The mention of Peru in unenlightened gastronomic circles usually elicits snorts of derision and a joke or two about guinea pigs. But the country most visited in South America by backpackers and seekers of ancient Inca ruins is in fact the last undiscovered foodie paradise on earth. For years my wife Alida and I spent Sunday afternoons listening and salivating as her grandmother, Rosa Huapaya, told us of the Peruvian dishes she would prepare for her husband Alberto and their six children at home in Puente Piedra, a modest little town nestled among the sand dunes beyond Lima's suburbs. Tales of how she would work all day at a giant stone mortar and pestle to prepare dishes with names as exotic as their ingredients such as papa a la Huancaina, causa, tiradito and anticuchos fired our imaginations and our appetites alike. So with Doña Rosa's menus in mind we set off on a gastronomic tour of our abuelita's homeland. Most visitors to Peru follow a rigid itinerary, trekking from Lima on the north west coast down to Arrequipa in the low Andes, to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Puno at the top of the world. Some take a sojourn to Nasca, flirting with death to see the famed Nasca Lines from the front seat of a lawnmower-powered hang glider or a rather shaky small aircraft. But the same journey, as we discovered on a month-long trip, encompasses a gastronomic odyssey that is as fascinating and rewarding as it is delicious. Touching down at Jorge Chavez International airport in Lima, it is tempting to start the feast in the arrivals hall. The unmistakable scent of spiced chicken roasting over hot charcoal and freshly fried potatoes permeates the usual airport monoculture. Chicken and fries - or pollo a la brassa con papas fritas - served with aji hot sauce is one of the many dishes Peruvians claim as their own with immense national pride. But, as tempting as this initial offering may be, it is worth waiting a while longer to satisfy your appetite as the holy grail of Peruvian cuisine is not too far away. Many nations in South America lay claim to ceviche - raw fish marinated in lime juice and spices until it is "cooked". But the mere suggestion that it is anything but a Peruvian creation, and indeed the most nationalistic of this country's many national dishes, is fighting talk in Lima.
The city is bordered to the east by a long stretch of dirty grey sand dunes and to the west by the Pacific Ocean, the store cupboard of the cevicheria. The freshest fish is essential to a good ceviche so it is not surprising that this thriving seaside city has thousands of these little restaurants to choose from. The guide books recommend many in Lima itself, but for my money it is worth a 45minute taxi ride north to the little beach town of Ancon. The trip shouldn't cost more than 15 or 20 soles ($5$7, Dh18Dh26). Ancon was once the playground of Lima's rich and famous. Today, it is slightly faded around the edges but still a beautiful little town with magnificent ocean views, good beaches and some of the best ceviche in the world. The fishermen pull up at the jetty twice a day and unload their catch of anchovies, flounder, shrimp, and whatever else the ocean has to offer straight onto the openair ceviche stands. Here groups of middle-aged women expertly carve up the fish, prepare the marinades and hawk their wares with formidable voice all day long. "Come inside, come inside, enjoy the heating and the fine table settings of our magnificent restaurant my big strong king with your beautiful queen," is the rough translation of the greeting we received. The ceviche women of Ancon are the Latina equivalent of Cockney market traders, with a patter to match. The restaurant, of course, has no heating, no fine table settings and indeed no walls. It is merely a series of tables and chairs set out along the jetty covered with a tarpaulin roof. But the food they serve is sublime. Here you can feast on ceviche mixto - a mix of conchitas negras (black cockles), shrimp, octopus, flat fish and pejerrey - local anchovies. If you want to invoke yet more cackling innuendo from the ceviche women, ask for extra leche de tigre, or tiger's milk, a blend of hot peppers, lime juice and the fishy goodness in which the raw fish is soaked. According to the ladies, it contains certain medicinal properties. I am sure you can guess what they are. The ceviche stands also sell a variety of soups and stews for cold days but better yet they specialise in the Peruvian version of fish and chips, otherwise known as jalea (halaya). Jalea is every child's favourite, made of chunks of battered white fish, morsels of deep fried calamari, shrimp - indeed anything and everything from the fishermen's nets - served with fried yucca, fried yellow potatoes and a generous serving of aji, a spicy paste made from hot yellow peppers, oil and various herbs and spices.
The fish in Ancon is of such high quality that many of Lima's restaurateurs eschew the city's immense fish market for the catch dragged up on this little jetty, especially the anchovies. "Ancon's anchovies are the best in the world," says Gaston Acurio, Lima's most successful restaurateur and a well known TV chef. He runs La Mar, a popular cevicheria with Lima's young and hip found in the back streets of Miraflores, a lively neighbourhood of bars, restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlours currently enjoying a renaissance. La Mar is a modern cosmopolitan lunch spot where Lima's smart professionals and power brokers spend long lunches over Pisco sours - the national cocktail of lime juice, egg white and Pisco - a type of grappa made in the south of the country. Fifty or 60 tables are spread out under a tent roof flanked on one side by an open window to the bustling kitchen. La Mar specialises in tiradito, Peru's version of sashimi served with different spicy sauces as well as countless variations on traditional ceviche. It is best to choose two or three ceviches and tiraditos each or the inexpensive tasting menu to get a real feel for Gaston's creations. Down the road Gaston runs Astrid y Gaston, a fine dining take on traditional Peruvian cuisine. It offers modern, minimalist takes on all of the nation's most typical dishes. "Food is at the heart of Peruvian culture and Peruvian life," Gaston says. "This country should be known in South America like France is known in Europe. We have indigenous ingredients and methods in Peru that are unique and exquisite and yet our food is unknown to the majority of people outside of our country." Travelling around the country, one begins to notice a distinct school of Peruvian cooking that, like Gaston says, is in many ways as unique and as steeped in tradition as French cuisine. In Huancayo, for example, a dusty outpost high in the Andes to the east of Lima, a thick yellow sauce made from local cheese blended with spicy yellow peppers is poured over boiled potatoes of differing colours and hues to make papa a la Huancaina. Nothing like it exists in European cooking. The sauce is made through a slow process of grinding and pounding the ingredients together until they emulsify, yet the finished result is creamy and silky like a fine béchamel.
On the road you will notice many culinary influences representing the nationalities of all the explorers who came to Peru looking for Inca gold or a new life in the new world. Cheap Chinese restaurants, or chifas, are a national institution and a great option for cheap eats wherever you are. Ceviche and tiradito have much in common with Japanese cooking. Steak is served with tallerines verdes - green spaghetti - just as it is all over Italy, but instead of basilbased pesto, the pasta is covered in a sauce made from a Peruvian herb called huacatay blended with cheese, oil and nuts. Each dish, whatever its origin, has a uniquely Peruvian signature thanks to the abundance of indigenous produce the country has to offer. Take a humble ear of corn, for example. Elsewhere in the world an ear of corn is an ear of corn with little yellow niblets. Peruvian corn, however, is corn on steroids with giant white kernels bursting with juices and flavour. Choclo, as corn on the cob is called in Peru, is delicious eaten on the side of the road with a slice of homemade cheese and some more of the ubiquitous aji. Just listen for the old ladies shouting "Choclo, choclo maeeeeees!" and you'll be set. Fuelled by massive amounts of said giant corn, we eventually arrived in Arequipa, a bustling city at the foot of El Misti, a conical and imposing volcano. The city is cosmopolitan and lively, and at 2,380 metres it is a good stoppingoff point to acclimatise on the way to Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.
Arequipa is known among Peruvians for its chupe de camarones - a rich creamy bisque made from fresh water shrimp, corn and potatoes. Chupe is as traditional as Peruvian food gets and is best tried at a picanteria (local restaurant) called Tradition Arequipeno, a fairly touristy joint on the outskirts of town. The tourists, though, are mostly Peruvian and the quality of the food is great. For a more local vibe visit El Palomino, especially for Sunday lunch, when you will be stunned by just how much food your average Peruvian can consume at one sitting. Martin Bedoya, six years old, chomps his way through an enormous plate of chicken and green rice - arroz con pollo - while his mother Xinita works on an equally mammoth portion of beef and potatoes nearby. "This is how we eat on a Sunday in Peru," she says. "Family meals are very important and the picanteria is the best place to eat them." Further up the Andes in Cusco, the closest city to Machu Picchu, the picanterias are even more hardcore. Here they specialise in chicha de jora, fermented purple corn juice, served in enormous glasses styled after the sacred cups used by the Incas. The best in town is called La Chomba and is a devil to find up several dark alleyways but it is well worth the hunt. The food is delicious and plentiful and local musicians ply their trade without straying too far into the usual touristy repertoire of "El Condor Pasa" and other Andean favourites. You will not find many tourists at La Chomba. Indeed, when we visited the place was packed with striking teachers who were supposed to be marching for better pay. But as far as we could see they were much more concerned about the quality of the beef stew with mashed potatoes. As night falls over Cusco, and many other Peruvian towns, the smell of meat smoking over barbecue coals fills the air. The unmistakable scent comes from myriad anticucherias. Anticuchos is the name given to chunks of meat - usually beef heart - cooked on a skewer over hot coals. They are served in abundance at roadside stands, much like hot dogs in New York. Beef hearts might not sound too appetising to those who do not appreciate good offal, but they taste like the best filet mignon imaginable as the heart of your average beef steer is all muscle, no fat. Anticuchos can also be bought indoors at rough and ready barbecue shacks, the best in Cusco being El Condorito. The place has a giant charcoal grill at the entrance and a concrete floor covered with stones. The tables are wobbly, dogs and cats mill about looking for scraps and the temperature at night is freezing. But it is worth bundling up to huddle around the tiny portable TV to watch the football and tuck into the amazing grilled meat and potatoes. Stuffed hot peppers - called rocottos rellenos - are also a speciality of the anticucheria but are not for the faint of heart. Travelling down the Sacred Valley to see Inca ruins, or even up the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu, it soon becomes clear that food is far more important in Peru than it is in most other places on earth. The culinary overlaps into every walk of life, especially the medicinal. For altitude sickness you will not be prescribed drugs here. Rather a bowl of chicken broth with potatoes - called caldo de gallina. For shortness of breath try sniffing muña, a minty herb found up in the mountains where you need it most. While others struggle with altitude sickness and giant stone steps up the side of yet more Inca ruins, I would advise using your time in the Sacred Valley to visit the tiny town of Pisac, especially on a Sunday. The market in this country town bursts with vibrantly colourful fruits and vegetables. There are stalls heaving with 10 or 12 different kinds of corn, which women grind into meal for tamales or soak in water and sugar to make fermented chicha de jora corn beer. Others make vast vats of chicken soup and aji while cardboard boxes wriggle with live chickens and guinea pigs at every turn. You can also spend an hour visiting Pisac Cathedral, where they celebrate mass in the ancient Andean language of Qechua, which is as good an opportunity as any to digest whichever soup, stew or cob of corn you bought for breakfast at the market. So great and diverse is the range of unique indigenous produce in Peru that it would be impossible to mention it all in the confines of this story. There are 35 varieties of corn, 4,000 types of potato. Exquisite fruits like the powdery, peachy lucuma, the custardish cherimoya and the snotty grenadilla. For a less healthy dessert try the picarones - fried pumpkin beignets served with syrup. And what account of Peruvian gastronomy would be complete without a mention of Inca Kola, the bright yellow soda pop that manages to outsell that American drink within Peru's national borders? For the coup de grace on our gastronomic journey, we spent two days hunting for a pachamanca, a traditional style of cooking that means "earth oven" in Qechua. Pachamanca is the most ancient of Peru's traditional cuisines and has much in common with the Hawaiian Kalua and other types of cooking that use a deep pit and hot coals, embers or rocks. A traditional pachamanca involves wrapping meat and potatoes in banana leaves at the bottom of a deep hole before adding rocks heated on a fire. The whole lot is then buried for several hours until the meat is tender and the potatoes are soft. These days though, you will often find a pachamanca built of old bricks filled with homemade charcoal into which the banana leaf wrapped food is placed. The whole oven is then wrapped in wet sugar paper and blankets to seal in the steam and to create a similar effect to burying the food. We eventually found an elusive pachamanca about half an hour outside of Lima thanks to the directions of a kind old lady selling sandwiches by the side of the road near the San Francisco catacombs. After another long cab ride through some very dingy industrial wasteland we arrived at Betty's, where the owner's family of pachamanca specialists prepared a feast of meats, potatoes, fava beans and soup in the way the Incas used to cook. We ate family style outside in Betty's modest yard while we exchanged tall tales of the best Peruvian meals we had ever digested. The hottest topic of discussion around the table, however, was one repeated at every meal and snack stop on our fiveweek odyssey around Peru. How can it be possible, with such amazing and diverse foods on offer in this country, that every high street in the world does not have a Peruvian restaurant alongside the Indian, the Italian and the Chinese? Betty's mother Claudina, a sprightly 70something, is mystified as she stirs a giant pot of chicken and corn soup on an open fire in preparation for the weekend pachamanca rush."People have to come here to see it first," she says. "Good food is the most important thing. People come here to eat and to dance. They have a good time with good food, and that is the same all over Peru. That is what will make a good life." email@example.com