First, for some context. I am writing currently from Cusco, Peru where I am on a 2-week journalism program. It is the Gatekeepers Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. We are traveling the country to learn about health, environment, development, resource, and indigenous issues, and we are also learning about another growing sector of the economy: gastronomy.
Peru is an export nation. Gold, silver, oil, coffee, and now asparagus. The nation is growing into an agricultural force, providing an assortment of fruits, grains, and vegetables for the world market. But it’s not just providing the raw materials. Peru is now an exporter of cuisine, and not just the traditional Andean dishes of Lomo Saltado or chupe. Today, the country is leading a movement in Nuevo Andean cuisine.
And despite the riches the country is earning through its mineral exports that have been fueling the country’s recent growth, the true pride of the nation can be found in its kitchens. It doesn’t take long in any conversation here for the subject of food to come up, and it is mentioned in the same breath as the Amazon region and Machu Picchu as one of the nation’s great treasures.
And according to Bernardo Roca-Rey Miro Queada, the Nuevo Andean movement has been simmering for some 30 years. He should know, he is considered to be the founding father of the Novo Andean. The journalist/writer and amateur cook began to explore new combinations of traditional ingredients and styles and inspired chefs to explore and experiment.
As he says Novo Andean is not so much a style, but a movement: one where non-traditional ingredients are blended with Peruvian staples, and cooked in both traditional and non-traditional ways. The goal is to take the best raw materials the Andes have to offer, and develop innovative new dishes that reflect as much the spirit of the chef as the land and its offerings.
Roca-Rey presided over a dinner for the International Reporting Fellowship Gatekeepers here in Peru. Unfortunately, master chef Gaston Acurio who was to join us was unfortunately recovering from emergency surgery, to Roca-Rey, with a glass of straight Pisco in hand gave us a tour of the world of Novo Andean cuisine. And, of course the meal started with the traditional Pisco Sour.
The first dish was an alpaca Carpaccio.The thin, round slices of meat were drizzled with olive oil and mild spices and garnished with homemade potato chips. The tender meat was quite mild with hints of ahi tuna flavoring. As we learned, alpaca has not been typically used for food in Peru, and mature alpacas are not known for being pleasant tasting meat. This dish was the veal equivalent of alpaca, which might offend some sensibilities, but not any palates.
The second course was a variation of ceviche, one of the renowned dishes of Peru. A thin layer of lenguado (sole) was spread across the plate and drizzled in a tangy ceviche sauce. It was garnished with perfectly cooked slices of pulpo, or octopus. It was an exquisite, light and refreshing dish with a slow kick of spice courtesy of the aji, which is a hot pepper and one of the principal spices in Peru, and Novo Andean food in particular.
Next came a palate cleanser of camu camu sorbet. Camu camu is a bitter fruit from the Amazon that lends itself well to sorbet, as the sugar takes the edge of, but it still retains enough tartness to refresh the mouth for the continuing onslaught of food.
Course four: a trout – similar to steelhead – crusted with a kiwicha (small grain) coating, and sitting on top of another grain – a creamed trigo – which had a tapioca like quality and a bit of sweetness to contrast the earthiness of the trout. The crispness of the coated fish combined with the firm, chewiness of the trigo created a pleasant contrast, and the fish itself was superb.
Then, back to the meats: rice and duck. The fillets of the duck were cooked perfectly and paired deliciously with the confit. The lightly spiced rice provided an herbal contrast to the richness of the duck.
The final entrée was a lamb chop served with a mashed sweet potato and a mandarin orange reduction. The chop melted off the bone and had a much more subtle flavor than lamb generally found in the US.
The final course was a duo de lucuma, a Peruvian fruit with a rich, creamy taste of sweet potato, squash, and a hint of maple. And on top of that, it’s supposed to be full of an assortment of vitamins and carotene. The dish was prepared with a lucuma ice cream and a crisp pastry stack.
All in all, it was a fantastic meal, and certainly showed the conceptual range of Novo Andean cuisine. As Roca-Rey said, it’s about alchemy.
“What would happen if we invented a cuisine,” he said, “and it was in its source, the result of reason, not of tradition?… Of cooks willing to take the steps towards their own fantasies.”
This is the heart of the Novo Andean cuisine movement, and by all accounts, it is moving all over the world.
(Sean Carberry is with America Abroad Media and is in Peru on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project.)