Peruvian food is getting hot in the food world: Two restaurants in Lima made it into the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list this year, one of them serving Peking duck-style guinea pig. In the United States, Ricardo Zarate has been making waves in L.A.
Traditionally rustic, Peruvian cuisine puts indigenous staples like potatoes, corn, quinoa, and chile peppers to use in substantial dishes with big flavors. But it's far more than a simple mix of Spanish and native Incan food: The cuisine has been influenced over the centuries by the country's diverse immigrant populations, from Italian and German to Chinese and Japanese.
Zarate's Peruvian cooking has caused a major stir in the Los Angeles food scene, in part because he brings an extensive history of Japanese cooking to bear on Peruvian food. He worked for 12 years at Zuma in London and Wabi Sabi in Los Angeles, and the influences turn up in technique and presentation. Causa, for instance, which is Peruvian mashed potatoes layered with fish salad, becomes a playful twist on nigiri sushi at Picca, Zarate's small-plates restaurant, with tidy potato rectangles standing in for rice. Lomo saltado, a meat-and-potatoes Peruvian classic with Asian influences, is a year-round favorite at Mo-chica.
"I feel very strongly that food is history, a connection to the past," Zarate says.
Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, considered one of the country's most influential judges of global cooking, praises Zarate's new-meets-old approach.
"Picca marries traditional Peruvian dishes—tiradito, anticuchos, seviche, causa—with California ingredients, squirt-bottle presentation, and the ubiquitous small-plates thing that pairs so well with cocktails.
"He has introduced a lot of new tastes to local cooking, notably panca, rocoto, and amarillo chiles, and the huacatay herb. His introduction of the Amazonian fish paiche, an aquacultural attempt to save a severely endangered species, is heartening."
The firm yet buttery fish served as the namesake for his newest restaurant, a Peruvian seafood concept. Next up for Zarate: fast-food Peruvian rotisserie chicken, opening in L.A. next year. Also, a possible expansion into Chicago. The savvy and ambitious Zarate is clearly determined, one way or another, to make America hungry for Peruvian.