Take stunning water views, a passionate Peruvian chef and fresh produce and you have a recipe for culinary success.
Peru’s rich cultural history – blending Spanish, African, Japanese, Italian, French and Incan traditions – has long inspired the country’s diverse and highly-praised cuisine. Next month, Sydney diners have the opportunity to experience the culinary delight of local Australian produce combined with traditional Peruvian ingredients and cooking techniques during A Taste of PERú.
The project, which will take place at Spitlers Waterfront Restaurant in Mosman, NSW, is being guided by Peruvian-born chef Alejandro Saravia. “We Peruvians are really proud of our food,” he says, “We love our food. We often share it over big tables with family and friends. We have these long, long meals. This is the concept that I want to share with Australians for A Taste of PERú.”
Saravia’s self-described “modern approach” to Peruvian fare is a product of his desire to not challenge diners too much when introducing them to new food. “Peruvians have a different appreciation of food, in terms of hotness, flavours and spices, than other parts of the world, including Australia. Every country has their own palette,” he explains.
As a result, Saravia has spent many hours in the kitchen tailoring his recipes to the Australian palette. Each course will also be matched with Australian wines. However, Peruvian classics like pisco (liquor), lima bean causa and ceviche will no doubt feature on the menu. “For those unfamiliar with ceviche, the dish is raw fish marinated in
lime juice and a Peruvian chilli called aji. This chilli is more about
flavour, colour and aroma than hotness,” he says.
Ceviche is one of Saravia’s favourite dishes to prepare and Peru’s answer to the Australian or Argentinean barbeque. “When you’re at work on a Friday and you want to mark the end of the week with co-workers, you have a ceviche. If you want to celebrate a birthday or one of your friends is getting married, you have a ceviche,” Saravia explains.
While Saravia describes A Taste of PERú’s menu as “haute cuisine”, his food philosophy is simple, focusing on quality ingredients: “You can have foam, you can have reductions, you can have gold on the plate, but if you don’t have the best ingredients you can find at the market, or the catch of the day, your food isn’t going to be as beautiful as it could be,” he says.
Arriving in Australia two years ago, Saravia was, and still is, impressed with the quality of fresh produce on offer in the country: “Australia is really lucky to have this variety of fish and seafood and it has such a good quality of fresh ingredients,” he says. For A Taste of PERú, Saravia will only import aji, wakatai (black mint), purple corn flour, quinoa and lucuma (eggfruit), with the help of Olive Green Organics and Loving Earth – the latter being a fair trade company.
So what are the differences between Peruvian cuisine and other types of South American food? Saravia says South Americans are gastronomically connected because ingredients are mostly the same in each country. “But the method and the way we interpret the food varies. For example, in Colombia you have arepa [bread made from cornmeal], in Equador you have another type of ceviche that uses tomato juice and in Brazil you have a fish dish called moqueca [seafood stew],” he points out.
There are even variations on caramel. “In Peru we have manjar blanco, but in Argentina it is called dulce de leche. The difference between these caramels is the method. The dulce de leche is cooked longer than the manjar blanco, which is creamier and softer, but in the end they have similar flavours,” he says.
Eating Peruvian fare not only becomes a lesson in the country’s melting pot of cultures, it also becomes a lesson in its early history. “The Incas were the ones who started growing the quinoa, the potatoes and the corn, and started eating the alpaca meat. They already knew about curing meat and cooking it underground in clay pots. They developed many important cooking techniques. On the coast they used a lot of aji and salt, that’s how the ceviche started. Lime was added when the Spanish came,” he says.
At the age of 15, Saravia made the decision to become a chef: “I was cooking for my family and friends and I even I had my own signature tomato sauce,” he recalls. But a resounding “no” from his father when informed of his son’s career choice meant cooking took a back seat. Instead, he obtained his marketing degree and landed a job as a brand manager. “One day I decided I wasn’t living the life I wanted. I wasn’t happy. I was always thinking about food. So I decided to follow my heart and get back to cooking,” he says.
Saravia worked as a chef in the United States and across Europe before moving to Australia. He saw the country as a place where he could easily present his brand of cooking: “Australia seemed like such an open country for new things. I didn’t think that Peruvian cuisine had been offered in the way that I would have liked to offer it, and I took this as an opportunity to share my ideas.”
A taste of PERú hopes to enhance guest’s overall dining experience by showcasing some of Peru’s musical talent: “We’re going to have Afro-Peruvian music to get the mood happening. Like the food, the music isn’t too traditional, but it doesn’t lose its Peruvian roots either,” he says.
A Taste of PERú Recipe: Quinoa and Yabby Risotto on a Green Sauce
A taste of PERú
When: April 2, 9, 17 and 24, 2009
Where: Spitlers Waterfront Restaurant – d’Albora Marinas, The Spit (Spit Bridge), Mosman NSW
Phone: +61 420 553 960 – guests to be seated between 6:30-8:00pm
Cost: $115 per person (degustation only) or $135 per person (degustation matched with Australian wines).