There are few people who can say they were lured to the far corners of the earth by marinated fish and egg-white infused cocktails.
Knowing nothing of the city, or of what to expect there, I traveled alone, on a whim, to Lima, Peru, to feast on ceviche and sip Pisco Sours incessantly for three short days.
As a veteran “pescatarian” (for more than ten years I’d eaten no land animals) ceviche made its way down my esophagus a couple times in the past, both at home (thanks to my mother’s obsession with cooking international cuisine) and at random Latin American cafés across the U.S. I’d tried my first and only Pisco Sour on one cool summer evening in Manhattan at the New York City Food Film Festival in 2009. I loved them both. So, after learning that ceviche is the national dish of Peru and Pisco its national beverage, I stared at an incredible $250 roundtrip airfare deal online thinking to myself, what good is a feast if not devoured in its place of birth? Do we not dream of slurping handmade pasta with a fine Sangiovese in Italy, or indulging in a decadent tarte tatin with champagne in France?
So off I went to Lima, prepared to thrive on a diet of every sea creature alive swimming in a flavorful brine with a sizeable glass of Pisco Sour at its side at all times. What I didn’t expect was to be sucked into the gastronomic Carnival that is Lima’s culinary scene and spat out a full-fledged omnivore. Lima will do this to you. Let me explain…
I began my trip with a ceviche cooking class with Magical Cusco Tours. Three rounds of ceviche into the one-on-one with the executive chef of El Seniorio de Sulco, I was surprised to be faced with a traditional Peruvian meal that included Lomo Saltado (seared strips of beef served with frites) and causa limena (chicken salad sandwiched between two cakes of cold mashed potato). Not wanting to insult the chef’s hard work, I savored every bite of the seared steak and every morsel of the causa. Almost mockingly, the meal ended with suspiro a la limena, a rich custard topped with meringue that literally translates to mean “a Limean sigh.”
Feeling guilty that I’d veered off my intended path of fish and cocktails, I traversed through Miraflores to Café Haiti, whose traditional trout ceviche brought me quite close to tears and, had it not been for the fine people seated around me and a heavy dose of pride, I’d have licked the bowl clean. Instead, I ordered a second dish and sipped my Pisco Sour as I waited.
The following day, a visit to Huaca Pucllana restaurant situated amidst the city’s ancient pyramid ruins provided the perfect backdrop for the saffron-yellow aji de gallina — a creamy chicken stew served over rice topped with one half of a seemingly out-of-place boiled egg and an even more awkwardly poised, solitary black olive.
Though delicious, aji de gallina has a way of sitting with you for the rest of the day. Concerned about my ability to consume ceviche later that evening, I decided to embark on a city tour by foot, in hopes that the “full” feeling would wear off quickly. Two hours of walking and two taxi rides later, I found myself in the Bohemian neighborhood of Barranco, faced with yet another gastronomic surprise. The Festival del Sabor Barranquino was underway and there were juicy pieces of grilled, white corn calling my name. Unable to resist, I succumbed to the smallest piece on the grill, but found myself defenseless against the little old ladies hustling samples of their tortas and puddings in hopes that I’d relinquish all self control (and concerns about my waistline) and buy something. Sample — I did. But purchase — I did not. There was ceviche to be had.
Somewhere between waddling back to my hotel in Miraflores and making a pit stop at Café Haiti, it occurred to me that I couldn’t leave Lima without dining at a Chifa, a Peruvian Chinese food restaurant. The Chifa I sought out the following day — Chifa Men Wha — provided excellent sanctuary after a lengthy tour of the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera, home to more than 45,000 pre-Columbian artifacts. The Pisco Sour somehow heightened the Asian flavors in the traditional Chinese dishes that had been infused with Peruvian spices.
By the time my stay in Lima was nearing its end, my priorities (and taste buds) had shifted. My hankering for ceviche and Pisco Sours had transcended into a love of all the flavors of Lima and a desire to taste the world.