Let’s play a word-association game.
Brunch + Peruvian. What comes to mind? Nothing?
We used to have a little joke around the Dibs house. One of us would ask what we should have for dinner, and the other would say: “South American food.” This was considered hilarious because (a) neither of us had ever tasted South American food, and (b) neither of us had any notion of what South American food comprised, except (c) lima beans, which are named after Lima, Peru, and (d) corn with huge, Corn Nuts-sized kernels. This was all we knew.
Then South American restaurants started opening in and around San Francisco. First, we tried Brasa in Berkeley. Revelaciones grandes: smoky skewered beef hearts; steak sandwiches with French fries tucked inside the roll, amongst the strips of steak. Ice cream made with sunny yellow maple-flavored lúcuma fruit.
Lima-born chef Verónica Laramie, who co-owns Brasa with her husband Christopher Laramie, warned Dibs not to confuse Peruvian food with Mexican food:
“In Mexico, they eat tortillas. In Peru, we don’t even know what tortillas are. In Peru, nobody eats tacos. Taco Bell opened in Peru and had to close because nobody went there.”
Instead, Peru has a rich, diverse culinary heritage with ancient roots, influenced by indigenous traditions and European cuisine and local produce such as plantains, the leafy green huacatay herb and local peppers including the earthy yellow aji amarillo, assertive red rocoto and fruity orange aji panca. Sauces made from these peppers and from huacatay are more popular in Peru than ketchup and mustard.
Most surprising of all is the strong influence of Chinese cuisine. Lima has a huge Chinatown. Dim sum, soy sauce and rice figure prominently in mainstream Peruvian meals.
Peruvian cuisine might be the Next Big Thing, thanks in part to Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio and his highly renowned international La Mar restaurant group, which is waking the world up to these dazzling flavors and textures at long last:
Last week Dibs visited San Francisco’s waterfront La Mar Cebichería Peruana, whose new brunch entrées merge that rich diverse heritage with cutting-edge innovation. Empanadas (depicted at the top of this post) are South America’s answer to the English pastie and the Jewish knish. Causas (depicted below) are Peruvian whipped-potato pedestals with aji amarillo and various toppings:
Nearly a dozen other new brunch items include chicharrones served with three different sauces and soft Acme rolls; Chaufa Power, which is beef Milanesa atop wok-fried rice with Chinese sausage, egg noodles, scallions and bell peppers, served with pickles and pepper sauce; another new dish is Brussels sprouts and cauliflower sautéed with garlic and huacatay, topped with aji panca bacon candy:
A wide range of house-specialty cebiches includes the vegetarian cebiche de hongos, made with piopini, enoki and oyster mushrooms in aji amarillo leche de tigre with wakame and basil-infused olive oil. Some dishes even include giant corn, imported from Peru:
From a tempting selection of pisco cocktails, we chose the classic pisco sour — augmented by a glass of chicha morada, the traditional Andean non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn:
Next time someone at the Dibs house says we’re having “South American food,” we’ll know what we’re talking about.