Recreating Food Memories From Peru

August 16, 2013 Updated: August 16, 2013

NEW YORK—On a recent trip to Peru, Erik Ramirez tasted potatoes cooked the traditional way, buried with hot stones underground. In Peru they call the technique in the Quechua language, pachamanca—pacha for “earth” and manca for “cooking vessel.” Meats like chicken, pork, and mutton along with veggies like potatoes and lima beans are buried under ground for hours and then dug up.

Ramirez calls this a food memory—an extraordinary food experience he carries with him and one of many he recreates at Raymi, a Peruvian restaurant in the Flatiron District.

“I just remember the most, the potatoes that came out of the ground. I remember peeling them and eating them just like that with salt,” he said.

To bring the Pachamanca experience back to life Ramirez hunts for the best ingredients. He gets fingerling yellow potatoes from the Union Square Greenmarket. The potatoes are cooked in oil and then halved. A nutty crunch goes on top made of potato skins, potato chips, pork skins, and peanuts. The crunch is meant to capture the flavors from the Pachamanca. A tad of crème fraîche is served alongside to balance the richness of the potato with a sprig of black mint as the final touch. Ramirez grows his own black mint, which is native in Peru. It’s lighter in flavor than the regular mint, but has a subtle and light hint of spice that transforms the entire dish.

Papa Amarilla & Huacatay is the final product and one of six courses served at Raymi to a sold-out crowd for the Conde Nast Traveler Global Tasting Tour. The menu was a tour of its own, marching from the coast, over the Andes to the Altiplano and the jungle beyond.

Peru is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world with more than 25,000 plant species, 2,000 fish species, and 1,700 bird species. The country’s cuisine is as diverse as its plant and animal inhabitants, varying from region to region, and even from village to village.

“There are places in the northern part of Peru that you could have a dish that’s very indigenous to that area and super original. You go three hours down south and can’t find that dish. They won’t replicate it because they know it’s from there.”

The menu offered two dishes from each of Peru’s major geographical zones: the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. 

The star of the night was cuy—guinea pig with plum chutney, quinoa, charred scallion, and onion mash. The guinea is cooked whole and then skinned. The skin is laid out on a sheet pan, topped with hand-selected meat, pressed down, and cut into rectangle servings, which are then fried. The result is a crispy and crunchy skin topped with tender, rich, buttery meat. The taste is close to pork, but richer and more savory, while the texture is tender and soft.

The cuy is coupled with sweet and slightly tangy plum chutney, a light and joyful balancer. The charred leek sets the theme, with a smoky aroma and a great-outdoor flavor—topped with black quinoa, a grain Peruvians call chisaya mama or “the mother of grains.” 

The grand finale for the course was the Illanka Chocolate, but we found the palate refresher served prior to it spectacular: a chirimoya sorbet over cooked oranges with thin coriander cookie leaves. The chirimoya is another food memory for Ramirez. Peruvians have a custom of cutting up fresh fruit and dousing it with orange juice. To bring that experience back to life, he set the sorbet in a base of lightly sweetened orange syrup and cooked orange pieces. As for the chirimoya, Mark Twain called it “the most delicious fruit known to men,” and some Chileans call it the “fruit from paradise.” No wonder: the sorbet is creamy, refreshing, and sweet. Combined with tender cooked orange pieces and accented with hints of coriander from the impossibly thin and crispy cookies, the chirimoya is one of the best pre-desert refreshers I’ve ever tried.

Ramirez discovered the chirimoya on a recent trip back to Peru and brought the joy back to the States.

“As long as you love what you do, it never gets old,” he said.

“Working with this food and learning more about the cuisine and my culture, where my parents come from, and learning about the food they grew up eating, I get a little more in tune with me, who I really am.”

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov
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