For one magnificent week this February, Anna and Ben traveled from Kentucky to Peru to eat their way through Lima. Ok, yes, Ivo and I did take my friend of 10+ years and her hombre (trans.: “man”) to do other great things too. But Peruvian food is a special part of the cultural experience, especially in this incredibly diverse country where you have ocean, desert, jungle, and mountain ingredients AND Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, African, and Italian traditions all crammed into a single gastronomic experience. Peruvians (including my husband!) are really proud of their food, and I think they’re justified.
THE FRUIT: One of the main food lessons for our gringo buddies was on fruit. The names of Peru’s fruits are about as beautiful the fruit flavors themselves: maracuya, chirimoya, lucuma, tuna… ok, that last one got named by the derpiest Spaniard/Incan, but the point is that Peru has amazing fruit.
In support of fruit learning, Ivo took us for a quick trip to the local market. This outdoor collection of open stalls is pretty far from Krogers. There are no happy greeters, the floor is cracked and stained, and you might need to be skeptical about some of the chicken and fish. But the market has fruit so good you’ll faint.
Ivo marched us straight through to one of his favorite fruit stands. The strawberries were ripe, the chirimoyas were swollen, the mangoes were soft enough to crush in your hand. We each walked away with a fat nectarine for the summer afternoon.
THE FISH: Another big lesson for our Peru visitors was fish. If it’s in the ocean, Peruvians have figured out a way to eat it. One of the many beautiful examples of this in Lima is Cala. Ivo hadn’t been in years, and I’d never been before, so when Anna pointed out the gleaming seaside restaurant as we drove along the coast, Ivo veered into a parking spot and marched inside to see if he could talk us into a table.
The restaurant was packed, but thanks to his powers of persuasion (and/or the mercy of a hostess), about ten minutes later we were walked through the bar up to the second floor balcony and straight to a white cloth corner table with a stunning view of the sea and Lima’s evening city lights.
The whole thing felt something like being aboard a cruise ship, especially when the fancy gold menus came out.There’s a great appreciation for food in this country, though: Gorgeous scenery and pretty presentation can’t fool Peruvians. Your restaurant can deck itself out in shiny chrome and glass, but if its food can’t compete, Peruvians will be lining up outside the wooden shack next door that can. Cala was packed for a reason. Cala can compete.
We opened with a simple white ceviche. To recap, ceviche is a cold dish of raw white fish that has been soaked in an acidic, slightly spicy juice made of lime juice, red onion strips, and ají pepper. The traditional ceviche is served alongside a slice of boiled sweet potato, a handful of choclo, and sometimes (as in this case) a twist of seaweed. I still have a hard time distinguishing a great ceviche from a blow-your-MIND ceviche, but either way, this one was on the “damn good” spectrum.
We were starving that night after trekking all over Cuzco just a day before and all over Lima that morning. The salty air and the glittering city lights over the water were probably a contributing factor too. Basically, we ordered big. Everybody went for their own main course. Swordfish steak, flounder over lentils, white fish on pesto rice, osso buco (for the Peruvian who opted to not eat fish again)… thanks to the supreme patience of our guests, please take a moment to enjoy a little food porn:
If my husband weren’t such a carnivore for mammals, eating fish daily would probably be my happy norm. Especially raw fish dishes: Sushi is a serious comfort food for me. On a completely unrelated note, Anna and Ben’s visit coincided with a huge Pisco festival (read: with a lot of highly affordable, good quality booze). In short, unlike the more responsible members in our party, I woke up the next day in DIRE need of some comfort. So we went for sushi.
One of the most beautiful and seemingly destined fusions in this country is the one between Japanese and Peruvian foods. They’re both adventurous masters of raw fish and perfect simplicity. Edo is a great Lima standard for a sushi lunch, especially given the gold prize winner that is “ceviche sushi” (see the second sushi down, next to the fried sushi). Thanks to the healing powers of sushi (and a wise decision to not join the others in a beer), I was back on track by the time we left.
SUGAR CATS: At one point, we all went for a walk downtown to grab churros. The churros were fabulous. But they were also churros, so we inhaled them long before I even thought of grabbing a photo. On the way to churros, though, we stopped by what Lima citizens just call “the cat park”. The urban legend is that the park originally had a serious rat problem, so some forward thinking young man introduced a family of cats. The rat problem rapidly turned into a cat problem, but then everybody kind of realized that, actually, having a beautiful park full of peaceful napping cats was less of a problem and more of just an awesome thing. Thus “cat park” was born.
So, since I don’t have any photos of churros, please enjoy several adorable photos of Anna and Ben petting cats. This place is basically heaven for city cats: food and clean water is left everyday by residents, by day the park is full of cat nuts reading books and looking for a kitty to rub, by night the park is full of mini-food carts and people dropping scraps. Even the flowers look like something cats would like to play with.
THE SUGAR: Peru can be tough for an American who wants to binge on desserts. The country is short on the kind of dense, gooey, buttery, overflowing, heaping desserts that I crave sometimes. Desserts tend to be adorable vs. hefty. Pies are way thinner. The only doughnuts are made out of sweet potatoes. There’s a lot more fruit and glazes. That said, if you’re not dying to faceplant into a lava cake, Lima does have some excellent bakeries. One of them is San Antonio, and that’s where we took Anna and Ben.
The desserts may be more French than American, but they’re delicious, and the cappuccinos are the size of your head.
All in all, I’d say we ate well for the full week. Fresh fruit, ceviche, sushi, desserts, not to mention chaufa, pollo a la brasa, and pulpo de olivo! Anna and Ben boldly tried all the major food “groups”, even though several aren’t pictured here because we were HUNGRY. Traveling is hard work, guys. Especially when there are so many cats to pet.