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A Culinary Tour of Peru


When I settled at Chef Virgilio Martinez’s celebrated Central Restaurante on my last night in Lima, I didn’t expect to tour Peru all over again. My legs were sore from walking the Inca Trail and pounding the stone pavements of Machu Picchu. Luckily, this last expedition didn’t involve any moving other than chewing.

Each of the dozen or so dishes in the tasting menu took its inspirations and ingredients from a certain altitude of the Latin American country’s extreme topography. The hors d’oeuvre? Sliced sea snail and shredded crab atop a crispy sargasso seaweed cup, all sourced near sea level. As I bit into the crunchy canapé, I tasted the salt-tinged air of Miraflores, where the restaurant is located. This posh neighborhood of seaside cliffs and surfer-dotted beaches boasts some of the city’s most popular nightspots. But as I ambled about the bustling arteries of Lima’s modern heart, I was more reminded of its ancient history. Fundación Museo Amano, for instance, displays pre-Columbus textiles of the coastal Chancay people that stand as witnesses to the area’s heritage.

I didn’t linger long in Miraflores, however, before I was transported far east to the rainforest thanks to the next dish: duck moose over a wedge of yacón, a yellow native root similar to jicama, garnished with an indigenous plant dubbed “nose twister” for its peppery leaves. The Amazon basin, which covers more than half of Peru’s landmass, harbors lush flora, untouched fauna and myriad species of wildlife. Much of it remains isolated from the outside world, but agile river cruise ships have begun opening some of the hard-to-reach nooks in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, where you may steer kayaks down Amazonian estuaries, go for a jungle hike or even swim along pink dolphins.

As much as I would have liked to get lost in my thoughts of the Amazon, I was delighted to jump 3,900 meters up to the heights of the Andes. Chef Martinez turns chuño, or potatoes traditionally freeze dried by the Quechua community, into light pockets of air that melt on the tip of the tongue. Together with smoky coca buns and butter made with herbs such as mellow muña and the black mint of huacatai, this bread course triggered high-altitude memories of Machu Picchu. The meticulously crafted stone temples and farming terraces of this centuries-old outpost cling to steep, green slopes like a chimera, shimmering through mist. Llamas navigate the capricious surface with aplomb while tourists like me are left panting, partly from the thin air and also from the breathtaking views.

From there, dinner took me under the sea with briny razor clams, up to the low-lying pastures with braised beef and eventually ended with the evening’s last dish: a thin cocoa wedge sprinkled with kiwicha, quinoa’s minuscule superfood cousin. The dessert conjured sweet memories of the Sacred Valley, the fertile land between the colossal peaks. It was here that I got to visit Moray, an ancient Incan archeological site. Scholars speculate that Moray’s rings of stone walls were an agricultural lab that could mimic the vast empire’s many climate zones. Indeed, as I’d walked down its steep surface a few days before, I could feel the temperature change with each step. A visit here was a reminder that Peru’s culinary riches are the culmination of centuries of sophisticated agriculture.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted and happy. As I rushed to the airport from the restaurant, the taxi driver asked me why I had so little luggage. Hadn’t I bought any souvenirs?

I thought about the meal that I’d just had, then the fresh ceviche from another restaurant, the potato terrine of causa I’d tried in Cusco, the humble noodle soup at a street stand, the ubiquitous Pisco sour . . . and then it occurred to me. Without exploring the country’s manifold sceneries that produced all this bounty, all those different tastes would have been ephemeral. But having seen Peru at its many altitudes, I had concrete images to which I could connect the flavors.

I pointed at my stomach, then my head. “My souvenirs are in there,” I said.

WHERE TO STAY Thanks to its on-property private train station to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes), luxurious Tambo del Inka Resort & Spa makes a splurge-worthy Sacred Valley base, complete with an impressive organic vegetable garden.

WHERE TO CRUISE Peruvian-owned river cruise Delfin Amazon Cruises, with a fleet of three intimate boats, takes passengers to remote corners of the Peruvian Amazon with leisure amenities suh as stand-up paddleboards. delfinamazoncruises.com

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