Food of Peru will conquer the world 

Examiner food critic Patricia Unterman checks in with her latest report from her culinary adventures around the world. Today: Peru

Practically every first-time visitor to Peru makes the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, the haunting, architecturally sophisticated ruins of a royal Incan retreat on a mountain top.

What a food-focused traveler like me learns along the way is that the success of this pre-Columbian civilization was based on a brilliant and inventive system of subsistence agriculture.

Ancient Incan stone terraces still crawl up the steep sides of the Urubamba Valley below Machu Picchu, planted, as always, with corn, potatoes, beans and indigenous grains like quinoa. Meter by meter, the microclimates of the terraces change with the angle of the sun, altitude and season. The Incans knew which of thousands of cultivated varieties thrived in each microzone.

Peru has three distinct geographic areas running north to south down the length of the country: a long coastal desert in the west rising to rainy, snow-topped mountains in the center and descending to the jungles of the Amazon basin in the east.

The country possesses extraordinary biodiversity, and its cuisine showcases this bounty of ingredients in exciting dishes inspired by Spanish, native Indian,African, Chinese and Japanese kitchens. For a food traveler, Peru is paradise.

The feast begins in Lima, the sprawling, Los Angeles-like capital of 8 million people on the coast. No underground public transport, lots of traffic, no city planning — but fantastic eating.

A visit to the immaculate Surquillo market will show you the main players on Lima’s menus — fabulous local shrimp, octopus, tiny scallops and fish; beef hearts and intestines; jungle fruits; colorful fat-kerneled native corn; a rainbow of potatoes; the Key lime-like limon; fresh herbs; lemongrass; and chiles — specifically bright yellow ones and apple-shaped chiles called recoto.

Then head to a popular anticucheria such as Pepe’s (Av. Petit Thouars 5428, Miraflores; 445-2225) for a skewer of the most popular Peruvian bite, beef heart, cut into chunks, rubbed in spices, grilled over a wood fire and served with a stout ear of corn. The cost: $2.

The iconic dish of Lima is ceviche, raw fish and seafood marinated in "tiger milk," a mixture of Peru’s distinctive lime-like lemons, salt and chiles. The Pacific current off Lima’s coast is cold and the pristine corvina and sole caught there have firm, sweet flesh.

At a traditional cevicheria such as the 28-year-old Sonia across the street from the beach (Santa Rosa 173, Chorillos; 251-6693; www.restaurantsonia.com), a flat, chilled bowl heaped with fish and garnished with sweet potato, seaweed and corn comes with a spoon, so you get a sip of the marinade with the fish. Sprinkle on deep-fried dried corn kernels called cancha for crunch.

A chopped octopus salad in a Peruvian olive-infused mayonnaise is miraculously tender. Patrons sit in a colorful beach shack open to the sky. A generous meal with icy Cusqueño beer costs $30 for two. Cevicherias are open during the day and close by 5 p.m.

One of the most gracious places to eat criolla (Peruvian cooking) is Jose Antonio (Bernardo Monteagudo 200, San Isidro, Lima; 264-0188; www.joseantonio.com), its dining room decorated in rustic colonial splendor.

The anticuchos (beef hearts) practically melt in your mouth, but this is a good place to try the Peruvian classic, sangrecita, an aromatic chicken blood pudding with bits of chile, onion and fresh herbs served with crisp batons of deep-fried yucca.

Jose Antonio also makes the best version of my favorite Peruvian dessert, mazamorra morada, a dried fruit-studded blue-black pudding of purple corn delicately spiced with cinnamon, cloves and aniseed. A huge meal here costs $10.

I still dream about the tamalitos at La Paisana (Jose Galvez 641, Magdalena del Mar; 990-44788), which specializes in the cooking of northen Peru, located on a market street in a lively, working-class neighborhood. The moist, light, bright green tamalitos are made of ground fresh corn and tons of cilantro. Cost: $1.

Squeeze in a butifarra, a cold pork sandwich, at the evocative Antigua Taberna Queirolo (Avenida San Martin 1090, Pueblo Libre; 460-0441), a soccer bar with marble counters, tile floors, metal chairs and tall wooden doors.

Everyone drinks pisco sours. Pisco, the national liquor of Peru, is a grape brandy. Shaken with freshly squeezed limon, sugar, egg white and ice and strained into a glass, it makes the perfect drink with a sandwich of sliced leg of pork and salsa criollo, red onions marinated in salt, limon and chile, on a soft, crusty roll.

At the sparkling new La Gran Fruta (Las Begonia 463, San Isidro; www.lagranfruta.com), have a pitcher of naturally caramel-flavored lucuma, strawberries and milk, one of the best fruit drinks on the planet.

Every serious eater visits at least one restaurant of Gaston Acurio, the Wolfgang Puck of Lima. I went to two. La Mar (Avenida La Mar 770, Miraflores; 421-3365) is his spin on a cevicheria with a gigantic menu. I’m still longing for the lacy hunks of deep fried fish roe called huevera.

The high-end Astrid y Gaston (Cantuarias 175, Miraflores; 245-5387) opened in 1994 as a French restaurant. Acurio, a former lawyer who graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Paris — where he met Astrid, his pastry-chef partner — saw the light and started incorporating local ingredients.

Some of the highlights of my meal: an anticucho of magically tender grilled octopus; a chifa, or Chinese-inspired dish of flounder in sesame broth with fried rice; impressively crisp-skinned baby goat; and paella made of freeze-dried potatoes crowned with a crusty hunk of suckling pig.

A meal in this converted Miraflores house with an open kitchen and modern art on the walls costs $120 for two with wine and 15 percent service.

Acurio, who sees himself as an emissary of Peruvian products and cooking, has opened restaurants in Santiago, Bogota and Caracas, so far. He’s eyeing San Francisco for a branch of La Mar. He and every Peruvian I’ve met knows Peruvian food will conquer the world.

Personally, I was ravished.

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Patricia Unterman

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