Ten years ago, had an intrepid eater embarked on a search for tiger’s milk, anticucho or tiradito, in even the most cosmopolitan, forward-thinking foodie capitals, their quest would more than likely have proven fruitless (or almost certainly ceviche-less). A decade on, though, and Peru has staged its very own culinary invasion, infiltrating cities all over the world, establishing the country and its cuisine as not just a fleeting trendsetter, but as one of the leaders on the global cooking stage.
The UAE got its first real taste of Peruvian cooking at the tail end of 2014, with the launch of Coya Dubai, an offshoot of the London flagship. Others quickly followed, and almost three years later, the country boasts an ever-growing array of choices for Peruvian-inspired eating. In Dubai, there’s Ceviche (another London original) in Emirates Financial Towers and Garden at the JW Marriott Marquis, as well as Inka, Mayta, Pollo Pollo, Ají and Waka. Those living in the capital are now well catered for thanks to both Limo Restaurant at the Bab Al Qasr Hotel and Coya Abu Dhabi.
This enthusiasm shows no sign of waning, here or internationally. With Virgilio Martínez as chef proprietor, Lima London was the first Peruvian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star back in 2014 and Central, his restaurant in the Peruvian capital, was ranked at No 5 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. Lima Dubai opened its doors in March this year.
So what is it about Peruvian food that has proved so alluring? At a time when we are all increasingly aware of what we eat and how this affects our well-being, it certainly doesn’t hurt that, by its very nature, Peruvian food is generally healthy. There’s an integral lightness to the cuisine, along with an appreciation for ancient grains and a dedication to fresh ingredients that all tie in seamlessly with modern, health-conscious approaches to eating. And while it might sound superficial, with social media – particularly Instagram – awash with beautiful food images, it helps that this style of cooking is very easy on the eye. As well as taste, texture and flavour, the colour and visual appeal of food has long been important to Peruvian cooks.
The diversity of the cuisine and the sense of authenticity that surrounds it is another major draw. While it’s not unusual to be able to trace the political, social and economic history of a country through its food, Peruvian cooking is the edible embodiment of this idea. From the continued use of indigenous produce (potatoes, corn, maize, chillies) as well as Inca techniques and traditions, to the way the cuisine has assimilated produce and ideas from migrant countries, notably Spain, Africa, China and Japan, this is fusion cooking of the highest order.
“Peruvian cuisine is unique thanks to its flavours and use of ingredients, but also in the way that it combines ingredients and influences from other countries to create something unique,” Roland Puse, head chef at Coya Abu Dhabi, explains.
We only need look to ceviche – the national dish of Peru – for an insight into how this cuisine has absorbed external influences. Thousands of years ago, Peruvian fishermen used the juice of a native fruit called tumbo to marinate or “cook” their catch, and chillies to flavour it.
In the 16th century, a wave of Spanish migrants brought meat and poultry, European recipes and, importantly for ceviche lovers, citrus fruit, onions, ginger and garlic to the national larder. Over time, these ingredients made their way into ceviche and remain there today.
Ceviche evolved further to become the dish now referred to as tiradito in the late 1800s, when Japanese immigrants arrived in Peru. They not only introduced condiments such as soy sauce to the mix, but also a method of carving the fish similar to the technique employed for slicing sashimi. This Japanese-influenced strand of Peruvian cooking grew and became known as Nikkei.
The sheer volume of native ingredients that Peruvian cooks have access to only adds to its range; there are thousand of varieties of potatoes, hundreds of different strains of chilli plant, more than 30 varieties of corn, and fresh fish in abundance.
“Aji (chilli peppers), potatoes, limes, garlic and onions,” Luis Manuel, the chef de cuisine at Abu Dhabi’s Limo Restaurant, immediately responds when I ask him which ingredients are most integral to Peruvian cooking. “These are the items that cannot be missed out. Fresh aji, green limes and onion are used in all ceviches, and onion and garlic, fried gently until softened but not browned, form the base of Peruvian stews.”
Rather than this abundance of ingredients creating problems and resulting in the cuisine losing authenticity when exported, there seems to be a desire to go above and beyond when it comes to sourcing native produce. “We are really lucky in that plenty of our indigenous products are easy to find here,” says Gonzalo Alberto, head chef at Ceviche in Dubai. “I have to give the credit to the trade office for Peru in the UAE; they have worked hard to encourage distributors to see the potential of importing Peruvian products. Without these ingredients, it would be impossible to cook true Peruvian food.”
Puse agrees with Alberto, explaining that as the number of Peruvian and Latin-American restaurants in the region has increased, so too has the ease with which authentic ingredients can be procured.
“The Coya team went to Peru on a culinary trip last year, where we met and established relationships with a number of new suppliers who are now helping us to source ingredients that previously weren’t available in the UAE,” he says.
It seems then that not only is Peruvian cooking here to stay, but the quality of food on offer is only going to improve.
Three to try
The history of these grilled meat skewers, pictured right, which are often made with offal, can be traced back to the ingenuity of the African-Peruvians. In a bid to use the entire animal, the idea for ox-heart anticucho was born. When night falls in many of Peru's main cities, the air is filled with the mouth-watering smell of meat roasting over hot barbecue coals emanating from countless street-food stalls. You can sample one of Roland Puse's favourite dishes, the chilli-marinated veal-heart anticucho, at Coya Abu Dhabi.
This is the most well-known of all Peruvian dishes. In its most basic form, ceviche is raw fish marinated in a mixture of citrus, herbs and chilli known as tiger’s milk or leche de tigre, until opaque or “cooked”. While that may sound simple, it requires a precision in execution, as Luis Manuel, chef de cuisine at Abu Dhabi’s Limo Restaurant, explains: “Ceviche is a noble dish, but it requires the perfect balance of acidity and spice. The fish must be very fresh, cold and firm, but never frozen. Ceviche is not a soup or a salad – you need exactly the right amount of leche de tigre.” Enjoy his signature ceviche – ceviche chalaco – at Limo at Bab Al Qasr Hotel.
Chupe de camarones
Originating from Peru's Arequipa region, where freshwater crayfish are revered, this filling, chowder-like soup features seafood shrouded in a rich, spicy broth. It also often contains corn, hot peppers and tomatoes, and is thickened with milk and sometimes egg for a luxurious, velvety finish. Try an elegant version of this traditional dish at Ceviche Dubai.