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Peru on a plate (Part III) - The coast: fine fish and fusion

Peruvians can afford to be choosy about their seafood. The icy Humboldt Current runs along their long Pacific coastline, giving them some of the most abundant fishing grounds in the world.
I’d met Toshiro Konishi at his restaurant Mesa 18 in Lima’s sophisticated Miraflores Park Hotel.
The legendary Japanese chef came to Peru in the 1970s to work with his friend Nobu and is master of Nikkei, Peruvian-Japanese fusion, and tiradito, a cross between sashimi and ceviche. Passionate about provenance, in 1976 he spent 78 days in a fishing boat studying what the locals caught, and how they cleaned and ate it.
I had a small taste of his experience in Ica’s Paracas National Reserve – part tropical desert (one of the driest places on earth), part marine reserve. There were only a few curious seagulls around to watch as I clambered inelegantly into Luis and Jose’s sea-coloured wooden boat. Not far from the shore, Luis donned a patched drysuit made from recycled inner tubes, strapped on a belt loaded with weights and slipped into the frigid water, using a hose attached to an air pump to breathe.
This stretch of coast is lined with scallop beds and, on a good day, an experienced fisherman can bring up 600kg from around 5m down. Luis soon reappeared, spilling his haul onto the deck, where the fan-shaped shells opened and clacked closed like cartoon scallops, revealing their cream and orange flesh.
Inland, Ica is famous for Peru’s national drink, the clear grape-spirit pisco. The Spanish conquistadors brought vines to Peru in 1553 intending to make wine; they first planted them in the Andes and then later, with more success, in the fertile soil near the coast. They stored the wine in the locals’ clay jars, inadvertently creating the brandy-like pisco in the process.
Despite becoming popular with Californian prospectors during the Gold Rush, pisco was subsequently consigned to oblivion, at best seen as a workers’ tipple. Now it’s undergoing its own resurgence with mixologists worldwide – though it remains most famous as the main ingredient (along with egg white, lime juice and sugar) in the ubiquitous pisco sour. I took a tour of Ica’s small artisanal distilleries, many of which still use traditional methods, and sampled the fiery spirit in all its forms – puro, acholado and mosto verde – as I went.
Photography: El Comercio Newspaper
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