Over the last few decades though, gastronomy has taken centre stage, and the so called City of Kings has undoubtedly become a place where visitors can and must eat like one.
One of only a handful of capitals globally that can count two restaurants in the world’s top 50, and ground zero for a cuisine that’s been having a moment for long enough to confirm its place amongst the most intriguing food scenes on the planet, Lima is the surely the only place in South America worth flying to for your feed alone.
There are scores of restaurants throughout the city that, without booking well in advance, are harder to get into than a Berlin nightclub – with the thronging queues to match.
This buzzing metropolis isn’t just about Michelin stars and world famous chefs though, far from it. You can find fantastic Ceviche; Peru’s addictively delicious acidic raw fish dish, or succulently smoking Anticuchos; charred kebabs of cow heart, both filling the city’s street corners and markets for a handful of pocket change.
The most loyal of all colonial lands, Lima was the last to fall when rebellion closed in from the north and south in the early 19th Century, as independence spread through a continent being reborn with a new and complex cultural and racial identity.
Hispanic, Creole and indigenous traditions became intertwined, but now arguably the greatest culinary influence is from the east, as two hundred years of Asian immigration has infused the modern food scene with a fascinating coalescence of flavours.
The country’s ever present Chifa joints churn out cheap Chinese-Peruvian flavours and are ubiquitous in the capital. Lomo saltado is the must try platter; a stir fry dish of beef steak, vegetables and chips with a side of rice is about comforting as food can get.
A Japanese influx has had an indelible impact on the dining culture too, particularly when it comes to ceviche. Cured fish has certainly been eaten on the Peruvian coast since pre-Inca times but the current preparation owes a debt to chefs with Japanese heritage and the marinade leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) has a composition with unmistakable Asian vim.
So where to best get stuck in to this plethora of intriguing dishes with influence from all over the globe?
Markets are always a great place to start and Surquillo‘s bustles with clattering cutlery and rumbling stomachs every day of the week. Restaurants on the surrounding alleys are perennially packed, but slip inside and find Claudia to try her ceviche.
You’ll have to be quick, it’s usually all sold not long after noon, little surprise this is a popular local haunt when she tells me it’s been 36 years since she served her first customer there.
Ceviche is almost always a lunchtime dish here, you’ll struggle to find a Peruvian eating raw fish past the afternoon, and consequently from street corner to even the highest end restaurants – a dinner service is not on offer.
After being blown away by the quality on offer in the Market, I went for something a little more opulent with lunch at popular Miraflores spot El Mercado, run by Rafael Osterling. It left me deliriously contemplating kidnapping the entire kitchen staff in order to set them up in my basement.
First a classic Ceviche of Sole and Scallop was the refined interpretation of a dish I’d eaten all up and down the coast of Peru for a fraction of the price, more often than not sat on plastic furniture in roadside shacks. The usual chunk of sweet potato was replaced with a delectable smear and the whole plate demonstrated perfection and precision more than worthy of the extra outlay.
Afterwards I sampled something of a more Japanese tilt, Tuna Tiraditos; thinly sliced carpaccio style, – in a sesame and soy dressing with avocado garnish. Feather light textures juxtaposed heavyweight flavours, the kind of platter you might be fantasising about for weeks, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
If seafood doesn’t float your boat, Lima bursts with plenty more besides. For a taste of something different I went to Panchita, owned by Gaston Acuria the country’s most famous chef, and a restaurant well-known for serving some of the best Peruvian Creole flavours in the capital.
Anticuchos are a great place to start. The grilled meats can be found throughout Peru and Bolivia and come in various forms but cow hearts are the most popular. I took on a mixed platter of cuts and it was the best meat I tried throughout the city, a carnivore’s dream imagined on a heaving plank of wood.
Afterwards Cabrito Stew from northern Peru was the sort of heart-warming fare no doubt required for life in an Andean pueblo, slow cooked glutinous goat with lentils and yucca hummed with Afro-Caribbean flavours.
Another dish worth trying is Causa, it goes without saying a land with over 3,000 potato varieties would have some good recipes for them and this dish of cold mashed potato filled usually with avocado, corn and meat or fish is a countrywide menu staple.
For dessert – what else but chocolate? This is South America after all. One slice of Warm Chocolate and Fudge Cake with ice cream was probably enough to serve a whole table, but if you’re not one for sharing I wouldn’t blame you.
Such is the wealth of fine dining options here, your hit list might be so long that extending your visa is the only possible course of action. Highlights though should include Astrid & Gaston, overseen by Acuria and his wife Astrid Gutsche, as well as Central and Maido, both widely regarded as amongst the most exciting kitchens on the planet.
After a couple of days following my nose, I sought some professional guidance from The Lima Gourmet Company for a day exploring the city’s best gastronomy. We began, of course, with coffee.
Lima’s Barranco district has long been home to the city’s artists and creatives and now bristles with cafes, bars and restaurants with a genuine neighbourhood vibe.
Peruvian organic coffee is gaining recognition as some of the world’s best so we popped to Tostaduria Bisetti to sample some beans, roasted and ground on site, you can really sense the freshness.
After that a visit to another of the best mercados in town, Miraflores Municipal Market. Chicha is the ubiquitos refresco here and comes in various forms but usually counts corn as its main ingredient and you can’t visit Lima without trying it.
Chicha morada, a revitalising brew made from purple corn, pineapple skins, quince and a little clove and cinnamon is probably the pick of the bunch.
The amount of delicious fruits that Peru brings to the table is astounding and one of the highlights of our day was sampling just a few.
You can find fresh juices everywhere but I recommend heading to a market to taste what you can in its raw form, chirimoya, or custard apple, is about as close you can get to a dessert picked straight from a tree.
Before finishing with a beautiful lunch La Huaca Pucllana amongst ancient pre-Incan ruins we had a ceviche making class and pisco sour mixing session at La Trastienda and got to grips with the country’s most famous alcoholic export. More than three of these and you run the serious risk of waking up somewhere you don’t immediately recognise.
Ayahuasca Bar, named after the hallucinogenic plant found in the Amazon rainforest, is the most splendid place I found to imbibe, where well-heeled Limenos chatter over chinking glasses in a stunning hacienda setting.
More my style was Juanito de Barranco though, where you’re more likely to find arguments about football catalysed by seriously potent house pisco, frosty hand pulled lagers and the roast best ham sandwiches this side of Christmas.
When it comes to resting a weary mind and body, Quinta Miraflores Boutique Hotel is the ideal tranquil oasis of luxury right where the action is.
Within walking distance to the best bits of Miraflores and a five minute taxi down to Barranco you couldn’t be in a better spot to sample the best of what Lima has to offer. Spacious and airy rooms are beautifully adorned with tasteful, classical design and charming personal touches making this the ideal home from home.
Tim enjoyed a food tour with The Lima Gourmet Company, for more information and to book now click here.
Tim stayed at Quinta Miraflores Boutique Hotel, for more information and to book now click here.
Tim ate lunch at Panchita, Miraflores, for more information and to book now click here.