It is with some trepidation that I join a cooking class in Lima, Peru. The last time I did one was at a swanky five-star hotel in Bangkok, where I managed to give myself food poisoning. In that case, the offending dish was a prawn curry, so I figure as long as I steer clear of seafood, I'll be fine.
Today's culinary adventure starts with a tour of Surquillo market, one of about 1000 food markets sprinkled throughout Lima. Christian from SkyKitchen guides us through the warren of stalls, pointing out the wide range of corn, chillies and exotic fruits that are integral to the country's cuisine. It's a good introduction to the astonishing variety of produce available to Peruvian chefs and helps explain why Lima has become such a gourmet hot spot (it currently has two eateries in the top 10 of The World's 50 Best Restaurants).
Back at SkyKitchen's colourful premises in the upmarket district of Miraflores, Christian hands us over to Diana who takes us on a whirlwind tasting of more than 30 exotic fruits – everything from an unexpectedly sweet "biscuit" banana to a sour, wince-inducing Amazonian cocona tomato. Then it's down to the serious business of preparing a three-course lunch of Peruvian classics, which I'm alarmed to discover will start with my nemesis – seafood. Ceviche, to be precise.
We're each given an apron and a chopping board and Diana guides us through the process of cutting the raw fish into chunks and marinating it in lime juice until it turns white, indicating it's cooked. Needless to say, I marinate mine for five times longer than everyone else. Then we add fish stock, chilli, garlic, coriander, onion and a splash of evaporated milk, pop it on a plate and serve it with potato slices and corn. Amazingly, the result is comparable with ceviche I've sampled in high-end restaurants. More importantly, I'm still upright and stomach-cramp free an hour later.
Before tackling the main course, we whip up a round of Peru's signature cocktail, the pisco sour. After just a few sips of this potent combination of pisco (fermented grape juice), lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white, I can feel my cooking skills improve exponentially.
The main event is another Peruvian staple – a Chinese-influenced stir-fry called lomo saltado. After frying strips of beef tenderloin with onion and tomatoes, we add vinegar, red wine and soy sauce, then serve it with fried potatoes and rice. Again, it's delicious – rich, flavoursome and hearty. I take another large gulp of pisco sour. This cooking lark is a doddle.
Of course, the real hero here is Diana, who displays saint-like levels of patience and good humour. Not only does she successfully co-ordinate a large group of pisco sour-fuelled amateur chefs, but she also peppers her tuition with tips and interesting historical insights.
We finish with picarones (Peruvian doughnuts), which we make from scratch by mixing flour with boiled squash and sweet potato. After a quick flash in a deep fryer, they're served hot and doused in a sticky-sweet molasses sauce.
All in all, it's some of the most fun I've ever had in a kitchen. And I have every intention of recreating the feast at home using the recipes Diana thoughtfully emails us afterwards. So far, I've only managed the pisco sour. But I'm getting rather good at it.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Peru Tourism, Chimu Adventures and the Adventure Travel Trade Association .
LATAM flies to Lima five times a week from Melbourne via Santiago and daily from Sydney, via Auckland and Santiago. See latam.com
Located in the bohemian district of Barranco, Casa Republica is a stylish 22-room boutique hotel in a beautifully refurbished 1916 mansion. See casarepublica.com
SkyKitchen offers a range of cooking classes, with optional fruit tastings and market tours, starting from $US70 a person. See skykitchen.pe
Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Peru itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. See chimuadventures.com