eating away: south america

Fiona Smith travelled through South America in September, visiting the Galapagos Islands and walking the Inca Trail as well as enjoying some fascinating meals. She shares some highlights…

My recent trip to Peru and Ecuador wasn’t intended to be about food: we walked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, sailed around the Galápagos Islands, and canoed through the Amazon. But the bonus for anyone traveling in SA is that no matter your itinerary, you will always come across some very good food.

Of course there was no way I could spend a few days in Lima without a bit of meal pre-planning, as it’s the current food destination de jour. And so it was that at precisely 5pm on 1 August (midnight Peru time) I sat poised at my computer as the bookings opened for September at Central, currently number 4 on the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants list. I also scoured the internet for pointers to the best food tour in Lima and got a short list of local favourites from the wonderful Grace Ramirez, the unofficial New Zealand queen when it comes to South American food.

The Inca trail came first, and the surprising thing was how good the food was. Each meal was prepared over gas burners which were carried on the backs of the wonderful porters, along with all ingredients. Lunch always started with soup and these were the real highlight. As in Ecuador, the Peruvian soups are amazing, combining grains and vegetables in delicious broths or more hearty mixes. Our chef on the walk liked to start with a base of garlic and ginger, giving his soups a zingy Asian flavour, and always finished with a scattering of coriander. We even had an elaborately decorated, pan-cooked cake for our last evening. It wasn’t the best cake I have ever eaten, but it was impressive in so many other ways.

We did try guinea pig in the sacred valley. I put aside my memories of past pets and reasoned that guinea pig is far more sustainable and ethically raised than most of the chicken, eggs and pork eaten in New Zealand. It was boney but the meat was moist, roasted over an open fire until smoky and the skin crisp with crackle. I thought it was a little like quail; delicate with just a hint of gaminess.

Back in Lima, the reward for all that walking was a 16-course dinner at Central. Virgilio Martinez’s elevations menu is described as a journey through the Peruvian eco system. The menu, while describing the key flavours of each dish, also lists the elevation the ingredients come from. Martinez is a passionate forager and scours the country, from the Amazon up into the Andes, for unique Peruvian ingredients.

I had forewarned my friends that while this might not necessarily be the most delicious food they would eat on our travels, it could well be the most interesting. Martinez’s skill and imagination shone through in dishes that combined many unusual ingredients. Fruit, seafood, potatoes and grains featured strongly, often combined into delicious and textural sensations on the plate. Looking back on the photos and menu from the night, I truly have no idea what I ate, but wow, what an experience.

I think I was right about it not being the most delicious food we would eat on our trip, because the next day we just might have had that for lunch. Grace had pointed me in the direction of La Picanteria, a seafood restaurant in the Surquillo district. It’s very close to both the central food markets, which are interesting to walk around. The bar counter is covered in fresh fish and you basically buy one the size you need for your group and choose a few different preparations. We had the ceviche, chicharrons (fried to crisp fish skin), a baked half on the bone and the most delicious soup – chilcano, a Peruvian fish broth made from the head and other parts. Somewhat confusingly, chilcano is also the name of a delicious long drink made with pisco, and we also enjoyed several of these at La Picanteria. Everything was spiked with the hot and fruity orange aji amarillo chilli sauce, giving a unique hit to all dishes. I’ve created my version of these recipes in issue 3 of Stone Soup.

The Lima Colours & Flavours walking tour took us to a local market where we tried many unfamiliar fruits. We also visited the fish market, had street food and ceviche from a tiny hole-in-the-wall place and drank our first chicha morada – the local drink made from purple corn and spices. Other things worth searching out in Lima are pork sanguche – piles of roasted meat in a bun with sweet potato, lightly pickled red onion, coriander and the ubiquitous and so delicious aji amarillo chili sauce – and anticuchos, which are skewers of meat, most often beef heart, cooked over coals. I also loved the frequent combination of Chinese and Japanese flavours with Peruvian. These fusion-style dishes originated in the 1800s and are still going strong today. Nikkei is Japanese and Chifa is Chinese – there’s a Chifa restaurant on every corner while the Nikkei options tend to be more upmarket. Probably the best dish to try at the latter is the tiradito; a sashimi/ cerviche hybrid. You can try it closer to home at Auckland’s Azabu restaurant or look out for my Nikkei and Chifa feature in the January issue of Cuisine.