Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia arrived in Australia on New Year’s Eve 2006 with nothing but a suitcase and a dream (and probably a few other things).
Eight years later he lives in Australia full time, heading up one of Melbourne’s hottest international-inspired eateries, Peruvian flavoured Pastuso. Growing up in Peru himself, he draws inspiration from the ingredients of his homeland and a few of his grandmother’s traditional recipes.
We sat down with Alejandro to talk all things Peru and delicious.
Peru is fast gaining a global reputation as one of the world’s hottest culinary destinations. What makes Peru such an exciting place to eat?
The numerous regions, diversity of ingredients and various cultural influences all make Peru a special melting pot of flavours and surprises. Peru’s coast smells like the sea, with a Pacific Ocean rich in fresh fish, Aji Amarillo peppers (Peruvian yellow chili), citrus from our limes, cinnamon and cloves and the grapes in a traditional Pisco. The Andean sierras smell like the earth, like wet soil with potatoes and root vegetables, like a mountain full of strong green vegetables like corn and wild animals like vicuñas and alpacas.
For those who may not be familiar with Peruvian food, what are some of the more ‘unexpected’ Peruvian flavour combinations?
Peru has always welcomed and embraced influences from other cultures, other cuisines. The Chinese migrants of 19th century Peru found work as laborers, but after a short time, they began setting up grocery stores and restaurants. When they wanted to eat at the Chinese restaurants near Lima’s main market back then, they would use a Chinese expression, “chi fan”, which means “eating rice”. In no time at all, Peruvians began to associate that phrase with Chinese restaurants, which is why they are now known as “chifas”. Similarly, Japanese food with a Peruvian bent is now called Nikkei, and Lima has a good number of these restaurants where sushi chefs are experimenting with Peruvian ingredients and styles. Take the case of pulpo al olivo (octopus in olive cream sauce), a creation of Japanese descendants who took octopi, sliced them thinly, and covered them with a rich cream sauce flavored with black olives.
What’s the best way to spend a lazy afternoon in Lima?
Afternoons are amazing in Lima. I think one of the things that I really miss are the sunsets, so for the best afternoon in Lima I would recommend going to a terrace bar next to El Puente de los Suspiros in the Barranco district. Order a Pisco Sour or a Capitan (both traditional Pisco aperitifs) and enjoy a beautiful sunset overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
What is your favourite food market in Peru and what are some of the smells, sights and flavours people might experience there?
My favourite food market in Peru is El Mercado Central – the central market. Here you can find absolutely every single ingredient that grows in Peru. I love how well organised it is, without taking away that rustic vibe of a classic South American market.
What are the quintessential Peruvian ingredients you could not live without, and why?
Peru is well established in the food world as potato country, producing more than 5,000 varieties. But Peru is more than that. Peru produces an incredible diversity of ingredients: ajies (Peruvian chilies), citrus fruits, fish and seafood, grains such as quinoa and herbs including coca leaves and huacatay (black mint).
For me, if I had to choose, I will probably take with me a handful of quinoa, a few potatoes, aji amarillo, a nice fresh fish and a lot of aromatic herbs, to create the sort of food I enjoyed as a kid.
You are now based in Melbourne, where you have established a super successful Peruvian restaurant, Pastuso. What are some of the most popular drinks/dishes from your homeland that have captured the Australian palate?
With out a doubt I have to say anticuchos. In Peru, these are traditionally skewers made from beef heart, and you find these babies being grilled by Afro-Peruvian women around cities like Lima and Cuzco. The marinade is made from a combination of vinegars and roasted Peruvian chilies. It’s a must for everyone that enjoys being adventurous and appreciating traditional street food. We served anticuchos at Pastuso made from swordfish and beef loin and people are loving them.
You have travelled on Intrepid’s Real Food Adventure Peru. For you, what makes this trip so special?
Intrepid’s Real Food Adventure Peru gave me the opportunity to explore some real hidden gems my own country and to appreciate how much it has to offer. On this trip, you have time to live your own personal adventure and also to share some amazing food experiences with the group.
Feature image c/o acifuent, Flickr