A heated but friendly discussion took place among friends who were trying to establish which Latin American country has the best food. Two of the participants immediately agreed, “without doubt, everyone knows Cuban food is the best in the world”. Then without rhyme or reason, they quickly retracted “the world” and replaced it with “the Universe” emphasizing, “There is nothing to argue about, everyone knows that”.
The discussion on Argentina was short, everyone agreed Argentina has great beef, but beef alone does not the best make. The group quickly decided that Argentinean fares are one-dimensional.
Our Mexican advocate explained that Mexico is a large country with a tremendous variety of indigenous products and different cooking methods giving it the advantage over everyone else. He commented, “Many products used throughout Latin America, such as corn, are originally from Mexico which again, shows where the essence for a lot of the area’s cuisines come from. Therefore, Mexican food is best” and so he argued.
We disagreed and went on to say that because of its diversity and exquisite taste, Peruvian cuisine is one of the best in the world and not just the best in Latin America. With its vast ocean, maze of rivers and Lake Titicaca, fish and seafood have been a staple part of the Peruvian diet since early times. Its indigenous products not only play a major part in Peruvian cuisine, but many have become an integral part of what people eat around the world.
Tomatoes and chilies are original from Peru, but migrated to Mexico where Europeans first found them and therefore the misconception as to their place of origin. Between 3700 and 3000 B.C., the Incas were already cultivating more than 300 varieties of potatoes, and as we all know, potatoes have become a major part of the staple diet for many. Even further, back in 8000 B.C. pre-Incas first domesticated certain beans. When Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador of Peru founded the city of Lima in 1535, these beans acquired the name by which we now know them, Lima Beans.
Many cooking methods originating in Peru have evolved and are still in use today. The Incas established the concept of charque or jerky, as we know it. With the need to preserve and store food indefinitely, they also materialized the concept of freeze-drying. The ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, sits in the Altiplano, a desert at high elevations where the weather is hot, dry during the day, and freezing at night. By squeezing the moisture out of the potatoes with their feet during the day, much like crushing grapes for wine, and leaving them out to dry, the potatoes froze at night and could be stored indefinitely.
The influences of different cultures throughout time have helped shape Peruvian cuisine, especially during the 19th century when immigrants from Spain, Africa, France, Italy, Japan and China added their flavors and cooking methods. This eclectic approach to traditional dishes is what Peruvian cuisine is about today.
If there is a Peruvian national dish, it must be ceviche. Sort of like sashimi, only better. During pre-Hispanic times, coastal inhabitants ate their fish macerated in chicha, a fermented drink made from maize. As enhanced by the Spaniards, today’s ceviche is bite size pieces of very fresh white fish (firm so that it will not disintegrate in the limejuice) like snapper or corvina tossed with thinly sliced red onions and limejuice. Many variations have evolved, such as tiraditos, where the fish filet is thinly sliced, flattened and does not include onions. Other recipes use shrimp or other seafood instead of fish, as well as the use of cilantro, celery, red or yellow peppers.
In the United States, Chef Douglas Rodriguez has done more to raise ceviche awareness than anyone else has. Known as the Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine, he should also be known as Ceviche’s Ambassador At-Large, for no other person in this country has made more people aware of this wonderful dish. With his The Great Ceviche Book, the many restaurants he has been involved with througout the country where ceviches are an integral part of the menus and the many more he has created, no one else comes close.
Not long ago I tried what Chef Rodriguez called the Laughing Bird Shrimp Ceviche. This is an incredible dish, one of the most flavorful we have ever tried. His use of chiplote adobo adds a smokey dimension that makes it unique. This is just one of his many exciting creations. A visit to de Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean restaurant at the Hilton Bentley Hotel, 101 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach will give you the opportunity to try many of his interpretations of this traditional dish. It will also show his unique understanding of the diversity he has found in ceviches and is willing to share with us.
Much to the dismay of our friends, it became obvious that Peru has the best food in Latin America.