Peruvian cuisine has so much more to offer us

Peru, that’s it. The culinary visionaries already called it over five years ago. And they were right. What self-respecting, topical restaurant hasn’t served ceviche in recent years? However, the advance of Peruvian cuisine has somewhat stalled there. A shame, because that cuisine is much more than raw fish in lime juice.

Peru is a diverse country. It is the home of the potato and all kinds of other tubers that grow high in the Andes, as well as quinoa. It has a piece of Amazon forest in the north and desert in the south and a long coastline. Peruvian cuisine is a melting pot of these diverse ecosystems. But also from different cultures. First of all, that lime – the unofficial national symbol – was introduced by the Spaniards. Later, Chinese labor immigrants in the eighteenth century and Japanese in the nineteenth century greatly enriched the kitchen. The real classic lomo saltado for example – stir-fried beef strips with soy sauce, tomato and onion – is an adaptation of a Chinese wok dish. And from the sashimi-loving Japanese, the Peruvians learned not to leave the raw fish in the pickle for too long.

Of course, the menu at Nazka opens with a ceviche – you should never deny the classics. But this new place in the Amsterdam Pijp mainly serves modern Peruvian, casual fine dining as you might find in a better neighborhood in Lima – a premier international gastronomic destination with a young, vibrant restaurant culture.

The atmosphere is nice. The tent is not overly decorated. One wall is painted by a Peruvian artist. The playlist is a mix between more traditional South American music and Spanish-language pop. Half of the staff speaks English with a nice accent. They are passionate and temperamental. The maître initially receives us somewhat formally: jacket, table, have you been able to make a choice? We order a cocktail, a classic one Chilcano (with pisco and ginger ale) and a purple brew with chocolate bitters and chicha morada. I ask: what is that? Answer: This is a traditional purple corn soft drink, often with spices, sometimes with quince.

Ah so, I continue, do you make it yourself or do you just buy it in a can? “Do we make that ourselves?” The maître promptly grows ten centimeters taller, chest out: “That purple corn is flown in from Peru especially for us!” With visible pleasure he heads for the kitchen. We immediately get to taste the latest batch, which was still cooling, both unsweetened and sweetened. He doesn’t just do that because I have a notebook next to me on the couch – they are far too proud for that. The Italian sommelier is also directly at the table with two bottoms of red wine. Just, let’s taste it, because he likes it so much that he found a red wine to serve with an oyster. The St. Magdalener is indeed a good match, albeit more with the garnishes.

Creamy smoked yogurt

In the kitchen is an ambitious, young chef – also flown in directly from Lima. He cooks modern and international, laced with Peruvian flavors and ingredients. The only really classic dish, as mentioned, is the ceviche. And it beats like a charm. Fresh sea bass, not too small, not too long in the pickle. The right garnishes: sweet potato and those typical large corn kernels. A bittersweet sour Tiger milkseasoned with the herbs and trimmings from the fish, so that all the flavors are well incorporated.

What I would immediately want to go back for tomorrow are the Iberico pork fingers and the aubergine. The tender pieces of Spanish pork, first slowly cooked, then briefly fried, are in a robust, aromatic sauce of ginger, miso and jalapeño. A dosed raw kick with the sweet pork. With a little tacky edge of those red dots of strawberry sauce with rocoto pepper. The aubergines are dried and fried in tapioca flour: soft through and through, fleshy and sweet on the inside with a thin crunchy edge; coated with a bbq glass with aji panca, a fleshy and fruity Peruvian chili pepper; underneath a quenching creamy smoked yogurt. It is very refined comfort food.

The main courses are slightly less exciting, but still very pleasant to eat. The mushroom quinotto – a quinoa risotto – is well flavored and nicely dressed with a fatty egg yolk with saffron, spicy togarishi (Japanese spice mixture) and umami-rich black olives. The octopus is nicely prepared. Cleverly conceived to enrich the lamb gravy with huacatay, also known as Peruvian black mint. That indeed has a minty taste, but also notes of citrus, coriander and in the distance some bay leaf. A nice variation on the classic lamb-mint combination.

You may wonder whether you should serve green asparagus (with the quinotto) or fresh strawberries (in dessert) at this time of year. But my main quibble is that the menu is rather sweet across the board. That’s in the sauces and in the ‘crisps’ that come back a few times – it’s a kind of thin meringue based on milk and sugar. That’s going to be a bit of a struggle at some point.

In a city where a new restaurant is opened all the time, Nazka is definitely an asset. Where you can get acquainted with new flavors and ingredients and also drink a decent glass of wine. And where – if you ask the right questions – you can experience a swinging, South American evening out for dinner.