Peruvian food has been around for 500 years,” Ricardo Zarate says. “It’s ready to be exported to the world.” We’ve heard that before, of course; Peruvian cuisine always seems to be a bridesmaid at the foodie table, never the bride. But it definitely deserves attention: It’s a genuine melting pot, with Asian, African, Spanish, and native ingredients in the mix, boasting aggressive, forward flavors that surprise and delight. And if anyone is making the case in the U.S. for Peruvian food, it’s Zarate and his Los Angeles restaurant Picca.
Zarate’s ambitious, boldly flavored Peruvian dishes have made Picca hotter than an aji chile, and it’s been getting local, national, and global press. It’s a small-plates cantina, offering traditional fare like anticucho corazon (skewered grilled beef heart) and causa, a layered dish of mashed potatoes and fish salad. Traditional, but updated: Zarate puts his own spin on causa by forming the cooked potatoes into little bundles, then topping them with raw fish and serving like nigiri sushi. And, of course, ceviches: At Picca, Zarate plays masterfully with textures as well as flavors, so he may add sweet potato, dried corn, or even fried calamari to the dish’s usual elements.
Ceviche, consisting of fish chunks “cooked” in an acidic marinade, is a dish many cooks are wary of trying at home. But it can be a stunner, with “nice, bold flavors,” and the only real necessity is knowing a good fishmonger.
“I cannot say it enough: fresh, fresh, fresh fish,” says Zarate. Ask your fish seller for sashimi-quality fish, which has been deemed suitable for raw preparations: The marinade does alter the texture and color of the fish, but it doesn’t really cook it. The other absolute: “Fresh lime juice is always the best, too—never use bottled lime or lemon.”
In Picca’s signature Ceviche Criollo, Zarate marinates the fish in a Leche de Tigre—tiger’s milk—mixture of pureed fish, aromatics like garlic and ginger, lime juice, and spicy chiles. “It has good acidity and blending of flavors,” Zarate says, “but it’s always very light, so it’s good for you.”