When I first visited Peru, the cuisine’s sophistication and diversity, combined with its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, dazzled me. I loved the delicious and spicy ceviches, made from freshly caught Pacific seabass and garnished with choclo, large-kerneled corn and slices of sweet potato. The vast array of potatoes — estimates of native types range from 3,500 to more than 5,000, plus 150 sweet potato varieties — amazed me, especially the unusual chuños, freeze-dried potatoes which Andean Altiplano residents still preserve and prepare using ancient, pre-Columbian techniques. With its combination of chilies, spices and native plants, including more than 650 distinctive fruits, the cuisine’s flavors were at once subtle yet spicy, layered and always fascinating.
Fresh fish, corn, potatoes and other tubers, quinoa, beans, chilies, tomatoes, augmented by cuy (a large guinea pig raised for meat) and alpaca — these were the staples of the indigenous Peruvian diet that the Spaniards quickly intermingled with their European agricultural imports, both enhancing the native ingredients and transforming Peruvian dishes.
It’s hard to contemplate Peru’s national dish, ceviche, without the onions and citrus the Spanish brought, but ceviche originated with ancient Incas and Quechuas who marinated and “cooked” the fish with tumbo, an acidic fruit similar to passion fruit. Yet Japanese and Chinese influences, part of Peru’s culinary melting pot, transformed it again, creating newer Asian-inspired versions.
For centuries Spanish and French preparations dominated the country’s kitchens, yet in recent years Peruvian cuisine has come into its own. A new generation of chefs has revived the country’s native ingredients, recovering and preserving them, seeking out forgotten offerings from the country’s geographically diverse regions, from the Pacific seashore, Amazon jungle and Andean Antiplano, spanning more than 80 microclimates. They’ve combined them with culinary influences from the Japanese, Chinese, Italians, French, Arabs, Africans and other immigrants who’ve made Peru a rich melting pot. The resulting nueva comida has revitalized Lima’s dining scene and catapulted the city to the top four highest-rated world dining destinations, along with New York, Mexico City and London.
Now San Diego can boast an ambassador of Peru’s cultural and culinary heritage in chef Emmanuel Piqueras. He recently opened Pisco Rotisserie & Cevichería in Liberty Station, serving as executive chef/partner with local restaurateur Sami Ladeki, who fell in love with Peruvian cuisine while exploring Lima.
Piqueras, 45, seems an unlikely candidate to become a chef. Born into a prominent Lima family — his corruption-fighting mother was Lima’s first woman mayor and his father a congressman — he seemed destined for a life of public service. But after graduating from university he discovered he hated working in an office. Instead, he found his professional passion in cooking, something he had enjoyed as a home cook, developing a special fondness for his country’s native superfoods. With support from his family, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu’s Lima culinary school and apprenticed with noted chef Don Cucho La Rosa at Pantagruel, his Lima restaurant.
Piqueras followed up with three years at the Michelin three-star Arzak in San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country before inaugurating his first U.S. Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Ore., in 2003. More acclaim followed his opening of Peruvian eateries in Seattle, San Francisco and New York, where he currently lives with his wife and son and hosts the Spanish-language cable television cooking show “Sabor y Fusion.”
Now, returning to his family’s tradition of public service, he works with the Peruvian national tourist board as an ambassador promoting his country’s cultural and culinary heritage, teaching Americans its cuisine and history.
Sitting under colorful crepe paper umbrellas lining Pisco’s ceiling, surrounded by Peruvian-inspired paintings, Piqueras explained that for him, cooking is all about the ingredients.
“My style is simpler. I’m back to the traditional, using the whole ingredients. We use everything fresh and organic when possible.”
His favorite seafood is octopus, which he frequently features. Freshness is paramount, especially for the fish going into his signature dish ceviche, which is raw fish “cooked” only by the acidity of lime juice.
“We always get the ‘top of the boat,’ the freshest fish. For ceviche you can’t fake freshness,” he said.
If ceviche is his favorite dish, quinoa, though technically a seed, is his favorite grain.
“It’s the most versatile ingredient. You give it flavor. There are 19 or 20 varieties native to Peru. It’s the only ingredient that has all the essential amino acids plus protein,” he said, explaining that Pisco offers it both in a salad and as a replacement for traditional fried rice.
His menu is a veritable tour through Peru’s melting pot of cuisines. His ceviches display traditional flavors plus more contemporary influences, including the Japanese Nikkei, using ginger and soy sauce, and tiradito-style salmon, sliced like sushi. His quinoa chaufa and chaufa aeropuerto reflect Chifa influence, the popular Peruvian-style Chinese cooking, as does his lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry, served with both rice and fried potatoes. Polla a la brasa, the popular spice-marinated rotisserie chicken, and arroz con pollo, the traditional Latin dish reflecting Peruvian flair and served with cilantro-flavored green rice, also reflect the best of fusion cuisine.
Let these diverse, distinctive and delicious dishes tempt you — and complete your immersion with a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, or Peruvian wine or beer. You won’t regret it.
Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.
Peruvian chilies, chili pastes and other specialty products are available at Latin markets, including Andres Latin Market, 1249 Morena Blvd., Linda Vista, or Tropical Star Restaurant & Specialty Market, 6163 Balboa Ave., Clairemont.
Martini de Tigre Ceviche
Makes 4 to 6 servings
12 ounces fresh California halibut, diced
6 ounces Portuguese octopus, cooked and diced
4 ounces calamari rings, cooked
12 half sea scallops
12 shrimp, cooked and peeled
Sea salt, to taste
½ cup ají amarillo chili sauce (recipe follows)
1 small onion, chopped
1 habanero chili, seeded and chopped
2 teaspoons cilantro, finely sliced
¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 ice cubes
Cilantro micro greens for garnish
In a cold bowl mix the fish, octopus, calamari, scallops and shrimp. Add salt (to taste), ají amarillo sauce, chopped onion, habanero to taste and cilantro; mix well.
To finish, add lime juice, mixing well before adding the ice cubes. Mix thoroughly and serve in a chilled martini glass, garnished with cilantro micro greens.
Ají Amarillo Sauce
6 ounces ají amarillo chili paste
1 stick of celery
1 clove garlic
2 ounces canola oil
Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth.
Ahi Yellowfin Tuna Causitas
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1½ pounds Peruvian yellow or Yukon gold potatoes
Pinch of salt
½ cup canola oil
¼ cup lime juice
¼ cup ají amarillo chili paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced in chiffonade, divided
Rocoto paste, to taste
2 pounds ahi yellowfin tuna (center cut)
1 pinch chopped fresh ginger
1 ounce soy sauce
½ teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, sliced just before serving
Green tobiko (fish roe) for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place potatoes in large baking pan with a splash of water and salt; cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes or until fully tender. When cool enough to handle, peel. Put through ricer or mash until smooth. Add canola oil, lime juice, ají amarillo paste, and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 2 sliced green onions, a pinch of rocoto paste; taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Mix until smooth. Set aside.
Cut ahi tuna into small dice (tartare-style); mix with ginger, remaining green onions, rocoto paste, soy sauce, sesame seeds and mayonnaise. Add salt and pepper, as needed.
To serve: Press potato dough halfway up sides of 8-10 individual metal ring molds, each measuring 2 inches in diameter by approximately 2 inches high. Place molds on serving plates; carefully remove rings. Top with tuna tartare and avocado slices and garnish with tobiko.
Arroz con Pato
You can substitute chicken or other poultry for the duck, according to preference.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 duck confit legs (recipe follows)
½ cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
2 ají amarillo chilies, seeded and puréed
¼ cup peas
¼ cup peeled fava beans
¼ cup choclo corn kernels
½ cup red bell peppers, diced
1 cup grated butternut squash
1 pound jasmine rice
2 cups black beer (stout or porter)
2 cup cilantro
4 cups chicken or duck stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch black pepper
½ teaspoon cumin
Heat the oil in a skillet and brown the duck confit. Remove legs, set aside and transfer hot oil to a deep sauce pan. Add chopped onion, chopped garlic and pureed ají amarillo and sauté for few minutes, or until lightly browned. Then add the peas, fava beans, corn kernels, red peppers, grated butternut squash and rice and stir for two minutes. Add black beer and cilantro. Add stock, salt, black pepper and cumin and cook for 8 minutes more.
Next, return the browned duck confit legs to the pan and cook for an additional 12 minutes or until the rice is tender.
Serve ducks atop a mound of rice, drizzled with Huancaina sauce (recipe follows).
Duck fat is available at specialty stores such as Whole Foods.
6 Peking duck legs, raw
1 cup kosher salt
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 lime, sliced
8 cloves crushed garlic
¼ cup black peppercorns
2 crushed ají panca seco (Peruvian dried ají panca)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
6 fresh bay leaves
50 ounces rendered duck fat
Rub duck legs with kosher salt on both sides. Place them in a large resealable plastic bag. Add the lime zest and slices, garlic, black peppercorns, ají panca, fresh thyme and fresh bay leaves. Seal and massage the duck legs through the bag until all of the ingredients are evenly dispersed. Refrigerate for 24 hours to marinate.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Remove duck legs from the marinade. Rinse them and pat dry. Place the marinade from the bag into the bottom of an ovenproof dish just large enough to hold the legs in a single layer. Place the duck legs skin side down in the dish. Pour the duck fat into a small saucepan and warm over low heat until liquid. Pour over the duck legs until completely covered. Bake for 8 hours in the preheated oven. Cool. Place in the freezer, where confit can be kept for two to three days.
This classic Peruvian sauce is often served atop cooked potatoes or, at Pisco, over seared white fish such as halibut.
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 ají amarillo chilies, seedless
2 cloves garlic, chopped
¾ cup evaporated milk
4 saltine crackers
2 cups queso fresco
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onions, ají amarillo chilies and garlic. Sauté the mixture until the onions are soft and translucent. Place the mixture into a blender and add evaporated milk. Blend until smooth. Crumble crackers into the sauce and add the queso fresco, salt and black pepper. Blend again until smooth. Reheat to serve.
Recipes from chef Emmanuel Piqueras of Pisco Rotisserie & Cevichería, Liberty Station.