Peruvian cuisine according to Virgilio Martinez Véliz

Virgilio Martinez Véliz is chef at Central in Lima and MIL in the Sacred Valley, with a new restaurant due to open in the Amazon next year.

By Nicola Trup
Published 13 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST, Updated 23 Jul 2021, 11:42 BST
Virgilio Martinez Véliz
Virgilio Martinez Véliz.

What myths about Peruvian cuisine would you like to dispel?

The whole thing about the melting pot of different influences is quite right; we have Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine, Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) cuisine, cocina Criolla (Creole cuisine), and also African influences. But I think we need to speak more about our biodiversity, our ingredients and what people were eating before this melting pot. The fusion we see in the cities is beautiful and delicious, but there are also things happening in our natural environment, where people have had no interaction with other cultures. There’s another Peruvian cuisine not many people know.

Why do you like to use little-known local ingredients?

It’s about showcasing ingredients that people have never seen in the city, in our gastronomy — even less so in fine-dining restaurants. It gives a new sense of place and provides opportunities to work on different techniques. Plus, we have the privilege of meeting the producers, and we feel more responsibility to promote new geographies and showcase their produce. Everyone knows about quinoa, but not many people know about different types of kiwicha (another grain). I could talk about all the different varieties of corn, tubers, root vegetables — the range of vegetables is amazing.

How has Peru’s dining scene changed?

Nikkei cuisine is fast improving. It depends on very good ingredients, and it’s tasty. Cevicherias, where you eat ceviche and raw fish, are booming too.

Where in Peru do you recommend for great food?

The cuisine of Arequipa is one of the most emblematic of Peru, served in restaurants called picanterías. Not many people know it, but Arequipa has a repertoire with well-structured recipes and very solid cooking.

Virgilio Martínez Véliz’s book, Central, is published by Phaidon (RRP: £39.95).

Chef Virgilio at work

Classic Peruvian dishes

Dining doesn’t get much more Peruvian than ceviche. It’s been eaten here for centuries, and there’s even a national holiday in its honour (28 June). At its most basic, ceviche is made up of diced hunks of fish, briefly cured in a leche de tigre (‘tiger’s milk’) marinade: key lime or bitter orange juice, sliced onion, salt, pepper and chilli. But every cook has their own version, jazzing it up with rocoto (Andean chilli), garlic, a smattering of herbs, or something else entirely. As for the fish, it’s whatever’s fresh and available. In the northern city of Trujillo, this can mean shark, while down south you’re more likely to be eating trout.

Lomo saltado
A dish that emerged from Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) cooking, lomo saltado is a national favourite. Juicy strips of sirloin steak are marinated in a tangy mixture of vinegar, soy sauce and spices, before being flash fried with red onions, tomatoes and Amarillo chillies. Coriander or parsley is sprinkled on top, and the dish is then served with both rice and chips — a double-carb combination that reflects lomo saltado’s Asian and South American influences.

Aji de gallina
There are conflicting theories about the origins of this creamy, spiced chicken stew. Some say it was introduced to Peru by African slaves in the 16th century, while others believe it was created by French chefs hired by wealthy Peruvian Creole families around the same time. Either way, it’s a comfort food classic, comprising chicken in a vibrant sauce, flavoured with walnuts and garlic, as well as local aji peppers, which provide the stew’s distinctive yellow colour. It’s traditionally served with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and black olives.

For Peruvians, cuy (guinea pig), isn’t an everyday meal — this is a feast food. There are several ways of serving it, many of which involve the animal being dished up whole. Cuy al horno is roasted in the oven, while cuy chactado, an Arequipa speciality, involves compressing the meat under a stone and deep-frying.

Click here to see the full list of classic experiences in Peru.

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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