Peruvian cuisine has gone global, with new restaurants springing up everywhere from Santiago to Soho. On an Amazonian cruise, Andrew Purvis meets the Japanese superchef whose experiments with Asian-Peruvian fusion began in Lima nearly 40 years ago.
In the observation deck of the M/V Aria, the most opulently-appointed cruise ship on the Amazon, there is less appetite than usual for the communal Jacuzzi. Passengers would normally be immersing themselves in the cool, clear water to soak away the heat and humidity of this spot, close to the equator, where the Marañon and Ucayali rivers meet. Today they have formed a huddle round the tub, but no one has ventured in and, on closer inspection, I can see why.
Not only is it filled with muddy river water that smells faintly of methane, but the surface is broken every few minutes by a gargantuan fish. "It's a paiche," says Victor Coelho, one of four naturalist guides on board, leaping into the Jacuzzi in his shorts to wrestle with the prehistoric leviathan and to present it for a photo opportunity. "The paiche is at the top of the food chain and has a bony tongue to rake in smaller fish. Like a mammal, it has to surface every five or 10 minutes for oxygen. A large fish could feed a family for a week."
This one will feed 32 passengers at a dinner showcasing the talents of five top chefs, among them Nobu Matsuhisa – owner of more than 30 restaurants worldwide, including two in London with a Michelin star each – and Yoshihiro Murata, arguably the most influential chef in Japan. His Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto has three Michelin stars while Roan Kikunoi (also in Kyoto) and Akasaka Kikunoi (in Tokyo) have two stars each. In Peru for a conference, they have been invited to cook on board by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the Aria's executive chef, himself dubbed "South America's Heston Blumenthal" for his use of esoteric ingredients both here and at Malabar, his acclaimed restaurant in Lima.
On the 147ft-long Aria and its sister ship the Aqua, both operated by Aqua Expeditions, gastronomy is high on the agenda. Last September the Aria hosted Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli fame, with Gastón Acurio – the chef who, seven years ago, took Peruvian cuisine to new heights and has promoted it worldwide in his 33 restaurants. Both were in Lima for Mistura, South America's biggest food festival, along with René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Book a cruise on the Aria, and there is a strong chance of a culinary happening in addition to the gourmet meals that come as standard.
In the mornings and afternoons, passengers set out on motorised skiffs with the Aria's naturalist guides – all local – to fish for piranhas and spot pink river-dolphins, caimans, iguanas, monkeys, bats, sloths and a bewildering variety of birds in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve west of Iquitos, the main city in the Peruvian rainforest. One day they might release baby turtles back into the wild, the next they might visit a sanctuary for manatees, seal-like river mammals. They arrive back in time for a rain shower in their air-conditioned, Italian-styled suite, followed by a pisco sour (grape brandy, lime juice, sugar, egg white), elegantly mixed by Robinson the bartender, and a sumptuous Peruvian feast. Read More ...