Friday, December 6, 2013

Citrus, salt and sighs - eating in Lima

If you were to step out the front door of our apartment building, you would be facing due east, looking across the palm lined boulevard toward the back wall of the San Isidro golf course. Turning to the right, you could walk south along Avenida Colonel Portillo past the Cuban embassy, the RepSol gas station, and the local KFC. Carrying on, you might notice the avenue curving slightly to the west, and the tall apartment complexes giving way to private homes behind tall, white walls. In a few more minutes you would find the avenue had run out, ending in Avenida Perez Aranibar. Across Aranibar is a fence, behind the fence are playing fields, and behind the fields is a blank expanse - the edge of a cliff, and the whitewashed Pacific beyond.

To the left of the playing fields is a clinic, and behind the clinic, unmarked and undetectable from Aranibar, is the Mercado Municipal de San Isidro. The market is a walled complex all covered in white tiles, in which a modest warren of stalls surrounds a dry fountain. Half of the stalls are shuttered, while the others for the most part sell produce or seafood.

The fish vendors overflow with Chilean sea bass and salmon, Pacific bonito, giant prawns, scallops and octopus and squid. Skinny cats dart in and out of the stalls, scavenging for scraps. The produce vendors offer a modest selection of dusty potatoes, carrots, corn, wilting greens, spindly herbs and glowing tropical fruits. Mangoes, tangerines, limes, plums, grenadillas, pepino melons, glorious Peruvian avocados, papayas, and pineapples are carefully stacked, while bunches of bananas hang overhead. Depending on the season, one can also find the strange and wonderful lucuma there. Lucuma is one of the most favoured fruits in Peru for making desserts. It is found in cakes, ice creams, puddings, and yogurt. It looks almost like a round avocado - the skin is dark green or brown, shading purple at times, and the pit in the middle is large and smooth and chestnut like an avocado pit. The skin is thin and fragile, almost like that of a potato after it's been boiled. The flesh is vibrant yellow or orange, and is very dry and velvety. It tastes like maple and caramel, sweet potatoes and cream. If you could travel to the dawn of Narnia and plant a piece of pumpkin pie instead of a toffee or a bit of lamp post, the resulting tree's fruit would be the lucuma.

One stall stands out - it forms part of a "gastronomic tour of Lima", and is prettier than all the rest. On a tour day, you might find a cluster of gringos surrounding it as their tiny limeña guide tells them about microclimates and the hundreds of potato varietals. Seeing it amid the other stalls, it seems as though this one might be saving the market from extinction. Supermarkets and convenience stores have spread throughout the city, and I suspect San Isidro is too metropolitan, too affluent, too full of golf courses and luxury apartment towers and embassies (some 35 in total) and dark-windowed sedans to sustain the old municipal market. There must be hundreds of these markets throughout the city, and in the distant reaches of the urban sprawl they are probably still huge and bustling, as they were in Arequipa when we lived there. I wonder if the Arequipa markets are as vibrant as they were seven years ago, or whether the economic boom in the city has caused them to give way to shopping centres and supermarket chains. I wonder about the history of San Isidro district, how it has doubtless changed since the inception of the municipal market. I wonder whether there was a time when the fishmongers' wares were hauled up the cliff from the beach below, instead of being flown or trucked in from Chile and beyond.

Lima is an enormous city. It is comprised of 43 districts, covering an area of almost 3000 km2, and housing almost 9 million people. It has been a hub of international commerce for hundreds of years - first as a collection of indigenous settlements, then as a capital of conquest. The Spanish city was founded in 1532, and much of it has been rebuilt and redeveloped as the city has expanded over the coastal plain. Colonial architecture and precolonial ruins languish among the office towers and shopping centres, the clogged commuter arteries, without apparent rhyme or reason. The Spanish brought with them African slaves, and the cultural and racial blend of African, Spanish, and Indigenous ancestry is called criollo. Later indentured labourers were brought here from China by the tens of thousands in the 19th century. The city has a far more ethnically diverse population than is found in less urban parts of Peru.

Although it is located in a subtropical desert there is a cold, low salinity ocean current called the Humboldt Current that flows north along the coast past Lima, and when the cold moist air of the Pacific hits the warm desert air of the coastal plain, the result is mist, fog, and cool weather. Lima is thus a cloud city in a desert. The Humboldt Current carries with it a diverse marine ecosystem, and is responsible for much of Peru's and Chile's robust fisheries. Cool, humid, but never wet, often with a briney tang in the ocean air, Lima is perhaps not what most North Americans imagine when they envision South American cities. Its misty nature is reflected in the cuisine. The dishes are often served cold, and the flavours of salt and citrus blend with creams and frothy egg based sauces to reflect the clouds and ocean air of the coast.

Ceviche is by far the most famously Peruvian food, and is intrinsically coastal. It is made by briefly marinating small pieces of raw fish in a mixture of freshly squeezed lime juice, salt, fresh hot pepper, and often cilantro. It is served with sliced red onions and with boiled sweet potato and choclo - large-kerneled, starchy white corn. The tiradito, a close cousin to ceviche, is raw fish sliced in thin strips and tossed in a flavourful, citrus based sauce. Unlike ceviche, tiraditos are not marinated and are often compared to sashimi. Both ceviches and tiraditos are made not only with fish, but with prawns, scallops, and every sort of shellfish. Pulpo al olivo is finely sliced poached octopus, served in a glossy cream of black olives. Causa limeña is another common dish with its roots in this misty city. It consists of chilled silky mashed potatoes, flavoured with lime and mild chilis, layered with avocado, a light mayonnaise salad of tuna, prawns or poached chicken, and often topped with boiled eggs and olives. It is top shelf potato salad.

The Chinese and criollo cultures have also strongly influenced Lima's cuisine. Spicy stews and fusion dishes abound; one of the most popular dishes, lomo saltado (literally, "sauteed loin") is essentially a beef stirfry with sliced tomatoes and french fries mixed in. Another, arroz chaufa, is fried rice. "Chaufa" comes from the Mandarin Chinese "chao fan", which means fried rice. One can eat arroz chaufa in a "chifa", or Peruvian Chinese restaurant, and it is thought that "chifa" developed out of the phrase "chi fan", which means to eat rice, or to eat a meal. The addition of lime juice and local shellfish and potatoes transforms the food into something uniquely Peruvian.

The clouds and the tang of the ocean air are reflected not only in the dishes of Lima, but also in its drinks and desserts. Limonada, or lemonade, is a popular refreshment. Its famous alcoholic cousin, the pisco sour, is akin to most of the sweet boozy citric drinks of Central and South America - the margarita, caipirinha, mojito or daiquiri - but the addition of an egg white to the libation before it is shaken results in a foamy cloud that floats on top of creamy yellow drink.

Suspiro de limeña (literally, "sigh of the Limean woman") is a caramel custard, sometimes flavoured with local fruits including passion fruit and lucuma. Like the pisco sour, it too is topped with a frothing cloud of egg white - in this case, a meringue.

Despite its relatively small size, Peru has a breathtaking diversity of cuisine. Lima's food is almost by definition multinational fusion cuisine, while in the mountains and the jungle the food has deep roots in traditional indigenous society, and has only been modified slightly through colonization. The diversity of cuisine comes, as the tour guide in the San Isidro municipal market would doubtless tell you, from the extreme geographic variation of the country. This produced several microclimates, and distinct coastal, mountain and jungle populations with their own distinct cultures and cultivars, and a long pre-colonial history of civilization and trade. As I move to Arequipa and - I sincerely hope - travel to the jungle, I look forward to sharing even more culinary treasures.

No comments:

Post a Comment