Mixed Plates: Peru’s ‘Gastronomia Mestiza’ Spans Centuries, Continents
In a global society, it’s hard to envision a time when markets were not well stocked with products that have their origins in every corner of the world, fresh and ready to savor. However, it’s only been a fraction of human existence where meats and produce now considered staples were available to those who lived outside their native regions. Peru, the South American nation with a unique gastronomic history, has provided an outsize impact on this food supply chain.
Prior to the Columbian presence, Europeans hadn’t ever tried a potato and no one in the Americas knew what rice tasted like. Through a worldwide trend of exploration and expansion (and their unsavory partners, colonialism and conquering) foods unheard of in parts of the world began making their way back and forth between the Old and New Worlds.
Of special interest was foodstuffs of Peru, where a high mountain climate and over 10,000 years of cultivation expertise by indigenous peoples gave way to a bountiful variety of foods, including potatoes, cacao, lima beans and the aji amarillo chili pepper, thought to be the mother species of all capsicum chilies in the Americas.
While these foods and their traditional preparations were delicious on their own, it was the introduction of European ingredients and techniques that allowed Peruvians to launch their meals into gastronomy, creating “fusion food” hundreds of years before the trendy coastal Californian cuisine. Livestock meats previously unknown to the Americas, like pork and beef, became infused with Peruvian spices and supplemented with potatoes to create hearty meals. Onions and tomatoes were mixed with native chilis to make spicy salsas.
The darker chapters of colonization also played a role in Peruvian cuisine. The conquered and enslaved, as means of survival, began using offal from livestock to create meals. One such dish, anticucho de corazón, or marinated and skewered beef hearts, features an African influence, as the enslaved peoples brought their culinary traditions. These simply prepared and filling skewers, served anywhere they could be cooked, became some of the first “street food” in Peru.
This consistent churn of culinary influence continued over generations and created the gastronomic pleasures of Peruvian cuisine we know today. Later, Chinese influence created chifa - Cantonese-style cooking with Peruvian ingredients - it remains immensely popular in the country and beyond. Later still, Swiss immigrants brought a recipe for rotisserie chicken, with key modifications for the Peruvian palette, and created pollo a la brasa, a blackened rotisserie chicken that defined to the world what Peruvian cuisine could be and remains one of its most prolific exports. In modern times, Peruvian culinary influence can be seen from L.A.’s takeaway street food stands to the Southland’s finest of dining.
Nobu in Peru
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, owner and head chef of famed Nobu, opened his first sushi restaurant in Lima. It was there that Matsuhisa began to blend available Peruvian ingredients with his master sushi chef training, creating his signature Peruvian/Japanese fusion that made his restaurants so delicious and exclusive.
Tiradito, a concept based in Japan and elevated in Peru, is an example. The dish, which Matsuhisa describes as a “fresh sashimi made from thinly sliced fish, sprinkled with lemon juice and topped with rocoto chili,” builds on Peru’s famed ceviche, or citrus-cooked fish. Nobu also serves an elevated fusion version of humble anticucho de corazón, which he enjoyed immensely while living in Peru, as it reminded him of Japanese yakitori chicken. “In my restaurants we do wagyu beef, chicken, or salmon anticucho, it is one of our most popular dishes,” he said.
Matsuhisa has said that Peru is his “second country,” and visits regularly. During a recent pre-pandemic trip, with his entire family in tow, he revisited the dining scene he helped create, and was impressed by its elevation. “I visited my friend Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s restaurant. He prepared a spectacular tasting menu for us using a variety of local ingredients from the Amazon. It was truly an enjoyable meal, and I was so happy I had the opportunity to share it with my family and friends,” he said.
Peru in L.A. and Hollywood
Peru’s influence in the Southland is not limited to Nobu’s locations or the mastery of its chef. Peruvian specialty restaurants dot the cityscape, ranging from humble numerous pollo a la brasa restaurants and popular options like Mario and Felix, other Japanese Peruvian concepts like YAPA and Mykaza, to trendy Rosaliné, recognized Rocoto and Los Balcones, an upscale-yet-relaxed Hollywood restaurant on Vine Street.
Los Balcones features all of the aforementioned Peruvian foods here, along with less well-known choices for diners to sample and savor. Jorge Rodriguez, owner of Los Balcones since its opening in 2005, suggests diners begin with ceviche. “Ceviche is the quintessential go-to dish at any Peruvian restaurant. As for Los Balcones it has not been any different, over the years we have presented various versions showcasing the flavors from the different regions of our vast 1500-mile coastline.”
“Needless to say - yes, we love ceviche,” he said.
Rodriguez said that while the anticucho de corazón may present some resistance at first description (since it is heart meat that many are not used to eating), it quickly becomes a favorite.
“Served piping hat of the grill and smothered with spicy rocoto sauce. Once they try it there is no turning back, people love it,” he said. Some feel no meal is complete without an alcohol pairing - luckily, Peru’s advanced gastronomy extends to beverages as well. The Pisco Sour, a cocktail both historically Peruvian and at home on any modern bar menu, is a mixture of pisco, a light, clear Peruvian brandy, lime juice, simple syrup, an egg white for foam and Angostura bitters for depth of flavor. “The light and refreshing feel you get from a Pisco Sour sets up the mood and conditions your palate for a great culinary experience,” said Rodriguez.
While perhaps the best place to sample these culinary creations are their birthplaces – gastronomic capitals like Lima and Cusco, Peruvian restaurants in Southern California are an excellent place to whet your appetite for an upcoming adventure. Rodriguez suggested that when ordering for delivery or takeaway, choose foods that travel well: The lomo saltado (sautéed steak), seco de carne (braised short rib), or arroz con mariscos (seafood paella). If you do plan the trip, expect the unexpected, said Chef Nobu, “Peruvian cuisine has evolved in many ways compared to 40 years ago.”
– Alan LaGuardia, Brand Publishing Writer