With dishes of grilled baby octopus, barbecued cow heart and baked bay scallops with parmesan cheese spread on their table, Anna and John Kenneke were regretting their departure from Lima the next day.
“We would extend our trip if we could see more, eat more, experience more,” said Anna, 29, before their return to Portland, Oregon. “It’s been really easy to eat well here,” she added, as her husband scooped up some shredded guinea pig meat on toast.
Peruvian cooking, which combines foods from the coastal, mountain and jungle regions with traditions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa, has become a global sensation in the past five years. It has put Lima on the tourist map, transforming a city racked by terrorist attacks in the 1990s and considered an inconvenient stop on the way to Machu Picchu.
Ceviche — raw fish and seafood marinated in lime juice — and pisco sour cocktails have become popular worldwide. Ceviche bars run by celebrity chefs such as Gaston Acurio have popped up in New York, San Francisco, London and Madrid.
“Fifteen years ago, Peruvian cuisine was unknown,” said Mariano Valderrama, vice president of the country’s gastronomic association, known as Apega. “Now it’s in fashion, and Peru is positioning itself globally as a first-class tourist and gastronomic destination.”
It’s not a shock to those who were paying attention.
Acurio’s “500 Years of Fusion” was named Gourmand International’s cookbook of the year in 2008. Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli near Barcelona was cited as the world’s best restaurant a record five times, predicted in 2011 that Peru’s cuisine would be the next “most important revolution in culinary history.”
Tourist arrivals to Lima increased by a third to 2.2 million last year from 2009. A 16 percent jump last year was the biggest in Latin America, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry group based in London.
Here are two reasons why: the restaurants Central and Astrid y Gaston, which won first and second place respectively this year on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, compiled by William Reed Business Media Ltd. Six Lima establishments were among the top 20.
“In the ’80s there were very few good restaurants in the city, and now you have 50 of them,” said Lucas Montes de Oca, founder of the Lima Gourmet Company, a culinary-tour operator.
The gastronomic boom has transformed once-forlorn neighborhoods. Clusters of restaurants and bars have emerged in areas of the Barranco district overlooking the Pacific Ocean where crime previously deterred visitors, Montes de Oca said.
The adjacent Miraflores district was the site of the deadliest car-bomb attack in the country’s history. In 1992, Shining Path, a Maoist insurgent group, detonated 400 kilograms of explosives, killing 25. Violence abated after the founder was captured later that year, ending a campaign that claimed 69,000 lives, mostly in rural areas in the Andes mountains.
Nguyen Chavez remembers drug dealers hanging around the potholed Avenida La Mar when he opened a seafood restaurant there in 2001.
“It was an ugly, lawless area that no one wanted to visit unless they were fixing their car” at one of the repair shops that lined the street, Chavez said. With two partners, he invested $140,000 to turn the site of a furniture workshop into a 36-seat restaurant called Pescados Capitales. “We never imagined the place would become so successful so quickly.”
Today, there are more than two dozen restaurants, including tourist spots such as La Mar and Embarcadero 41. The garages are giving way to offices, apartment blocks and furniture boutiques.
The tourist trade, along with a mining boom, contributed to economic growth averaging 6.4 percent during the past decade, faster than any other major economy in Latin America. Per capita gross domestic product more than doubled in the period to 17,673 soles ($6,060), while the average monthly wage in Lima rose 81 percent to 1,443 soles.
Lima was the commercial and administrative center of the Spanish empire in South America for three centuries until independence in 1821. The city’s population has almost doubled since 1980 to 9.5 million, about a third of Peru’s 31 million. It accounts for half the $195 billion GDP.
Work on the first of five planned underground lines is due to start by the end of next month, while about $2.3 billion of expressways, underpasses and bridges are under construction to ease traffic congestion.
Even with the expansion, about 9 percent of homes lack drinking water, 10 percent don’t have sanitation and about 40 percent of people don’t have access to a health facility, according to the country’s statistics agency.
Meantime, tour agencies such as Lima Gourmet are organizing restaurant trips, coffee tasting and classes where participants are taught how to make ceviche and pisco sours.
John Kenneke, the 35-year-old visitor from Portland, said visiting Machu Picchu — a mountain peak and the site of 15th century Incan ruins — and exploring the local gastronomy were the main reasons he and Anna chose Peru for their holiday. Their two days in Lima included a half-day culinary tour.
Restaurants also benefit from growing business travel to Lima. The United Nations annual summit on global warming, which started this week, will bring about 12,000 foreign visitors, according to the Trade and Tourism Ministry. The city will host the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank next year.
Lima has emerged as a training ground for chefs, with more than half the country’s 85 cooking schools, including the only Le Cordon Bleu campus in South America, according to Apega. Food tops the list of things residents most like about the city, the gastronomy association says.
The chefs can tap into Peru’s rich biodiversity for ingredients and inspiration. Peru has 84 of the planet’s 104 micro-climates and 75 percent of its ecosystems, resulting in the world’s widest variety of potatoes, corn, chilis and fish and 650 types of fruits, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
“We’re looking within the country, seeing what we can bring here and take abroad,” said Marilu Madueno, head chef at Huaca Pucllana restaurant.
As the country’s cuisine conquers the world, other locals are hankering to see what the world has to offer Lima.
There’s a way to go to match the variety found in London or New York, says Mitsuharu Tsumura, owner of Maido, a Japanese- Peruvian fusion restaurant. “You want to sample the best food from around the world, otherwise you get bored,” he said.
Dinner is over at Huaca Pucllana and Anna and John’s tour guide is leading them to another spot for dessert. They’re already thinking about their next visit.
“Prices are extremely reasonable compared with places like Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo,” John said. “There are not many barriers to experiencing something new and different.”
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