The Rise of Peruvian Food

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in: World

Ricardo Zarate rushed into his new restaurant, Picca, late, again. He’d heard from one of his farmers — one of several he’s talked into growing Peruvian produce. The seeds have sprouted! Zarate was running behind schedule because he’d driven out to the farm. He couldn’t wait to see them for himself.

“In Los Angeles, everything grows. But there are thousands of ingredients we have in Peru that you don’t have here,” says Zarate. Determined to fill the void, he is growing spicy aji amarillo and red rocoto, the peppers essential to Peruvian cuisine, along with a grab bag of Andean potatoes.

“We have a thousand kinds of potatoes in Peru, thousands,” he says with a characteristic hyperbole. “Olluquito, when you cook it, has the consistency of a cucumber. We slice it for stews with dried meats, Incan style. Papa Maria is a yellow potato, you boil it and it tastes like butter.”

Angelenos embrace Peruvian cuisine

Zarate’s enthusiasm for Peruvian food is contagious. Angelenos have fallen for his tiny downtown food stand, Mo-Chica, where he brings his experience working in London and L.A. sushi bars to bear on the street food he grew up eating in Lima. Food + Wine Magazine named him one of America’s best new chefs of 2011. Picca, his new anticucho restaurant — think Japanese izakaya meets Spanish tapas bar — located near Century City, at 9575 W. Pico Blvd., (310-277-0133), has been jammed since its opening day in June.

“My country is an international crossroads,” says Zarate. “So many cultures have come to Peru. We have a fusion cuisine with Japanese, Spanish, African, European, Chinese, Incan and others,” says Zarate, who claims he has been inspired by all of these cuisines. But it is his ability to elevate traditional Incan dishes with Japanese influences that has made him famous.

A twist on Peruvian classics

Peruvians claim ceviche as their own and, at Picca, Zarate mixes the traditional corn and sweet potatoes with his citrus-marinated sea bass. But he also serves sea urchin shooters spiked with rocoto and aji amarillo peppers. And soy sauce accents his thin-sliced sea bass on sweet potato puree.

Zarate’s favorite anticucho is the traditional Peruvian beef heart marinated in rocoto sauce and grilled on skewers. His kabocha squash is grilled with sweet miso sauce, and he serves grilled scallops drizzled with an aji amarillo aioli and crushed wasabi peas.

Peruvians love seafood. So how does a Peruvian chef interested in showcasing local ingredients make up for what Angelenos grumble is a lackluster local fish?

“There is good local fish, you just need to look,” says Zarate. “Barracuda. This is the fish to eat in the summer. And local sea bass. Albacore in August and September. People tend to order the same stuff all of the time — tuna and salmon — not what is local to L.A.

Kamazu is the Japanese word for barracuda, and people are more likely to order Kamazu,” Zarate says with a smile. “I like it pan-fried.”

Pisco is king

And to wash it down? Pisco.

“Pisco is a town south of Lima; Pisco is 100 percent Peruvian,” he says with a pride he displays in his bar stocked with 24 piscos. “The grape spirit is similar to grappa. Very aromatic, very clean. I love it. The aromas are different, depending on the type of grape, where it is grown. It’s like wine, in that way. I like pisco really, really cold and pure. It’s strong.”

His favorite pisco cocktail? Zarate pauses, knowing a good Peruvian always says Pisco Sour, but he shakes his head. “Chilcano de Anis. It is a nice friendly drink. Also very traditional.”

Having grown up in central Lima’s storied old Rimac district, one of 12 brothers and sisters, Zarate dreams of going back a culinary hero with the money to help rebuild Rimac and return it to its former glory.

Zarate first dreamed of having his own restaurant in Los Angeles. The next step is a chain of Mo-Chicas across America; the first is planned to open before the end of the year at 514 W. 7th St. in L.A. It is the beginning of the Peruvian food movement, he says. “This is not ‘ethnic’ food. This is a great cuisine made with the best ingredients by the best chefs.”

Chilcano de Anis

Ingredients

Squeeze of lime juice
½ ounce ginger syrup
½ ounce anise syrup
Shot of pisco
Soda water
Pernod

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously.
  2. Top with soda and pour over crushed ice.
  3. Garnish with mint sprig and a spritz of Pernod.

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food writer at work on a book about climate change and wine.

Photo: Ricardo Zarate.

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