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I’m in a shared colectivo taxi stuffed with hands of bananas, sacks of rice, bike panniers and two other passengers, both dozing. Today’s route, which begins with a 2,200m climb up a giant cleft of a valley into ragged highlands, is too much for me, so I’m taking public transport while Will rides. His journey should take about eight hours, mine barely two, so I’m surprised when, well over halfway at 1.30pm, our driver pulls in decisively at a brightly-painted house with a fruit stall outside. I look an enquiry; the answer is a mimed knife-and-fork motion. Lunch. Not just a sandwich, either – a proper two-course meal. Fragrant lamb broth with boiled corn, followed by fried trout with rice, potatoes, beans and a piquant leaf salad.

All over Peru, at least outside workaholic Lima, people are doing the same. Buses, cars and lorries are stopping at roadside halts. Market traders are ordering big bowls of takeout from trestle-table kitchens. Outdoor workers are sitting on their heels or stools to eat a packed lunch (in the fields, men and women form separate circles). Restaurants, cafés, street-stall benches, ice-cream shops, picanterías and cevicherías are filling up, and savoury smells are insinuating the streets.

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Peruvians enjoy their food, and give it the time and attention it deserves. They relish flavour, both in the eating and the cooking. A tamale might surprise with a burst of fennel, a sweet bun with orange blossom. There’s a sense of gusto at the table and flair in the kitchen. For thousands of kilometres in Argentina and Chile, the food was so bland that we carried a pepper grinder. The day we reached Peru, it went in the bin.

 


 

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Peru’s culinary reputation goes before it – it’s a buzz cuisine globally, thanks in no small measure to celebrity chef and national darling Gastón Acurio, whose cheeky-cherub looks belie the steely drive essential for culinary empire-building. He has rated restaurants in San Francisco, Miami and Madrid, among other places, as well as several small chains in his home country and Astrid y Gastón, his first and flagship outpost in Lima.

Acurio was on to the primacy of seasonal, local ingredients and regional dishes long before it became dogma, and he runs a slick kitchen. We went to several of his restaurants in Lima and Arequipa, and found his reputation well earned. However, this top end – Acurio and a few dozen other big-name venues aspiring to international standards – exists in a bubble. It’s limited to Lima and a handful of other cities, and to the wealthy, which in some places pretty much means tourists. It also takes itself a little too seriously to reflect the sheer variety and exuberance of the national cuisine.

 


 

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Peru has an embarrassment of produce. The clean waters of its long coastline offer up such a bounty of fish and seafood that the catch of the day is the only catch there is. The national dish of ceviche is generally served at lunchtime only – keep it until dinner and the lustre of freshness will fade. From the Andean highlands come corn and potatoes in varieties unguessed at by Europeans; quinoa; most every vegetable you could think of; bland but salty cow’s chese; bundles of fragrant herbs for teas. In the 60 per cent of the country that slopes down to the Amazon basin grow whole Edens of fruit that, if they arrive in Europe at all, arrive tired and depleted: aguaymanto (Chinese gooseberry/physalis peruviana), granadilla, the addictive lúcuma, not to mention coffee and chocolate. Outside Lima, there isn’t much of a supermarket culture and much of what’s grown is sold locally, fast.

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The street food is a constant source of fascination. The stalls at busy street corners, with counter stools or sociable benches for customers, might serve fried chicken, sweet-potato fritters, breakfast eggs, warm quinoa gruel, juices and smoothies (sometimes confected to combat specific health problems). There are women in hats, plaits and aprons selling tamales, humitas, corn cobs with cheese. There are tricycle carts offering rounds of pineapple or watermelon; old ladies selling five boiled quail’s eggs for a sol (20p); kids hawking jelly, oddly ubiquitous here; mini-grills turning out skewers of chicken hearts; endless purveyors of chicharrones (crispy pork chunks); glass cases of milky, ricey, fruity desserts; roast suckling pig carved into crusty white rolls. Then there are the one-offs: festive toffee apples and grapes; ice-cream made by swirling milk and sugar around an ice-chilled pan; caramel-toasted coconut chunks; raw meringue; someone’s home-made pineapple cake – and who knows what else until you spot it.

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For all that foodies crave a culinary Shangri-La, there’s no such thing. Even as French cuisine was being iconised by the Americans, the French were indulging a latent desire for American fast food, and there’s plenty of bad pizza in Italy. Peru is inexplicably obsessed with dull chicken noodle soup (caldo de gallina) and unexceptional fried chicken served with imported frozen chips (and this the country with 3,000 varieties of potato). Lima seems to be the city where tired US chains such as Tony Roma’s go to eke the last out of the franchise, while the ubiquitous chifa restaurants offer a curious misrepresentation of Chinese food (albeit as useful providers of cycling carbs; the bafflingly named aeropuerto dish packs in noodles, rice and wonton). But overall, Peru’s palate is, like its bawdy brass bands and its any-excuse festivals, an irresistible expression of its lust for life. 

Next week: a companion piece on drinking in Peru.

from Huaraz, 02, Peru