Livin' la Lima Loca
I've probably given about 30 seconds' thought to Peruvian food in the past ten years. The culinary wonders of the Andes were totally off my radar. Yeah, I knew the little coastal country had thousands of genetically diverse varieties of ancient potatoes and corn. But spuds and maize do not a world-class cuisine make. Especially since the Peruvians apparently never heard of butter.
Then two things happened. I acquired a friend who wouldn't shut up about ceviche. "Just looking at you makes me hungry," he said one time. "I sure could go for a big bowl of ceviche."
I was reminded of the old cartoons where the hungry dog would stare at, say, somebody's big toe, and it would morph into a juicy hotdog. Whenever this guy saw me, I guessed, I turned into a tall glass of pickled shrimp with lime and cilantro. So I started looking around for places that made ceviche. And that, of course, led me straight to the people who invented the stuff.
The second thing: I read Calvin Trillin's funny story about his trip to Peru and Ecuador with Douglas Rodriguez and Rodriguez's ceviche chef. The tale involved a boisterous trek through every ceviche shack along the Pan American Highway and beyond, and I suddenly remembered the first time I ever ate marinated raw fish. I was 19 and on a boat, and somebody had just hauled up some grouper. They cut it up and put the chunks of white meat in a jar with lime and peppers and left it for three quarters of an hour while we drank margaritas. Then they passed around the jar, and when it got to me, it had to be forcibly taken away. That raw fish, which had "cooked" ever so slightly in the lime juice, was the most delicious food I had ever tasted.
How did I lose track of ceviche over the years? It must have been all that sushi I was eating. Occasionally, some trendy restaurant would serve me a martini glass filled with tuna or shellfish that had marinated for so long that it had disintegrated and simultaneously absorbed the bitter taste of lime pith, a concoction I privately called cev-ouch-ay.
Meanwhile, a revolution was going on in Peruvian cooking thanks to a few chefs, including Gastón Acurio, who had fled the country during the Shining Path troubles and gone to European cooking schools. After things settled back down, they went home to Lima and applied their cordon bleu skills to the traditional recipes and ingredients of their compatriots: anything from the sea, including black clams and scallops, squid, octopi, and langoustines; river trout; all those varieties of potato and corn; sweet-hot aji peppers; many kinds of beans; and dozens of exotic fruits. They drew on all of the influences that had pervaded Peruvian cooking for hundreds of years: the criollo spices and peanuts of African slaves who worked the coastal plantations, the taste for raw fish the Japanese had imported, Cantonese fried rice, pesto and pastas of the Italians, and, of course, the cooking tricks of the Spaniards and Basques. In the process, the traditional peasant cooking of the Andean people was rediscovered and celebrated. And little by little over the past decade, Peruvian restaurants started opening around the United States.
Including in South Florida. When we find ourselves craving potatoes with huancaína sauce, we can pretty much close our eyes, spin in any direction, and find a Peruvian place within driving distance. Las Totoritas, in Pembroke Pines, is the 15-year-old daddy of them all (owner Gary Gordillo has two other branches in Miami; it's named for a favorite Peruvian beach). We also have three iterations of Cabo Blanco, serving Peruvian and Cuban, including one on Cypress Creek Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Gran Chimu has opened in Davie, Inca Grill and Ceviche House in Boca Raton, and, farther south, the gourmet-Peruvian Francesco in Coral Gables and Douglas Rodriguez's Nuevo-Latino Ola on South Beach.
The first time we showed up at Las Totoritas, there was a raucous birthday party going on accompanied by a guitarist blowing a set of Peruvian pipes. We found a seat and looked around: oil paintings of archangels, rustic wooden ceiling, tile floors, paper napkins. Nobody at Las Totoritas speaks much English, and we had no clue about half the stuff on the menu. What, we wondered, was a veal herat kabob? Who could decode "tacu-tacu" or explain why we would want to drink a glass of "ceviche juice"? As for "deep fried seafood" or "fish fillet with garlic," the descriptions seemed willfully oblique.
Not that it mattered. Over the course of two visits, we figured out the shorthand. A gigantic bowl of parihuela ($9.85), a fish and seafood goombay stew, would have worked as a display at the science museum. Goombay is gumbo, and this one employed the familiar brown roux as a base, to which the cook had added a lineup of marine animals to make a Louisiana Cajun blush with shame: shrimp in three sizes: tiny as baby fingernails, medium, and one large, with the head on and guts in for extra richness. Three sizes of calamari: rings big as a bracelet, pasta-like tubes, tiny tentacles. Octopi. Chunks of corvina. Snails. Scallops. A whole fire-engine-red crawfish. Tossed in a pepper-infused broth with handfuls of cilantro, a squeeze of lime over the bowl, it made a fine meal indeed: layers and layers of flavor — some strange, some homey — that wouldn't quit. We ate this with the queen of French fries: fat, crunchy yucca strips ($3.95) dipped in huancaína sauce made from farm cheese, evaporated milk, and yellow aji peppers. The sauce, also good with cold boiled potatoes, has the texture of a slightly grainy mayonnaise and suits the sweet fries perfectly.
Veal "herat" ($6.45) wasn't anything more exotic than a misprint. For this traditional street food, beef hearts are sliced very thin, marinated, spiced with ground peppers, and grilled on a skewer over an open flame. They're fantastic, gently curled slivers with a smoky, sexy flavor.
Of the varied ceviches (the Peruvians say "cebiche" or "escabeche") at Totoritas, we sampled leche de tigre (ceviche juice, $3.15), another made entirely of shrimp ($10.45), and a cebiche mixto ($9.45). You can order these mild to hot, and if you tell them you like it extra hot, they'll bring two sauce bowls: a green salsa made from jalapeños and another from fiery, bright-red ajis. Peruvians don't usually eat ceviche for dinner — it's a lunch or even a breakfast meal. Leche de tigre, fish chunks with lots of sour-hot juice served in a tall glass, is supposed to cure a hangover (particularly with a shot of vodka in it) and enhance the libido. I can vouch that what was left of my cebiche mixto made a deliciously aphrodisiac breakfast the next day.
Eating ceviche is like taking a shot to the head. This isn't a subtle dish, and for me, it's as much about texture as flavor. Lime, cilantro, finely diced aji peppers, and slivers of red onion, although completely addictive, are all in the high, sharp range. The Peruvians cut through the acids by serving a creamy, cold slice of sweet potato alongside and a bit of cold corn on the cob flavored with fennel; the mild, sweet tones of the vegetables soothe rough edges. At Totoritas, ceviche comes with salted, pan-toasted corn kernels (chulpa), adding nutty crunch to the chewy shellfish.
I don't think I'm exaggerating to say this is one of the world's most perfect foods; eat it twice in a row and you'll find yourself craving it with a surprising violence. I finally get my friend's obsession.
Heavier comfort foods include pastas, rice dishes, and stir-fried meats. Eating at Totoritas is like taking a trip through a magical takeout land. From Lima's Chinatown come the chaufas, fried-rice with shrimp ($10.45), steak, or chicken, seasoned with finely diced green onions, red peppers, soy sauce, and ginger. It's a mountain good for three meals. Tacu-tacu is a fried cake made with white beans and rice, mashed well with a creamy aji salsa and shaped into a fat, fabulous, omelet-like snack. We had ours with lomo saltado ($9.45) — thinly sliced and seared beef tenderloin with sautéed onions, red peppers, and French fries soaking up the thick, meaty gravy. Heavenly. Picante mariscos bathed shrimp and chunks of white fish in a light, spicy tomato sauce ($10.45).
Any one of these dishes, from soup to ceviche to chaufa, is more than enough food to assuage the grossest appetite. Our petite, polite waitress, deep-brown eyes round as saucers, must have thought we were insane. No Peruvian would eat such a strange assortment at one sitting, but we had to try it all. Including three amazing desserts (a suspiro limeño cream pudding, named for the delicacy of a woman's sigh; a tart-sweet, almost buttery bavarois made with the juice of the lúcuma fruit native to Peru; and an amazing alfajore, two crumbly cookies sandwiching a center of manjar blanco, the Peruvian take on dulce de leche). These were $2.50 apiece. And, forgoing the beer and sangria and the reasonably priced bottles of Peruvian wine, we drank many glasses of the supersweet chicha morada, a juice made from purple maize and chopped fruit.
With its range of internationally inspired cuisines, Peruvian cooking, it seems, has out-sushi'd the Japanese, improved on Chinese classics, and even given N'Awlins a run for its money with its Creole seafood stews. My only regret is I didn't get to it sooner. Seems to me a body could eat a lot of pickled fish in one lifetime and then die happy.
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