Peruvian food finally set to make a splash in Hong Kong

The South American nation's cuisine is slowly carving out a place in the city and many will find the flavours familiar, writesMischa Moselle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 12:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 12:03am

Next month, two restaurants will bring Hong Kong diners the relatively unfamiliar flavours of Peru, the spread of whose cuisine is one of the few global food trends that is yet to take hold in the city.

Peru has a big Chinese community and 14 per cent of Peruvians have some Chinese blood

When Hong Kong does eventually catch up, it may come as a surprise just how much local and Japanese influence there is on that far away country's cuisine.

"Peru has a big Chinese community and 14 per cent of Peruvians have some Chinese blood," says Peruvian chef Maria Rosa Vasquez.

She was here recently to teach chefs at the Hotel Icon's Market buffet restaurant how to cook the dishes they will be offering as a promotion from July 4 to 14.

One of the first ingredients that immigrants from Macau and then Guangdong province introduced to Peru was rice, specifically fried rice or arroz chaufa.

"This is found in every restaurant in Peru. People make it at home and in most restaurants there is a variation of fried rice on the menu. Rice is a very important part of the gastronomy. You'll never find a single home or restaurant without rice. If they don't list it, you can ask for it," says Vasquez.

The migrants also introduced restaurants called chifa, serving their own cuisine. These restaurants can be found all over Peru, but are especially common in Lima.

"It's part of our cuisine and some of the dishes have become traditional. The most typical is lomo saltado, a stir-fried beef dish," says Vasquez, adding that it is one of the most popular dishes in Peru.

The dish doesn't only combine influences from the two countries in its use of soy sauce and aji amarillo chillies - it is often served with both rice and fries.

Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose own cooking has been much influenced by the time he spent in Peru, is a big fan of chifa restaurants. He used to eat in them in Lima 40 years ago and remembers how the Chinese cooks used the fish sold on the street by fishermen who had caught it in the Pacific Ocean that morning.

Nobu also remembers eating comida Nikkei, a style of food influenced by both Japanese and Peruvian cuisines that developed over the more than 100 years that the country has had a Japanese community. A fusion of the styles can be seen in new dishes created for the Nobu Hong Kong menu. Executive chef Oyvind Naesheim's new plates include a baked whole abalone dressed with smoked and roasted Peruvian piquillo chillies, shiso leaf and a cucumber salsa.

Hideki Endo, the restaurant's executive sushi chef, has added a take on Nobu's tacos in red prawn and scallop sashimi cups with a black bean jalapeño sauce.

For Vasquez the most obvious Japanese influence has been on ceviche, which is now sliced thinly, sashimi style, rather than in thick chunks as before.

Nobu can take some of the credit for this innovation. He also believes it partly explains the cuisine's new found global popularity.

"I worked in Peru 40 years ago, I left to open my first restaurant in the US in 1987, Matsuhisa, and this restaurant featured ceviche and other Peruvian food but not in a traditional way, done in my way.

"Ceviche 40 years ago was marinated for five or six hours. After marinating in all that acid it was all white and the fish flavour was gone.

"The first lesson was to slice the fish and then mix the sauce and marinate briefly. I use a different sauce that gives the fish a different texture."

This tweak to the traditional dish paved the way for the cuisine's spread, he says.

Nobu also credits a new generation of innovative Peruvian chefs with helping to spread the word, including Gastón Acurio of internationally renowned restaurant Astrid y Gastón restaurant who opened a cevicheria in Mexico.

"Ferran Adrià, a good friend of mine, introduced Peruvian food to El Bulli. The food has become more sophisticated and fashionable.

"Foodies like their fashions and Peruvian cuisine is now fashionable," says Nobu.

Its range of ingredients present an opportunity for chefs to be creative, he says.

As well as the chillies that Nobu famously uses in his dishes, "there's lots of fresh seafood, also tomatoes, potatoes, quinoa, lots of local products".

Pedro Miguel Schiaffano's Malabar restaurant in Lima, ranked 95 in Restaurant magazine's top 100 restaurants in the world, is known for the use of obscure ingredients from across the Amazon Basin.

Perhaps Peru's culinary claim to fame is that it is the home of the potato. There were believed to be 2,000 varieties, but Peru's International Potato Centre now believes there may be 5,000. Every region of the country has its own types, but typically there are around 15 to 20 varieties in markets.

While Vasquez jokes that there are not 5,000 ways to cook a potato, there are some ways that are peculiar to Peru.

In the highlands around Lake Titicaca, peasants wrap potatoes in a mud called chaco and bake them to make a dish called huatia. Like many ingredients in Peruvian cooking, chaco is eaten for its medicinal qualities, in this case as a digestive.

"The Incas always had a very good balance, searching for nutritional value, protein from quinoa, carbohydrates from potatoes. They ate a lot of leafy, green vegetables. The diet includes many herbs that have medicinal properties and also augment the flavour of the food. Dishes use a lot of garlic, [which is] seen as a natural antibiotic," says Vasquez.

Quinoa, in common with all the Andean grains, is eaten by women to alleviate menopause and regulate hormonal levels.

Both hierba buena (a type of mint) and muña are good for digestion and acclimatising to high altitude.

"That's what the native people thought worked for these ailments," says Vasquez.

The root maca is also known as Peruvian Viagra and is popular in the highlands. Predictably, it's also exported in powdered form to China. In the past it was used by Inca warriors who needed it to prove effective in battle. Inca soldiers might also be given mashua, which has a sedative effect. The legends say it was given to men so they wouldn't rape women in war.

Perhaps these are parts of its past the country doesn't want to export, but the government and chefs are keen to project Peruvian culture around the world, especially through its food.

"It's delicious," says Vasquez. "We didn't realise that the rest of the world would appreciate it."

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