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Felicity Cloake: I’m being a guinea pig for Peruvian food

The latest gastro trend.

Until recently, if you knew anything about Peruvian cuisine, it would probably be its penchant for cuy – the guinea pig, and a startling thing for any tourist to find spread-eagled atop a pile of potatoes. That, however, was before it became The Next Big Thing.

“Peruvian is the new Mexican”, screamed the Independent last month, while the Food Channel declared it a hot trend for 2012 – but then, they also forecast it would be big in 2007 and 2009 and it’s not difficult to believe a repertoire that includes cold mashed potato and purple corn jelly might have had trouble winning fans abroad. But Peruvian gastronomy has much to justify the Economist’s description of it as “one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines”. For a start, it’s mindbogglingly diverse. With a geography encompassing subtropical desert, high mountain and jungle, it produces everything from abalone to alpaca.

Then there’s the cultural mix, which, for once, justifies the phrase “melting pot”. The Inca influence remains strong in Peru, with recipes such as potato stew and llama jerky still widely consumed in the mountains, and the Spanish conquistadors left their culinary mark, too. But the yam-flour doughnuts brought by the Spaniards’ African slaves, the pasta popularised by 19thcentury Italian immigrants or the flavours contributed by the country’s significant Chinese and Japanese communities might come as more of a surprise.

It’s estimated that up to 5 per cent of the population is of Asian descent and dishes such as lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with chips and chillies) and tiradito (spicy sashimi served with corn) are all now as Peruvian as quinoa. The world’s most famous Japanese chef, Nobu opened his first restaurant in Lima, explaining his fondness for Latin American ingredients and techniques.

That Peru is an interesting place to eat is beyond doubt – Ferran Adrià, the genius behind El Bulli in Spain, who’s just finished making a film about the food scene there, goes as far as to describe it as “unique”. But will its flavours tickle British taste buds?

Pisco fever

Martin Morales, owner of Ceviche, the first of a cluster of new Peruvian openings in London, thinks so – he abandoned a highly successful career in business to bring us the flavours of his birthplace. Perhaps wisely, given some of the things on the menu, he’s opted for tapas-style dining. The hits for me were the cool and creamy causa, or cold potato cake, topped with squid and avocado, and the beautifully tender ox-heart skewers, served hot from the grill (“Eat them quickly,” our waitress cautioned, “or they get tough”).

It wouldn’t be a food trend without a pop-up restaurant – in this case, the wittily named Last Days of Pisco. This east London joint, which was open for a month earlier in the summer, kept it simple with three types of ceviche, the much-loved dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spices, washed down with the country’s grape brandy.

The cook Henrietta Clancy tells me she was inspired by a trip to Peru last year – “ceviche is such an easy concept that it struck me it could work really well over here” – and if the room of happy hipsters munching on spicy, lime-spiked sea bass when I visited was anything to go by, it has the potential to become as mainstream as sushi. Whether Peruvian food as a whole has the staying power to break out of its niche and become something we cook at home is less clear. London has a population diverse enough to support niche cuisine, but I won’t believe Peruvian’s really arrived until I see Inca Cola in Morrisons.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?