Peru - the France of South America

Whoever created this tagline (I suspect somebody from Peru's tourism department) did a good job. I've heard it on multiple occasions - at least, multiple occasions where we've had reason to be talking about Peru. So thrice. Peruvian food – delicious.

The first time was from a waitress, in a Peruvian restaurant named Pio Pio* (funny that) on Restaurant Row, a line of restaurants that lies just west of the Theatre District here in Manhattan. H1 and I didn't go out looking for Peruvian food – in fact, I don't think we would ever have thought of eating Peruvian up until that point – but a combination of poor planning and complete obliviousness to how busy Restaurant Row would be on a Saturday night pre-theatre meant it was the only place we could find that both looked nice (I'm fussy, okay?) and could seat us immediately, even if it was at uncommonly high seats in the bar area. We had a show to get to, so were excited for both seats (uncommonly high or not) and food, and very little thought went into the eating decision.

A good eating decision. Image: Pio Pio

It was therefore just luck that led us to that transcendent meal. I can still remember what I had, and it was nearly a year and a half ago. White fish, which had a name that I wasn't familiar with (had to ask the waitress what to expect) and cannot remember, on top of mashed yucca**, with assorted vegetables (okay, I only remember parts of the meal) and a wine-and-mustard sauce that was not too saucy at all, and tasted kind of like something you'd get in France, but less recognisable. It was magnificent.

The second time I heard it was from a friend who lives in South America, not long after this meal, when I was raving to her about it. "Oh, yes," she said. "Peru's like the France of South America. Their food is known for how good it is."

"Really?" I responded politely, not letting on that a waitress had got in ahead of her with this little bit of knowledge. "I can believe it!"

All that said and done, I didn't eat Peruvian again, or even think of it much, until a couple of weeks ago, when some friends invited us out to dinner at a new (ish) place opposite Madison Square Park, called La Mar Cebicheria. And wow. Just wow. I was excited for dinner anyway, remembering my last Peruvian-food-eating-experience, but this place was even better than the first. Or maybe it was just as good. Or maybe it was better, or not quite as good. I don't really know, because when I eat good food my brain stops working properly, possibly as a mechanism to ensure nothing distracts me from the eating***. And therefore, I can't tell you which was better. They were both just – wow****.

Cebiche. Image: La Mar Cebicheria

At La Mar I had seafood again - a red grouper dish with yucca (again, though this time, I couldn't taste it) and clams and vegetables, again in a white wine sauce (just this blog entry is showcasing my food ideals pretty strongly!) preceded by shared starters of prawns with mango cebiche and chicken anticuchos, which our waitress told us were a common street snack in Peru. I asked H1, as he has actually been to Peru. He looked sad and forlorn as he explained that he was in no fit state to be sampling the best of Peruvian food while he was there, being exhausted and vulnerable after months of traveling around and having had all his money stolen.

This evening, incidentally, was where I heard the Peru-France thing for the third time, from my friend whose mother had just travelled there. I laughed, explained why I laughed, and started mentally planning the holiday. Some things can't be ignored, right?

*I knew this place had a few locations, but I did not know the place called Pio Pio in my neighborhood was one of them until I looked it up just now – I assumed it to be different, as the one over west is beautiful, and the one up the road looks, from the street, like a greasy takeaway joint. I may try it - or I may ignore it until next time I happen to be both over the west side and in the mood for Peruvian. We'll see.

**I always assumed yucca (the food) to be related to yucca (the plant) but this article on Wikipedia tells me the food is different, and the confusion is down to a name mix-up. Whatever – it is delicious and if you get the chance to try it, don't pass it up. I also once had it fried, from a food truck in SF – just as fabulous as it was mashed.

***I would make a very poor food critic.