The Lima-born, Brooklyn-based chef shares what makes Peru a culinary powerhouse.
Mention Peruvian food, and ceviche likely comes to mind. Yet if you’ve tasted one, you certainly haven’t tasted them all. Peru’s national dish dates back at least 500 years and comes in about as many varieties.
Consider the ceviche menu dreamt up by Lima-born chef Miguel Aguilar for his restaurant Surfish Bistro in Brooklyn, NY. Among the 10 offerings, he’s especially partial to salmon anticuchos: quick-torched salmon with soy sauce, Japanese mayo, Peruvian black mint (huacatay), and leche de tigre, a blend of lime juice, garlic, ginger, and celery.
As Aguilar’s creation suggests, Peruvian cuisine is truly a melting pot, with ingredients and techniques sourced over the centuries from Asia, Europe, and Africa. “It’s a big universe of flavors,” he says. “Every region has its own style and peculiar ingredients; food changes from town to town.”
But some classics do turn up on menu after menu, like lomo saltado, which Aguilar describes as a Chinese creation adopted by Peruvians. Grilled octopus with purple corn, meanwhile, is a newer dish that’s already becoming popular—and a testament to the spirit of experimentation. “There are no rules on Peruvian cuisine, and there are so many chefs proving that day by day.”
Chef Gastón Acurio, whose award-winning Astrid & Gastón helped launch a global restaurant empire, is among the pioneers driving innovation—and earning Peru praise as the culinary capital of South America. Another is chef Rafael Piqueras of Maras at the Westin Lima Hotel. The name references a flavorful pink salt derived from Cuzco in southern Peru, and his cooking often creatively showcases native products, such as corn, quinoa, and the caviar-like cushuro.
“Lima has one of the best culinary experiences in the world,” says Aguilar, “from top-ranked restaurants to the street food kiosks on any corner.” He recommends starting in the capital and then eating your way across the country, from Cuzco to the Amazon to the beautiful coast.
Surfing that coastline is what Aguilar misses most about Peru: “Brooklyn is like home for me now, and I get all the ingredients I can get in Peru—fresh rocoto peppers, huacatay, and fish like paiche or fresh corvina.”
Some of those ingredients make it into ceviche, which Aguilar first learned to make from his father back in Peru. He honed his skills as a line cook at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and worked in Chicago and San Francisco for nearly two decades before opening his own restaurant (and appearing on TV cooking shows “Chopped” and “Knife Fight”).
Peruvian cuisine has also evolved and expanded during the same period. Now you find Peruvian restaurants in nearly every town of the world, notes Aguilar, from London to Cape Town to Bangkok. It’s all part of the dynamic growth of a cuisine with infinite possibilities.
“There’s been an evolution in our gastronomy from a classic way of cooking to an eclectic way,” observes Aguilar. Still, he jokes that some things, thankfully, don’t change: “Ceviche and pisco is how we Peruvians roll.”
For more insights into Peru’s culinary scene, visit peru.travel