Peru is the ultimate foodie destination. Potatoes first sprouted there on the shores of Lake Titicaca, qunioa and other hip grains grow abundantly in the Andes, and ceviche was born on the coast. Centuries of people have refined the flavors of the diverse landscape and food critics around the world are starting to take notice: since 2015, three Peruvian restaurants have jumped onto the list of the World’s 50 Best.
This summer, I got the chance to dive in explore the cuisine, hopping between Mil, chef Virgilio Martinez’s passion project, and the traditional communities that inspire it.
MIL- By Virgilio Martinez
Virgilio Martinez’s flagship restaurant, Central, is considered the best kitchen in Latin America and #6 in the world, serving a 15 high-concept courses that draw on ingredients from the country’s many ecosystems. Mil flips that concept on its head, bringing diners out into the heart of remote, subsistence farming communities to experience the Peruvian Andes’ unique ingredients in their traditional environment.
The kitchen serves up eight meditative courses that send your palate to a different corner of the mountains – one focuses on traditional preservation techniques, another on the diversity of corn, another on the unique ingredients of the altiplano. The dining room is set up simply, decorated largely with the ingredients that make up the meal and with windows that look out on the Cordillera Blanca mountains, firmly rooting diners in the distinct location. A hallway is decorated with dried stems of obscure herbs and flowers. A table has a display of native tubers, with potatoes in all shapes and sizes.
Mil is set directly on the edge of Moray, a mysterious Incan site. No one knows exactly what the concentric circles of terraces were sunk into the fields there, but the most popular hypotheses paint the ruin as an agricultural test ground. So, as you walk out of the restaurant after a three hour lunch into golden afternoon light, digesting the nuanced gastronomic art, you’re reminded that Mil is only the newest chapter in a long history of food experiments in the Andes.
I was in Peru to support National Geographic Explorer Rebecca Wolff’s research project that looks to understand the relationship between the food that Martinez serves and traditions that it’s base don. So, after we had eaten at Mil, we hiked through fields and over a hill to the neighboring community of Kaclleraccay. There, Rebecca worked on an anthropologic study of food, leaving me to take pictures and taste the local delicacies.
The Quechua people who live there are farmers, growing almost everything they eat and selling what they have left over at the weekly market in Urubamba.
Potatoes dominate most meals, whether boiled, fried or roasted in a huatia earthen oven, but the range of shapes and colors makes each one exciting when you scrape off the peel with your finger nail and dunk it in spicy garlic aji sauce. But, at special events, plates overflow with a cornucopia of flavors. At a birthday party, I ate guinae pig (deliciously crispy), turkey, beef, bread, even caviar from the coast. On Father’s Day, a Quechua woman rubbed a whole duck in garlic and roasted it over the fire. There were barley soups, roasted corn kernels the size of raspberries and roasted fava beans. Farmers and friends poured cups of sweet chichca corn beer throughout the day between field chores and after dinner.
Though the kitchens of Kaclleraccay are more humble than at Mil, the food is just as memorable.
Alec Jacobson is a photojournalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer who has worked on five continents. You can find more about his work on his website: www.
Photos by Rebecca Wolf http://www.rebecca-wolff.com