Keep your cathedrals, plazas, museums and statues – the first place I want to visit when I arrive somewhere new is the local food market.
Nowhere is better for getting under the skin of a place and gaining insight into how people shop, eat and live. I could (and often do) spend hours browsing; marvelling at the colours of unfamiliar fruits, asking questions and accepting samples, checking out how prices compare from place to place, practising my haggling skills and generally absorbing the energy of the hustle and bustle.
It is impossible to leave empty handed and I think the best travel souvenirs are from markets; I have a growing collection of wooden spoons from all over South America waiting to be taken back home to London.
True to form, we visited a main market on our first day in Lima. At first glance this market wasn’t anything fancy or high end (unlike São Paulo where perfect specimens of fruit were constructed in architectural wonders for display).
But with such vivid colours and variety, there is no need to add frills.
Black or purple corn, used to make the classic fruity Peruvian drink chicha morada (it’s a bit like a grown up ribena!)
Fresh cacao, which people take home to grind and make their own chocolate.
Reptilian looking cherimoya aka custard apples – the biggest I’ve ever seen!
When we looked closer we saw that although this market seemed a bit rough and ready, like a regular busy market in any country, a tremendous amount of care went into preparing the produce for sale.
It was beautiful to watch: men and women crouched near their stalls meticulously trimming lettuces, picking over soft fruits, even finely chopping onions, herbs and vegetables to bag up separately to relieve their customers of a tedious prep job.
Even humble garlic was given this treatment, with the papery husks discarded to show off plump cloves.
There seemed to be a real sense of pride among the stallholders, not only in their work but in the produce itself. It’s clearly a culture which values and loves food. I wish we could find more of this attention to detail and level of service in the UK.
There is plenty of good eating outside of the markets too.
This is a snack called “causa” sold at many cafes. It’s layers of potato, chicken or seafood, mayonnaise, avocado, topped with hard boiled eggs and black olives. The story goes that the name originates from the War of the Pacific, when women would make these to sell “por la causa” (for the cause) to raise money for the troops. It’s tasty and filling, a bit like Russian salad (salad olivieh to Persians).
There was no way I was visiting Peru without trying their delicacy of cuy, guinea pig. Especially after I learnt that it was a main part of The Last Supper…
It’s decent; the “tastes like chicken” cliche is apt. The meat is quite fatty for such a little beast but they carry a lot of chub around their haunches.
After getting bitten by the ceviche bug, we ate as much as possible while we were in Lima.
The ceviche apaltado from La Canta Rana has set a new benchmark for me. I can’t get enough of the large, buttery avocados in South America and this combination of a perfectly ripe specimen with fresh fish and a skilfully balanced marinade is something I will crave, even years from now.
Mark’s ceviche mixto (fish chunks mixed with octopus, clams, prawns and other seafood) was memorable too.
Even Sir Paul McCartney is a fan – his autograph is among the many wall decorations!
Another highlight was Panchita, a restaurant which is part of Gaston Acurio’s empire in Lima. We couldn’t get a reservation at his most famous place Astrid y Gaston (recently named #14 in the World’s 50 Best list for 2013) but a visit to Panchita, which showcases the best of typical Peruvian street food, helped to make up for this.
Four of us enjoyed sharing hearty portions. Clockwise from top left: aji de gallinas (chicken in a creamy sauce), arroz con pato (stir fried rice with duck), tallarines (stir fried beef, veggies and noodles) and lomo saltado tacu tacu (flash fried marinated steak with vegetables).
Lima recently had another of its restaurants recognised by the World’s 50 Best list, a new addition at #50. Central is run by Virgilio Martinez who also owns the restaurant Lima in London and used to be head chef at Astrid y Gaston. We booked a table here and looked forward to a real treat before we left the city.
And what a treat it was. After nosing around the upstairs library which is crammed with reference books, maps, photographs and obscure ingredients Virgilio and his team are researching, we were shown to our seats.
We were given a platter of excellent artisan bread, dried seaweed, flavoured butters and dips to nibble on while we read the menu.
(Sorry for the quality of the photos – we had only a phone camera in the dimly lit room.)
Central’s menu is like a map of Peru: there is arapaima fish from the Amazon jungle, shrimp and grouper from the rivers and seas, suckling piglet from high altitude grasslands and chuno (a frozen dehydrated potato) from the Andes mountains. Native ingredients are combined with Virgilio’s international favourites – he has trained and worked around the world.
It was such a good menu that we had to ask the waiter to help us choose. Following his advice, I ordered “charred purple-corn scented octopus” to start, which was served with sauces of black olive and tree tomato (aka tomate d’arbol which I am rapidly becoming obsessed with, particularly in freshly juiced form).
These were served in fun purple and yellow dots which stirred memories of Mr Blobby – first time I’ve thought of that 90s pop chart horror in a decade!
Mark went for lamb cannelloni with Urubamba cheese (we had crossed the Urubamba river on our trek to Machu Picchu).
For the main course, I had suckling pig which was beautifully tender, sticky and gelatinous – it didn’t need all of the slightly gloopy, sweet “pear custard” served alongside. Mark chose the arapaima, a meaty white fish which complemented another Amazonian ingredient, hearts of palm.
Central has its own chocolate cellar downstairs, which holds some of the best chocolate in Peru. Obviously I had to choose the chocolate dessert! Mark ordered the goats cheesecake which came with a fragrant, steaming pine concoction for extra theatre.
We just about found room for the playful petit fours of marshmallows and other goodies served on a “lava rock” made of sugar.
I grabbed Virgilio himself for a cheesy photo and to thank him for a delicious meal, congratulate him on his restaurant’s recent success and wish him well for his forthcoming wedding.
Great news – he and Gaston have teamed up to open another restaurant in London early next year, spitting distance from where I work in Shoreditch.
I dare say I will be a regular!