It is not often that a Peruvian gastronomic experience comes along so Mucho Gusto – a fitting greeting – at The Library at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur becomes worth checking out. Started Nov 26, it is on until tomorrow with chef Carlos Pardo Figueroa from Lima at the helm.
Figueroa is just shy of 30 but comes suited in confidence and calm, and good credentials. A graduate of Intitut Paul Bocuse and Le Cordon Bleu, he is chef-advisor in Culinary Arts at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, Lima.
While not so many Peruvian produce can be seen on the plates – a container of Peruvian produce met with a complicated fate – Figueroa does a fine job of introducing us to the cuisine. Cooking is not just about produce but technique too and a deep, instinctive cultural knowledge of the cuisine.
We already have some specific Peruvian produce like quinoa in our grocers and also share many common ingredients like corn, mango, passion fruit, avocado, lime, potato – they have 3800 kinds! – and so on, so we can cook Peruvian if we have the know-how.
Peru is a pretty diverse and multi-cultural nation and Inca, African, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and more influences surface in their cuisine, which I discovered over a three-course lunch featuring six out of the 10 must-eats listed by Serious Eats so you’re over halfway there.
The first thing you will get to know is “aji”. That’s just plain ole chilli pepper but they have about 300 varieties. Start with the fruity and hot aji amarillo, the most used aji. “Amarillo” means yellow so this is a yellow pepper which ripens into orange then red.
You get a glass of Pisco cocktail with the meal. Pisco, an alcoholic beverage distilled from grapes – any of eight types – is the veritable national drink. Pisco Sour has been my favourite drink since being introduced to it by the former Peruvian ambassador at Pisco Bar in Changkat Bukit Bintang but the Pisco and passion fruit cocktail here is nice! And the strawberry one is really pretty.
We got going with the amuse bouche of octopus and olives, an explosion of chewy textures and flavours reminding us of Peru’s long coastal strip on the Pacific.
The trio of appetisers is great for getting to the cuisine: a quinoa tabbouleh with balsamic vinaigrette, avocado mousse and crispy cheese celebrates the ancient Inca cuisine and Arabic legacy; causa rellena with avocado, tuna and acevichado sauce, causa being the ubiquitous Quechan potato casserole. And of course, a ceviche, this one with white cream, burnt sweet potato and corn – and as ceviche goes in KL, a very good one.
For mains you’ll have to choose between aji de gallina (spicy creamy chicken), anticuchos de pescado (fish anticuchos) and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef) risotto with huancaina sauce – all dishes on the Serious Eats list.
Aji de gallina reflects Peru’s love of sauces thickened with cheese, cream and nuts, made rogue by aji. Anticuchos, Andean grilled meat skewers, traditionally has a cardiovascular bent with beef heart – the Incas use llama meat – but here made with swordfish, cut into typically large 3 to 5cm cubes.
The lomo saltado represents a fusion of Chinese stir-frying and Peruvian ingredients, usually served with carbs like potato or rice, in this case, risotto – fusing also the Italian part of Peru.
For me the star of the dish is the huancaina sauce, a creamy blend of queso fresco cheese, milk, garlic and aji amarillo that pulls everything together. I particularly like the story behind the dish.
Huancaina (pronounced won kai ee na) is a reference to the “lady from Huancayo”, a city in the highlands. The sauce is usually served over potatoes, with black olives, corn kernels, lettuce and hard boiled egg, in Papas a la Huancaina, a cold salad originating in Lima.
Anyway, the story goes that a peasant lady in Huancayo was trying to sell potatoes to miners and railroad workers working on the rail to carry gold from the mines to Lima. She didn’t have much luck until she threw on this spicy, creamy sauce.
When the railroad was inaugurated in 1908, Papas a la Huancana was named the dish commemorating the world’s highest railroad (then).
There are other stories about the origin of the dish but I’m touched by this tale of one woman’s ingenuity born of desperation.
When dessert arrived, I learnt about mazamorra, purple corn in a quinoa and rice pudding.
So it was a gastronomic discovery of sorts – despite the absence of roasted guinea pig, a gastronomic star of sorts in Peru.
This little dip into Huancaina sauce has piqued my hunger to eat more of Peruvian cuisine which has 5,000 years of history.
Mucho Gusto is co-organised by the Embassy of Peru. It runs at the Ritz-Carlton KL till Dec 4, priced from RM250 for the three course and Sunday Roast from RM198. Wine pairing is available. Tel: 03-2142 8000.
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