Sam Vincent savours the flavours of the Amazon as he joins a visionary chef on a river journey with a taste all its own.
How fashionable is Peruvian cuisine right now? Just ask Jesus. Never mind that so-called "Novoandino" (new Andean) restaurants have appeared in New York and London recently, or that Peru now has two eateries in Restaurant magazine's top 100; for divine approval of the local fare head to Lima's 17th-century Monastery of San Francisco. There, in a neat piece of historical revisionism at the end of a dark hallway, a painting of the Last Supper has Christ eating not fish and wine but guinea pig and huancaina potatoes.
What started in the mid-2000s as celebrity chef Gaston Acurio's personal quest to legitimise and refine the cooking of his childhood spawned the movement of Novoandino, with gourmet takes on ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice), anticuchos (cow heart brochettes) and causas (mashed sweet potato with peppers) now global favourites. But while Acurio and his followers draw mainly on the produce of the Andes, a rising star of the country's kitchens is turning to Peru's other iconic ecosystem for new flavours.
"I first came across Amazonian ingredients 12 years ago," chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino says. "They were unique and different, and I couldn't believe they were Peruvian."
The legendary home of uncontacted "indios" and David Attenborough docos, the Amazon rainforest may be the most species-rich biosphere on earth but its formidable geography has meant its produce rarely reached the rest of Peru, let alone the outside world.
That is something Schiaffino is trying to change. After several exploratory trips over the past decade and hard work improving the purveyor chain during that time, he has developed a style of cooking based on exotic Amazonian fruits, little-known jungle vegetables and giant freshwater fish and molluscs, bringing out their flavours with what he calls the "DNA" of Amazonian cuisine, sofrito, a slowly sauteed base of onions, garlic, turmeric, culantro leaves and achiote seeds.
"Sofrito is the backbone and structure of Amazonian flavour, but the ingredients are the stars," he says. "For example, beer fermented from local manioc changes the sofrito to create a distinctly Amazonian flavour, as do fruits, roots and herbs you find only in the Amazon."
I'm in Schiaffino's flagship restaurant, Malabar, located in the Lima financial district of San Isidro. By day, businessmen scurry among skyscrapers and hibiscus flowers, but at night urbane Peruvians enjoy what is South America's gastronomic capital.
It has been a night of firsts. My appetiser was a tender river snail the size of a lawn bowl served with chorizo and aguaje, a sharp-tasting loquat-like fruit the colour of an American school bus. Next came the Jesus-recommended deep-fried guinea pig with piquant uchucuta chilli sauce and a main that resembled a Miro painting: a bright-yellow background of cassava broth harbouring a brown paiche fillet, a pyramid of jet-black tapioca and a single green shallot snaking its way across the plate. Paiche, a living fossil fish that lurks in billabongs of the Amazon River, can exceed two metres in length and is valued for the large, boneless steaks it produces.
I finish my meal with a dessert of gooey white copoazu, a cacao relative with a lemonade aftertaste, that is served with pistachios, apple and Amazonian wild honey. The resulting food coma befits the epic provenance of the dinner I've just eaten.
For years Malabar was the sole restaurant in Peru serving refined Amazonian gastronomy but increased demand recently prompted Schiaffino to expand his output. In July, he opened Amaz in the fashionable Lima cliff-top neighbourhood of Miraflores, a restaurant even more devout in its adherence to rainforest produce than Malabar (try the highly unusual green banana fritters with dried jungle pig). But it is on the Amazon River itself that he most excels.
Undoubtedly the most comfortable way to negotiate the world's mightiest river, the MV Aria, launched last year by Aqua Expeditions, measures 45 metres and has three levels, a lounge, gym, spa and sundeck. In its 16 suites, king-sized beds face huge windows affording spectacular views of the brown river and green blur of rainforest beyond.
For three days we purr down the Amazon in what is essentially a floating safari lodge, with wildlife viewing conducted both via skiff excursions on the river and from the comfort of the Aria itself. There are several highlights: sloths, with their daggy Beatlemania fringes; shrieking, iridescent parakeets; pink river dolphins, bubblegum-coloured porpoises that prove masterful at diving just as our cameras emerge. One afternoon, as the setting sun turns the landscape to quicksilver, we swim in a billabong with local children under less parental supervision than in The Lord of the Flies.
But the standout for me is the food. As the Aria's consultant chef, Schiaffino has been given free rein to be at his experimental best. From the welcoming glass of chilled sour cherry-like camu camu juice upon embarkation to the last dessert I eat (mouth-popping charapita chilli marshmallows), Schiaffino's unmistakable mark is everywhere. Dinner is served as a tasting menu and I can't decide which of the dishes I try during the cruise I most enjoy. Is it the tiger catfish tiradito with cashew fruit juice? The shredded hearts of palm, as light as wood shavings and resembling fettuccine? The pork tenderloin with sapote, a soft fruit that tastes like Christmas pudding?
Meals are matched by a smart list of mainly Argentinean wines. All the food is made from scratch in the Aria's kitchen - no mean feat given the isolation of the Amazon, where even the city of Iquitos, from where the Aria departs and returns, is located on an island only accessible by boat and plane.
In a part of the world infamous for poaching and illegal deforestation, Schiaffino emphasises sustainability, sourcing his fresh produce for all three of his ventures from co-operatives made up of indigenous families, while his meat comes from Iquitos markets. No endangered species are used.
After starting with Lima and the Peruvian Amazon, Schiaffino's next aim is to go pan-Amazonian. "These foods are shared by nine Amazonian countries [Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname]," he says. "They share similar flavour profiles, techniques and cultures. This for me is very powerful and could make the Amazon become a strong cuisine."
This wish might be coming true. At Sao Paulo's D.O.M. (No.4 on the world's best restaurants list) Alex Atala is now serving giant rainforest ants and obscure jungle rice varieties, while at February's prestigious event for culinary show-offs, Madrid Fusion, Venezuelan Nelson Mendez raised (and nearly singed) a few eyebrows by blow-torching a tarantula he had been given by the Yanomami people of his country's corner of the Amazon. The spider's white meat was, seriously, said to taste like chicken.
Indeed, an Amazonian foodie movement appears to be gaining momentum. Think of it as Novoamazonas.
Getting there LAN Airlines has a fare to Lima from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2640 low-season return, including tax. You fly via Auckland to Santiago, Chile (about 17hr, including transit time), then to Lima (4hr). LAN also flies direct between Sydney and Lima (16hr) three times a week. LAN flies regularly between Lima and Iquitos (1hr, 15min); see lan.com.
Touring there Melbourne-based Natural Focus Safaris offers wildlife-watching (and eating) packages to the Peruvian Amazon; see naturalfocussafaris.com.au.
Malabar, open Monday-Thursday, 12.30pm-4pm and 7.30pm-11pm, Friday and Saturday, 12.30pm-4pm and 7.30pm-midnight, Avenida Camino Real 101, San Isidro, Lima. Phone +51 1440 5200, see malabar.com.pe.
Amaz, open Monday-Saturday, 12.30pm-4pm and 7.30pm-11.30pm, Avenida La Paz 1079, Miraflores, Lima. Phone +51 1221 9393, see amaz.com.pe.
Aqua Expeditions offers three-four- or seven-night Amazon River luxury cruises aboard the MV Aria or its sister vessel, the MV Aqua; see aquaexpeditions.com.
More information See peru.travel.
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and Natural Focus Safaris