When someone asks me or my Peruvian friends where to find good Peruvian food in Sydney we often reply “come to my house”. Not that we have great cooking skills but, seriously, until a short while ago, there were no better options around. Luckily, that is slowly changing, as talented Peruvian chefs are starting to showcase what our country has to offer.
Peru has exceptional cuisine, and people around the world acknowledge it, but is a pity that Australia is so far away nobody knows about it. That’s what made a bunch of friends: Diego Muñoz (Bilson’s), Martín Arrisueño (Awaba), Diana Manrique and Marco Amprimo (aSukar Patisserie) plan a Peruvian dinner in our independence month.
The idea as a whole was born under the name Coca Peruvian Cuisine, showing respect for the coca leaf, which has been a faithful companion for the Andean people for thousands of years. This particular dinner, titled Sangre Nueva (new blood), the first of hopefully many to come, took place in Balmoral Beach’s Awaba restaurant.
I shared a table with my Peruvian friend Beto and his friends Ron and Sharon. They seemed pleased to have locals explaining them the contents of the dishes, although I must admit we got over-excited at times. A well-prepared pisco sour (our national drink made with pisco, lime juice, egg whites, syrup and a dash of bitters) got us ready for what was about to come.
Forget about bread dipped in olive oil, our dinner started the proper way: with boiled new potatoes with ocopa (sauce made with chilli, queso fresco, milk, huacatay, peanuts and vanilla biscuits), rocoto-stuffed olives and yuca (cassava) chips with huancaína (sauce made with chilli, queso fresco, milk and soda crackers). A small saucer with rocoto (very hot red chilli, similar in shape to capsicum) sauce kept us company throughout the night, as in most Peruvian tables.
New potatoes with ocopa sauce, rocoto-stuffed olives, cassava chips with huancaína sauce
The first course blew our minds. For Beto and me, it was hands-down the highlight of the night. Blue swimmer crab parihuela (a thick seafood soup) served in an espresso cup and a cold crab salad served in a spoon next to it. Visually pleasing, yes, but it wasn’t until we tried both components that we had our expectations surpassed. We found crunchy bits in the soup and it wasn’t until Marco mentioned the dish had quinoa that I realised it was the same toasted quinoa I had eaten in the prawn course at Bilson’s. It was a very welcomed unorthodox addition to the dish. I’m usually the first to say that Peruvian food tastes better in Peru but honestly this was one of the best parihuelas I’ve ever had.
Blue swimmer crab parihuela, matched with 2010 Oliver’s Taranga Fiano, McClaren Vale SA
The next course was a tiradito (seafood cut sashimi-style, usually served with lime juice and chilli sauce) featuring Australian sea produce: super fresh calamari, fish, scallops and oysters. The sweet potato that often complements the dish was present in a puréed version, forming a long strip across the plate. The fresh taste of coriander was also there, as well as a mild yellow chilli sauce, and a slightly excessive amount of ginger. I liked the dish but prefer it more “creole”, that is, with more lime and chilli, and no ginger.
Australian sea tiradito, matched with 2010 Cherubino Riesling, Great Southern WA
Continuing with the seafood theme we were served a Crystal Bay prawn causa (mashed potatoes mixed with lime juice and chilli, and served usually layered with seafood or chicken, mayonnaise, avocado, etc). The causa was very nice, it went very well with the silky avocado cream on the bottom of the plate and the ultra fresh prawn. The foreigners liked it, but for me a bit more of lime juice and chilli in the causa would have been better.
Crystal Bay prawn causa, matched with 2010 Clonakilla ‘Nouveau’ Viognier, Canberra NSW
The beef dish was the one that received better comments from the non Peruvians in the table: Black Angus oxtail papa rellena (potato mash stuffed with a beef filling, shaped into a rugby ball and deep-fried), served with solterito (broad bean, onion, olive, rocoto and queso fresco salad). This time the almighty all-purpose filling wasn’t made with minced beef, but very cleverly with melt-in-your-mouth oxtail. The beef was extremely flavourful (the dish as a whole was) and it certainly left a lot of people craving for seconds. We did have a confused waitress bringing seconds to our table but were honest enough to say we already had that dish.
Black Angus oxtail papa rellena, matched with 2008 Greenstone Rosso di Colbo Sangiovese, Heathcote VIC
Arroz con pato (rice cooked with coriander and served with duck) is one of my top Peruvian dishes and this one didn’t disappoint. The seasoning was spot-on, the duck was perfectly cooked in its two presentations (medium-rare on top of the rice and well done below the salsa criolla (onion, coriander, chilli and lime juice salad). If I was given a chance to ask for a minor adjustment, it would be the rice. They used basmati, which lends to grains that don’t stick together, but for this dish I prefer a slightly overcooked, almost soupy medium-grain rice.
Grimaud arroz con pato, matched with 2009 Coates Touriga Nacional, Langhorne Creek, SA
The savoury journey had ended and the sweetness was about to hit us. Diana did an amazing job with the lúcuma tres leches (sponge cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream, plus the fruit lúcuma in this case) by lowering down the sweetness and adding a thin layer of dark chocolate on top.
Lúcuma 3 leches, matched with 2010 Scarborough Late Harvest Semillon, Hunter Valley NSW
Dinner came to an end with coffee and petit fours: maná (a sweet similar to marzipan sans almond meal), alfajores (cornflour biscuits with caramel in the middle) and chocolate truffles, all of them excellent. Our only complain was that coffee was served with chilled milk, quite unusual and a bit upsetting for our already overloaded stomachs. Other than that, the food and matching wines were simply brilliant. Looking forward to take two.
Alfajores, truffles, maná
Coca Peruvian Cuisine