With its rich biodiversity and Spanish, African, Japanese and indigenous cultures, Peru boasts some of the world’s most extraordinary food. In time for the famed Mistura food festival in Lima, New York journalist and Peru expert Nicholas Gill unearths the regional cuisines of the north. 
By
Nicholas Gill

28 Mar 2013 - 11:03 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

I have spent the past several years exploring Peru’s regional cuisines for a book that is slowly coming to fruition. It has taken more time than I expected as the country is so vastly under-explored. While the economy is booming, and rural communities are becoming increasingly less isolated, most Peruvians still don’t know one end of their country from the other. Moving from the more tropical northern coast to the Andes, it becomes apparent that every town or valley is unique, particularly the plants and animals found there. For many places, there’s a herb or a potato that is not found anywhere else on the planet, making many recipes utilising them absolutely impossible to reproduce. This is my food journey from Tumbes in the far north-west to Cajamarca in the northern highlands of the Andes.

The Tumbes region
I am knee-deep in mud flats on the edge of a mangrove forest looking for one of the most defining ingredients of the cuisine of Peru’s far north: Anadara tuberculosa. The bivalve known as conchas negras, or black conch, is the star of one of the most iconic regional Peruvian dishes, black conch ceviche, a form of Peru’s national dish.

I don’t have much luck finding my lunch in the mud, so the teenage boatman I hired on the docks at Puerto Pizarro recommends we stop by isla Hueso de Ballena to an open-air seafood shack, set on a sandbar between the canals and the open ocean, serving its own catch. Near the kitchen, a young girl with an apron pulls the conch from a bucket, then carves it from its shell minutes after I place an order. It’s a fisherman- and crustacean-hunter haunt, and the food is simple, served on plastic dishes on plastic tables with plastic chairs in the sand. The lime juice turns black from the conch, and the red onions and sweet potatoes show tint, too. It’s rich and briny, and the flavour is unique – that’s the beauty of it, of everything you eat in Peru.

For even better conchas negras, a taxi driver points me to Zorritos, south of Tumbes (the regional capital), to El Brujo, a circular, two-level open-air restaurant, near where Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro first made contact with the Incas in 1528. The menu is seafood-heavy with black conch, lobster, shrimp, crab, squid and oysters. Everything is served either fried, grilled, as ceviche, chupe (creamy stew), picante (in a spicy sauce), or as a tortilla (omelette).

Cooling off with a chinguirito (not to be confused with the ceviche of the same name), a blend of Peru’s national spirit pisco, coconut milk and syrup, I order their specialty ceviche, an intoxicating mix of black conch, crab, fish, squid, shrimp, cassava, sweet potato, canary beans, red onions and lime. The black conch still overpowers, though the other seafood balances out the flavour considerably.

While black conch is renowned across Peru, it’s only found here, near Tumbes. As I move around the north, one of the most exciting gastronomic zones in this food-obsessed country, stopping at every culinary hotspot, the landscape changes so drastically that the fruits, fish, vegetables, meat, herbs and grains – not to mention the dishes made from them – look almost nothing alike. Every change in latitude and longitude is like a completely new country.

Mancora and the deep blue sea

"My fisherman is off to El Ñuro," said Juan Seminario Garay, the chef and owner of the tiny La Sirena d’Juan, easily Máncora’s best restaurant. "Want to go?"

Máncora, a blossoming beach town in the Piura region, has blue skies and sweltering sun year-round. It also has some of the best seafood in the country. Dotted along the north coast are tiny fishing villages, usually with just a few hundred people. Each one is a little different in the types of fish they catch, as the confluence of warm equatorial waters meeting the cold Humboldt Current tends to swing a little bit differently at every step. El Ñuro is not far from Cabo Blanco, the fishing village that once attracted the world’s top big-game fishermen, including Ernest Hemingway, who came in the 1950s while filming The Old Man and the Sea.

It’s a blip on the map where 80 per cent of the population works on the pier and when I arrive in the early afternoon, it is humming. Men are sorting species, completely different from those near Tumbes – including wahoo (a cousin of the mackerel), merluza (hake), marlin, and yellowfin tuna – into plastic crates, while women clean and pack the palettes being carted off onto trucks.

At La Sirena, Juan shows me just what can be done with the fish and a few ingredients, which Peruvian food, at its heart, is all about. He breaks down a yellowfin into tender pink fillets in seconds, as thinly sliced as sashimi, for tiradito, a now standard Peruvian dish that Japanese chefs in Lima popularised over the past few decades. He skips the spicy sauce in favour of a Nikkei version (Japanese/Peruvian style), tossing the fish with ginger, soy and lime. He lays the pieces out one by one and we snack immediately. Like ceviche, too much time in citric acid leaves the fish tasting 'overcooked’. Juan’s is perfect. The flavour of the fish is striking; it is light, refreshing and the perfect foil for the blazing hot sun.

Tiradito is often followed by something heavier, in this case causa – puréed yellow potato layered with avocado and seafood. Juan’s, a trio served on a single plate, are more like maki rolls turned on their side with squid, tuna, octopus and prawns sticking out. Mild ají amarillo (orange chillies) and spicy rocoto pepper sauces decorate the plate.

Juan learned to cook at the Punta Ballenas Inn before going to Lima to study gastronomy at what is now a branch of Le Cordon Bleu. It’s a story being told again and again. The fútbol team isn’t any good. The chefs are the rock stars. They adorn billboards and appear on TV. Kids across the country want to be them, so they attend cooking schools and return to their small towns and turn traditional cuisine on its head. Like Juan, who rides his motorcycle to the local market every morning, they talk to producers about growing organic and source direct from fishermen. Right now there are 80,000 culinary students in the country.

Chiclayo and the ancient desert

Pre-Colombian influence remains strong in Chiclayo, the capital of the Lambayeque region, particularly in terms of cuisine. If you visit a market, you will encounter the same chillies, squash, peanuts, beans, corn, and fruits such as guava and lucuma (Peru’s 'eggfruit’), that were used hundreds of years ago. Nearby fishing villages still catch fish using hand-woven totora-reed rafts that they surf into the ocean with, as they have done for centuries; a dying art that will probably disappear in the next decade. Once populated by the Moche and later the Sicán, both pre-Inca civilisations, who left behind massive adobe pyramids along the northern coast, Chiclayo features a sort of fusion cuisine of Spanish ingredients and more ancient preparations.

A year ago, seeking out indigenous recipes, I visited a half dozen picanterías (basic rural eateries) in the surrounding desert. They aren’t places where tourists go. At Rosita Inga in Ferreñafe, there is a dirt floor that is so uneven, your table and chairs rock back and forth as you move to take a bite of carne seca, an ancient plate of dehydrated beef topped with red onions soaked in lime accompanied by canary beans cooked in pork fat.

The Sicán and Moche were expert ceramicists, and their cooking relied heavily on pottery, as do a majority of recipes from the region today. At La Colmena in Illimo, the specialty is pato mechado con frijoles, duck with rice slow-cooked in a clay pot with canary beans. It makes me wonder if I could distinguish the difference if two plates were placed in front of me from 500 or even 1000 years apart.

Pachamanca is one of the most widespread indigenous recipes in Peru. Named after the Quechua words for earth (pacha) and pot (manca), it uses a hole in the ground lined with hot stones as an oven, and slow-cooks a potluck of meat (duck, turkey, pork and guinea pig) and vegetables (yellow and sweet potatoes, plantains, large-kernel corn and ají peppers) that are wrapped in banana leaves. 'Each region, such as Ayacucho or the Mantaro Valley, uses different herbs and seasonings," says Rosana Correa, the architect who owns and designed Los Horcones de Túcume, an adobe hotel adjacent to the Sicán pyramid complex of Túcume, near Chiclayo, as we sort through rosemary, basil, coriander and paico (a medicinal herb) picked that morning from the shadows of the pyramids.

Pachamanca isn’t usually found in restaurants; rather it’s celebration food, served at community gatherings to honour the earth after a harvest. That’s why I’m here. Rosana’s kitchen staff prepares it regularly for groups stopping by the archaeological complex. We spend the morning in preparation, seasoning the meat with ají panca (smoky red chilli), garlic, pepper, salt and red wine vinegar. 'Sometimes we use dark beer instead of ají panca. It’s a little juicier, but the ají panca is more authentic," says Rosana.

Being a La Niña year, the ground is unusually moist, so we burn wood in their clay oven instead of the hole, placing the meat and vegetables in separate clay pots. On serving, the vapour of the herbs is ever-present in the meat. Paired with chicha morada, a juice made from purple corn, the earthy flavours all balance seamlessly.

Cajamarca and the Ande

Cuy, aka guinea pig, isn’t bad. It’s like chicken or frog meat and there's a slight gaminess to it, but most preparations remove much of the flavour. Still, it’s a delicacy here. While girls in Lima still squeal at the notion of eating the cute furry pet, in the Andes, it is what kids want for their birthday dinner.

I make it my first meal in Cajamarca, a mild-climate culinary hotspot in the northern Andes. The city is one of the largest dairy producers in Peru and has an incredible array of regional dishes and specialty ingredients, such as figs and pine mushrooms. It’s also where a few hundred Spaniards captured the Inca ruler Atahualpa and began their dismantling of the Inca Empire, making it one of the most historically significant places in the Americas.

I head straight to El Batán, a faded eatery set in a colonial building a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. Here cuy is fried and served with a spicy sauce with potatoes, a dish called picante de cuy. There’s not much meat on the bone and it’s near impossible to remove with a fork. The best way is hand to claw. You pick it up with two hands, one for the front claws and one for the back. Then you gnaw at it. Cuy is almost always a decent meal, it’s just rarely great, even when five-star places serve it confit and are charging US$30 a plate. Still, it’s the first food anyone visiting the Andes seems to narrow in on. It has an exotic factor, but Andean cuisine is so much more than that.

To see the region’s products at their source, there’s Granja Porcón, about 25 minutes away. The 250-family agro-community in the misty hills is the origin of dozens of artisanal products that sometimes pop up on the menus of Lima’s best restaurants. Evangelicals made it here long ago and signs are plastered every few steps proclaiming Jesus as 'the way’. Everything is handmade and homegrown. Buildings are dedicated to cheesemaking, both Swiss styles and salty Andean cheeses. They breed alpacas and vicuñas (a relative of the llama), trout are raised in small ponds, and women sit on the grass weaving on hand looms.

A dirt square in the centre of the community is home to several small restaurants serving unpretentious typical plates. In one kitchen, a line of pork cuts hang over a stove, a process of drying and smoking that helps preserve the meat. They serve it in a dish known as shilpida, where it comes with scrambled egg, spring onions and corn. I notice something odd on the menu: mushroom ceviche featuring a type of brown cap fungi that they pick wild in pine forests. Ceviche without seafood is something you only find in the north. There’s no real reason why. Apart from a few high-end restaurants in Lima, the idea just hasn’t caught on. You may even find it with duck, for which it must soak in citric acid a bit longer than normal. They sell kilo bags of their mushrooms for next to nothing. I order it. It’s juicy and meaty. It’s not refreshing like seafood-based ceviche, but earthy and heartier.

Pondering over this uncommon ceviche, I see a map of Peru on a wall. I find Cajamarca and take a step back. I notice how the north of Peru is such a small slice in comparison to the rest of the country. There’s still the south coast, southern Andes and Altiplano, plus the entire Peruvian Amazon, an area twice the size of Victoria with some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet – to think that I barely scratched the surface.

Hyper-locavorism isn’t a trend in Peru; it’s a necessity. Trade routes to the coast have changed from foot to truck, but with poor roads, most ingredients can only get so far. They use what’s around and always have.

While in town, I spend most of my time at the Mercado Central and the surrounding streets. Outside, old women in typical dress sell cheese and manjar blanco, Peru’s dulce de leche, from baskets as if they just trekked in from the hills. On the sidewalks are buckets and baskets filled with bright orange aguaymanto (a small berry) and lime green-scaled chirimoya (custard apples). Inside, one stand sells 20 types of multicoloured potatoes, while another sells figs and another dozens of grains such as quinoa, which comes in white, black and red.

I stumble across a stand with a considerable amount of noise surrounding it. A jumbled line clogs the corner of the market, making it impossible to sit and eat or even pass through, but no-one seems to mind. The stand, La Chanita, is selling a type of fried ceviche, using trout that’s slathered in lime and a spicy mayo, with all the regular sides like sweet potato, cassava, onions and toasted corn kernels. It’s just a market stall, but with an innovative new recipe, it is growing a cult-like following. I don’t know if this will catch on outside Cajamarca. It could just be a passing fad that fizzles out in a year. At the moment, it doesn’t seem that way. There are young people, old people, poor and wealthy. Everyone just wants a plate. Visit newworldreview.com for Nicholas Gill’s food, drink and travel journal of the Latin Americas.

THE HIT LIST

STAY
Hotelier

This boutique hotel on Máncora’s Las Pocitas beach is owned by the son of retired TV chef Teresa Ocampo, whose recipes feature at their beachfront restaurant. +073 258 702, hotelier.pe.

Los Horcones de Túcume
Based on pre-Colombian designs, this adobe hotel is located beside the Túcume archaeological complex outside Chiclayo. +951 831 705, loshorconesdetucume.com.

Posada del Puruay
Outside the Andean city of Cajamarca is this restored colonial hacienda. +076 367 928, posadapuruay.com.pe.

EAT
El Brujo
Specialising in the food of Tumbes, this circular restaurant in the coastal town of Zorritos focuses on seafood with dishes including the intriguingly named orgia de mariscos, or seafood orgy. Avenida Faustino Piaggio, +072 544 140, restaurantelbrujo.com.

La Sirena d’Juan
The menu at this intimate eatery on Máncora’s main strip has touches of influences from the Mediterranean and south Asia. Open for dinner Wednesday till Monday. Avenida Piura 316, Máncora, +073 258 173.

Restaurante La Colmena
In this rural restaurant a few kilometres beyond the Sicán pyramids of Túcume, you’ll find Peru’s best pato mechado con frijoles, essentially duck with rice slow-cooked in a clay pot with a side of canary beans. Illimo, two blocks north of the main plaza, +079 908 083.

Picantería Rosita Inga
This rustic eatery a few blocks from the centre of Ferreñafe outside of Chiclayo specialises in carne seca, dehydrated beef with onions and lime. Ferreñafe, Distrito Pueblo Nuevo, Avenida Tacna 625.

La Chanita
Visit this stand at Cajamarca’s bustling Mercado Central for fried ceviche. Jiron Apurimac, lachanita.com.

Photography by Nicholas Gill