Food with altitude.
“… and on top you have cushuro. Cushuro are healthy, edible bacteria.”
I shouldn’t be so dumbfounded at the thought that I am actually eating bacteria. Bacteria lives in us, with us and all around us since the day we were born. Just the fact that most bacteria I’ve consumed from yoghurt or from the air we breathe in are usually too small to be seen without a microscope, but being served with a plate of bacteria the size of a pea on a bed of potato puree sure rank high on my “the most unusual food I’ve eaten” list.
I just knew that this meal that I am going to experience here at Central in Lima, Peru will add a whole new chapter to my view in food philosophy.
My recent trip to Peru has been a foodie’s dream come true. Whilst the world has only just started paying attention to Peru as the next culinary destination, this country has always been a culinary heaven rich with high quality ingredients that are ready to be discovered. Within the last four years, two restaurants in Lima, Peru had been named The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Astrid y Gastón sits at No. 18, and Central at No. 15, a steep jump from No.50 the previous year. So it is a great privilege to have the opportunity dining at one of the most celebrated restaurants in Peru.
Whether is a cult thing or not, somehow I’ve noticed some of the well acclaimed or michelin-starred restaurants have one thing in common – they all have an inconspicuous entrance, usually with no signage but just a house number; Alinea in Chicago was one, and now here at Central.
The restaurant itself is unadulterated simple, an L-shape dining space is draped with fifty shades of grey in ash slate tiles and charcoal fabric seating. A glass tank at the back of the restaurant is the kitchen where the magic happens. Our group table is set up right next to it which offers us a full view of all the action in the kitchen. There is also a bar area and a private dining room on second floor.
You know how sometimes it can be quite intimidating walking into a fine dining restaurant where it is totally silence, it is so quiet that you can almost hear the pin drop? Well, it is definitely not the case here. There is a great vibe in the casual setting, everyone seems relaxed and enjoying themselves and you definitely need to raise your voice a few notches to hold a conversation.
Chef Virgilio Martinez is the brainchild behind Central. A heart throb and a former pro skateboarder, this rising star chef has quite an impressive resume, from cooking in Santi Santamaria’s acclaimed Catalan kitchen at El Raco de Can Fabe to became the head chef at Gastón Acurio’s lauded Astrid Y Gastón in Madrid. He then came home to Lima and opened Central in 2008, followed by LIMA London, first Peruvian restaurant in London awarded with Michelin Star.
Tonight is our lucky night, Virgilio has actually just flown into the country this morning from a food conference in Europe and we get to catch up with him this evening. Virgilio is passionate about showcasing what Peru has to offer but in a modern contemporary way. The uniquely diverse landscape in Peru is Virgilio’s playground. The ecological system fluctuates as dramatically as the Andean terrain, a bounty of produce can be sourced from various altitudes ranging from the coast to the mountain, 4,200 metres above sea level – and all within the 100 kilometres radius. Virgilio and a group of researchers have formed Mater Iniciativa, they travel from below sea level to extreme high altitude, with the mission to study and investigate ingredients that can bring undocumented and yet even more wealth to the local cuisine. All Virgilio’s discoveries are then turned into ideas and concepts, all written on the whiteboard in the kitchen.
They only offer two tasting menus (commonly known as degustation) here at Central – ‘Mater Elevations‘, a 17 courses gastronomical roller coaster ride through the high and low altitudes of Peru, features a sea level in meters for each course. And ‘Corto Central’ is a shorter version of the former with only 11 courses. To be honest, I won’t even try to be clever and describe the food since most of the components on each course are alien to me. Everything is a new discovery, I just feel like a kid in a candy store trying all the new flavours and textures.
Course 1 – Paita Expedition
The first course started at 25 metres below sea level in the ocean. A chilled soup of Frogfish with deepwater algae. I just googled what a frogfish is, what an odd looking thing. It is a nice refreshing ceviche.
Course 2 – Orchard of Mala
Second course a combo of Cactus milk and Retama petals, all sourced around 290 metres sea level.
Course 3 – Dry Andes
We are heading up to 3900 metres above sea level for the third course, these little grey pebbles are actually dry ocas (a type of potato) coated in chaco clay which supposedly has health benefits. It is a little icy cold granita that just melts in the mouth.
Course 4 – The Ten-Mile Fish
We are back in the ocean at 5 metres below sea level, there is raw calamari with sargassum which is a type of long brown tube seaweed that looks like snakes, and also barquillo wafers.
Course 5 – Diversity of Corn
This next dish features three different type of maize all sourced around 1800 metres above sea level. The corn varieties are Choclo, Kculli, and San Geronimo which were cleverly turned into a morsel full of textures and flavours. I love even the corn silk were used in the dish.
Course 6 – High Jungle
The high jungle brings us to 1250 metres above sea level, it is a duck dish, the smokiness of the duck parfait is beautifully balance with sweetness of yacon, also known as jicama.
Course 7 – Dead Amazon
I particularly love this dish. We can smell the scent of coca leaf as the waitstaff brings out a coca leaf bread roll sitting on a bed of torched coca leaves, that’s where the aroma comes from. The bread is served with two types of spread – the ‘black’ butter is black ink extracted from ungurahui fruit, which also was used for face paintings in the ancient world, the ‘white’ butter is pure cocoa butter. I definitely prefer the black butter over the white one.
The Dead Amazon continues with a box of crackers made from different ingredients. The black crackers are made from the same Ungurahui fruit, the tanned crackers are cacao and coffee and the deep maroon crackers are made from Achiote, a common ingredient for the Maya people in Mexico as well.
Course 8 – Rock of the sea
At 6 metres below sea level, the beautifully presented course is raw clam and vibrant sweet lemon curd encased inside an ethereal light meringue.
Course 9 – Cold Cultivation
We dive deeper to 10 metres below sea level for fresh scallops, served with loche squash and tumbo, a type of fruit that is very similar to passionfruit.
Course 10 – Valley between the Andes
We are back up high to 2875 metres above sea level, here we have avocado, a green sauce made from tree tomato and also the avocado leaf, and dots of kiwicha, which is from the amaranth family, and a red dust of dehydrated beetroot.
Course 11 – Octopus in the desert
With a funny name, all ingredients sourced at ground level. The grilled tentacles of octopus is served with red sauce of Airampo, a prickly purple pear. And the side dish is a soup made from octopus and also the Airampo, served with cracker made from purple corn and onion.
Course 12 – Extreme Altitude
These are no ordinary bacteria, Cushuro is a type of bacteria that can only be found high in the Andes mountains, 4,200 metres above sea level. Each little pearl is high in protein and filled with chlorophyll, hence the greenish colour. It doesn’t really have much flavour but a subtle saltiness to it, served with Isco potato mash and wafer made from Tunta, an air-dried potato.
Course 13 – Mountain Beef
The final savoury dish is beef from the mountain at 2750 metres above sea level. The slow braised mountain beef is served with a shave of air dried ox heart, shards of wafer made from cow’s milk, and also Kaniwa, a super nutritious seed. The waitstaff also brought out the whole air dried ox heart to show us. We’ve been told that the mountain beef’s heart has to work harder in the high altitude, hence the heart is usually bigger in size compare to normal cows on the ground level.
Before dessert, I specially requested to try some beer made from quinoa. The quinoa beer actually taste pretty good, surprisingly malty like a amber ale.
Course 14 – Arid Forest
First dessert course is rich chocolate dessert but made with algarrobo, which also commonly known as carob, paired with a striking orange sorbet made from Mamey, a native fruit. There is also some Palo Blanco Cacao to enhance the richness. Everything sourced within 85 metres above sea level.
Course 15 – Coca Leaf environment
The story behind this dish is the Peruvian government encouraged a diverse environment for those who want to grow coca leaves, and usually all these ingredients can be found within the plantation at 1750 metres above sea level. A coffee dessert with creamy custard made from Chirimoya, a fruit like the custard apple, with a sprinkle of green minty powder from the Muna Mint leaves.
Course 16 – Barks and Resins – Jungle
Course 17 – Theobromas solar infusion
We finally conclude our meal with some petite fours and an digestif. The ‘resins’ consists of cacao chocolate balls, and jelly made from Huampo, is a type of tree where they boiled to get the jelly. The ‘barks’ are shards of chocolate with chia seeds and sachapapa potato.
The digestif is a concoction of cacao and some herbs, left to infuse outside naturally by “sunlight” for 24 hours then sweetened with stevia.
You sure need an open mind to dine at Central where your tastebuds will be tantalised by its innovative use of unique techniques and ingredients, where many of which had all but disappeared from Peru’s modern culinary language. It was definitely one of the best dining experiences I’ve had to date.
Calle Santa Isabel 376
Miraflores, 18 Lima, Peru
Phone: +51 1 242-8515
Dining room hours of operation:
Lunch: Mon – Fri from 12:45 pm to 3:15 pm.
Dinner: Mon – Wed from 7:45 pm to 11:15 pm / Thur – Sat from 7:45 pm to 11:45pm.
Related post – A feast in Lima, Peru – Part 1