Almost everything about Peruvian cuisine is remarkable. In 2006 the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusión, that included chefs Ferrán Adriá and Thomas Keller of French Laundry, voted Lima gourmet capital of the Americas. Sure New York has great restaurants but home-grown New York Cuisine is relatively limited.
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The Economist, which is parsimonious with praise, has considered it one of the dozen best cuisines in the world. Of course Mexicans might have something to say about that after late last year UNESCO declared their nosh “an intangible cultural heritage”.
If the Peru Tourism Board website is to be believed it is also the original home of some of our basic staples, such as maize and potatoes, and other less common – to us at least – produce, such as ají chili pepper and quinoa, where Keenwa restaurant takes its name from. Others include granadilla and sweet potatoes. At least some of the origins, such as maize and potatoes, are disputed but what is not is that they all come from South America and Central America. Basically without them you’d be eating rice and bread every day.
The diversity of ingredients and dishes is also staggering, in part derived from sea, jungle and the Andes, making up five distinct food regions. This is not to mention the influence of many cultures: Spanish Colonists, indigenous Incas, Japanese settlers. Within each grain and vegetable there are also a staggering number of heirloom varieties, 35 mealies (200 according to Keenwa) and over 1 000 potatoes.* Indeed Peru and not Ireland is home to the International Potato Centre.
If you are not yet satisfied Wikipedia lists nearly 70 pisco-based cocktails alone, the most famous being pisco sour made with key lime, egg white and sugar. Pisco, the national tipple, is similar to grappa in that it is made from grape skins and stalks but also includes the flesh. There are over 30 non-pisco beverages, many of them containing no alcohol, such as chichi morada, made from cloves, cinnamon, sugar and purple mealies for colour. Others include more exotic ingredients such as bark and roots. Many can be made at home. That’s a lot more choice than Coca Cola, Pepsi and Fanta, which presumably are available there too.
Keenwa, which is located on the Fan Mile in a double-storey broekie-laced Victorian, promises home-cooked Peruvian food. The interior is a fashionable duck egg blue and brown, adorned by large touristy photographs, given an impressionist-style airbrushing of irony. They include the country’s best known tourist attraction the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and the Costa Verde, repeated on the table mats.
Bruschetta-like bread arrives with a pureed red pepper, tomato and onion dipping sauce. Peppers, be they green or ripe-red, I don’t care for but this smoky sauce with a long finish is so yummy I would like to try and recreate it at home. Are the peppers burnt to blister in the oven to cook out the sharpness?
First up is the country’s best known dish, the classic ceviche, raw fish briefly cured in lime juice and served with chillies. While this dish is not common in South Africa, when it is served it is usually as carpaccio slivers but today there are bite-sized chunks of, wait for it, the humble hake, a fish the sushi groupies would turn their up their noses up at. I reckon the lime does three things. The acid not only cures fish but also cuts fishiness and lastly gives it one of the more delicate tart flavours of citrus. The sweet potatoes on the side, a bore on their own, are a counterpoint. The dish is a success though I find there is too much chilli for me. Next time I will ask for less.
The one basic ingredient missing from the ceviche is maize. The main man, who appears to be owner German de la Melena, says he can’t find the chunky-kernel Peruvian maize required for it in Cape Town, where only the dainty sweet corn is eaten. I ask if he can’t use our own white maize, the country’s biggest crop, which is sold cooked in its leaves on the side of the road in the north and east of the country. In another sign of this province’s cultural disconnection from the rest of the country, he hasn’t come across it here either. Get that man a mealie.
The signature dish, the Ceviche Keenwa, which has no quinoa in it, is less successful. The prawns are bland and the sweet fruitiness of granadilla overpowers it. Of course it is possible that to a Peruvian this is nirvana and that they will gag at the oiliness of a Durban mutton bunny.
The causa limena, a low-rise roulade-like tower, ordered by Carthage, the designer of eatcapetown, is the best of all the dishes sampled. The unusual addition of lime to creamy mash potato is lovely combined with chopped raw tuna and hint of chilli.
Then there is the quinoa, a pulse that should only be cooked by an expert and never ever by the health freaks that believe it leads to eternal life. Unfortunately here, cooked risotto style, it is creamy but that is about all. Also strangely green on account of what I know not. Next time I will order it in a salad as the table next door do. The two little medallions of fillet perched atop are worse. Medium-rare is dry and only discernably pale pink in parts. Maybe Peruvians like their fish raw and their steak burnt, like Elvis, but that is one culinary challenge I will always chicken out of. The accompanying gooseberry jam is also too sweet for me.
The web designer’s ají de gallina, shredded chicken in a mild spicy cream, boiled potato and rice, is good but contains no flavours that will cause you to shout out: “Eureka I have never tasted anything like this in my life.”
Other temping dishes include a trio de causas salad, beetroot and tomato, spinach and tuna and chicken mayonnaise and turmeric; the tacu tacu main of beef schnitzel, fried banana, rice, and a bean reduction topped with a fried egg; and lastly locro con camarones, a prawn, butternut and potato stew.
Classic Ceviche R65, Ceviche Keenwa R70, fillet with quinoa R135. Dishes slightly altered for two course meal special over lunch with a coffee or local cool drink R80. Good value at R80.
In a flamboyant touch each toilet stall is painted in one of the bright colours of the Inca’s, from green to purple and yellow to red.
3/5 stars over two lunches. Hats of to De La Melena and Maryn van Biljon for introducing this food to us from the country that sits to the north of Chile. Let’s hope they can spread the success of their fine dishes across the entire spectrum of the menu.
Upstairs they will open a bar called Pisco. According to De La Melena this grape brandy accounts for the poor quality of Peruvian wine – the distillers buy up all the good grapes. Cocktail girls you may have to wait for the bar to open before beginning your beverage exploration.
Across the road Hemelhuijs overflows with 40-something women enjoying a weekday lunch. The food is reportedly good but surely they must have the X factor to be this busy.
* many varieties of maize and potato are not commercially available
Posted January 28, 2011