• Peruvian food, like this chicken and potato pachamanca, is made up of an exciting mix of influences. (Erik Andia Pomar)Source: Erik Andia Pomar
Latin America's culinary powerhouse has all the ingredients to be the next cuisine to take Australian tastebuds — so what's it all about?
Dominic Ryan

1 Jul 2021 - 11:32 AM  UPDATED 4 Jul 2021 - 7:34 PM

 --- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm or stream it free on SBS On Demand. Find Hugh Piper in the Peas, Cheese on top and Comfort Food episodes. --- 


Come Sundays, even South America's most impressive metropolises feel more like humble hamlets, void of the usual chaos and vivacity as their denizens prepare for a weekly ritual: family lunch.

Don't be fooled, almuerzo is much more than a simple sanga and a cup of tea. This sacred affair is an all-in, all-out custom.

"In Peru we meet at 12 and we probably don't eat until 3," explains Hugh Piper, a Peruvian-Australian chef, currently the front-of-house at pasta shop Fabbrica in Sydney's CBD. "Whenever we catch up for birthdays, we meet for lunch and it's a six-hour affair." 

Hugh Piper, a Peruvian-Australian chef, shares why he loves how Peruvian reunions are centred around cooking, sharing and connecting with one another.

These reunions are centred around cooking, sharing and being present, and are something that Piper loves from his lineage.

"My mum came out to Australia in the early 80s from Lima, then her family eventually followed," he says. "My early childhood was spending weekends with my grandparents and uncles, so I grew up eating a lot of Peruvian food, all this weird, wonderful food."

A true passion for Peru's food was born in those suburban Sydney family kitchens.

"Apparently, I was obsessed with olives. I was absolutely obsessed," Piper reminisces. "One day I was staying with my grandparents, and I went to get some and there weren't any in the fridge, so I started swearing in Spanish. I was like 4 years old and absolutely running my mouth."

Then at an age when angsty teenagers seek to break free from the nest, Piper began embracing the culinary customs of his mother's side.

"It sort of manifested itself in me, because throughout my teens I always loved having big barbecues with all my friends and I was always the one who cooked everything," Piper recollects. "I loved the ritual of it, sort of the whole communal aspect of it all."

Fresh peas, burrata and horseradish

This dish is all about beautiful fresh produce. The peas have to be freshly podded, the horseradish freshly grated, the burrata fresh and creamy, the best anchovies and the olive oil top quality, otherwise it will fall a bit flat.

Be it barbies in Sydney or long lunches in Lima, these marathon eating meetings are built around the food — including the preparing and sharing of it.

José Alkon of Sydney's Peruvian-inspired Pepito's explains, "Peruvian food is a labour of love and takes a while to prepare. Spending time with our parents while prepping these meals are some of our fondest memories."

"The key ingredients [in Peruvian food] are lime, lime, lime!" he laughs. "Taste-wise it's an explosion of flavour! Coriander and chilli are always there too."

José Alkon says Peru's food is the result of the country's history if migration.

As well as a thing of love, Peru's food is very much a product of the country’s repeated waves of migration, and both Alkon and Piper point to this as the cuisine's strength.

"I always love to highlight that Peruvian cuisine is the history of migration," says Alkon. "All these cultures brought with them their own histories, traditions and ingredients and implemented that with our richness in produce. Indigenous, Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and so on, all this history is what makes Peruvian food so unique and stand out above anything else."

"It's definitely fusion," agrees Piper. "There are so, so many influences, it's a cuisine that’s built on fusion, and it keeps changing and evolving."

"There are so, so many influences, it's a cuisine that’s built on fusion, and it keeps changing and evolving."

Menus in Peru make this clear with sashimi-style seafood that's influenced by Japan; an abundance of olives, citrus, garlic and onion from Spain; and there's even a sub-cuisine called 'chifa' — Chinese food with Peruvian twists served in eclectic restaurants around Peru.

"The game changer was the Japanese influence," says Alkon. "Their amazing technique of cooking seafood is perhaps what is most recognised internationally about our cuisine."

He speaks, of course, to ceviche, Peru's infamous fish preparation with lime juice, onion, coriander and chilli.

"It's honestly my favourite dish," Piper says excitedly. "I'm the person who drinks all the juice out of the bowl, and the thing I miss most of being in Peru is when you get up, maybe after a few beers the night before, you go down to the local cevichería at like 11:30am and you get a nice big bowl of ceviche and a beer, it's all you need."

"It's refreshing and I think it's just a really well-balanced dish. It's really simple and it's just down to having the best ingredients."

It's enough to make one wonder: Why are we yet to see much of this exciting food on menus around Australia?

"It requires a lot of specialist ingredients that aren't really here yet — and what is here is quite expensive," explains Piper. "For example, the two main chillies, ají amarillo and ají panca, the base of most Peruvian dishes, are only sold jarred in Australia for $9 for 250-300 ml."

But he points to the proliferation of cuisines like Vietnamese that call on niche components and incorporate different tastes as evidence that Australians like to explore food. 

Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne already boast several Peruvian restaurants each. Peru's moment may well be around the corner.

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 --- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm. It will encore on SBS Food at 11am weekdays and at 3.30pm on SBS. SBS Food will air a marathon on Sundays at 2.00pm, and series will be made available after broadcast on SBS On Demand. ---