The women peered at me from behind the bottled snakes, gnarled maca root and dragon’s blood, their faces impassive under their fedoras. Long, black plaits hung down their backs as they gabbled to each other in Quechua. The air was bathed in the scent of palo santo wood, redolent of church incense.
Around the meat stalls, the metallic tang of fresh blood took over. Buckets of pigs’ trotters and cows’ noses sat next to platters of brains, hearts, livers and kidneys; tripe hung from hooks alongside unidentifiable innards and jars of intestinal juices. Nothing was going to waste.
There were stalls piled high with corn in every hue – yellow, orange, red, purple – and potatoes of every shape and size. There were tangles of herbs that I’d never seen before and gaudy coloured fruits that I didn’t know existed. I was handed slices of nutty-tasting lúcuma, pepina (a cross between melon and cucumber) and chirimoya – a mix of banana, peach and pineapple. In Cusco’s San Pedro Market, I was undeniably out of my culinary comfort zone.
Much of the produce we take for granted today – including potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and the Incan superfood, quinoa – is native to Peru. The country has been blessed with a geographical mix of mountains, rivers, coast and jungle plus a multitude of microclimates that have given its cuisine a diversity few other countries can match.
Add to that hundreds of years of immigration layered on top of pre-Hispanic cultures, and you get a variety of culinary influences and natural fusions. Pisco, Peru’s signature spirit, came from vines planted by the Spanish colonists; tacu-tacu (rice, beans and fried plantains) from the African sugar plantation slaves; lomo saltado (stir-fried strips of beef, tomatoes and chilli) from the Chinese, who helped build the railroads; and a new style of ceviche (raw fish ‘cooked’ in lime juice) from the Japanese agricultural workers.
While the lure of Machu Picchu, colonial Cusco, Lake Titicaca and the Amazon jungle once pushed dining way down the list of reasons to visit, today Peru is one of the world’s hottest food destinations.
Its gastronomic renaissance has been impressive. The cuisine has always been a source of national pride and identity but traditionally Peruvian cooking was enjoyed at home while high-end restaurants served Mediterranean-influenced fare. However, since the turn of the millennium, increasing numbers of native chefs have been sourcing esoteric local ingredients and reworking the nation’s classic dishes for international palates, while street food has transcended social classes.
World-renowned chef Gastón Acurio is at the vanguard of the trend. He’s taken Peruvian cuisine to another level, inspired a host of homegrown chefs and built a global empire in the process. Ceviche may have come to the fashionable faces in Soho but I wanted to explore this gastronomic melting pot first-hand.