorporated into a worthwhile concoction, and not a mere slab on a plate as though a main event by itself. Having said that, I do love a good British burger or sirloin steak, so maybe I’m being hypocritical.
Though it pains me slightly to say it, I am not proud of English cuisine. In fact, when asked the question by Peruvians (which I often am, given that they themselves consider food a highly important marker of cultural national identity), as to what food could be considered typically British, my enthusiasm for the conversation instantly plummets. I am embarrassed to present the measly and minimal offerings of Fish and Chips and the Sunday Roast. I know there are other candidates, but in my view, anything worthy of a mention is likely to be salty and fattening, and probably can be made by Bird’s Eye. If you ask any British person their favourite meal, they are more than likely to suggest you a distinctly Italian or American invention. You could certainly argue, that if our climate more suited to growing more exotic fresh ingredients (as in most parts of South America), we might have cultivated a more unique and exuberant cuisine, worthy of pride. For me that’s a valid and satisfactory excuse, but it doesn’t relieve the deficit to our national cultural identity caused by a lacklustre gastronomy.
Peruvians are, and should be, endlessly proud of their food. As a direct result, they make ample time to enjoy it. They take time to cook properly both for lunch and dinner, and to enjoy long family meals on a regular basis. As a linguistic product of this culture, there is even a singular Spanish word for the lengthy conversations that Hispanic people enjoy at the table: ‘la sobremesa’ – literally ‘the over-table’. They simply wouldn’t dream of grabbing a sandwich and bag of crisps and wolfing it down on the way to work or class – a crime I have undoubtedly committed in my time. Still, these are profound differences in culture based on many other factors, such as efficiency.
What I hope you have taken from this article are two main points. Firstly, the importance and power of food as a cultural flag post for a nation whose economical backwardness makes them irrelevant and estranged to many Europeans. And secondly, that South American cuisine can be truly majestic.
Image: @WillianJusten via Unsplash