Eating South America
From the fish, fruits and serious threats of the Amazon, and the sensual caffeinated throb of Brazil, to Argentina’s wine and beef estancias and the cosmopolitan Paris that is Buenos Aires. From the ancient customs of the Andes-hugging villages of Peru to Lima’s indie food scene including its top restaurant Central, currently ranked #5 in the world. I came, I ate and – like the resident anacondas – I slowly digested.
Many people assume that today’s top tier restaurants are the stiff, serious events of the past. It is more like going to the theatre, except you get to eat the performance. Art, science and play are evident in Central Restaurante’s emphasis on reverently earthy, indigenous foods. There is no a la carte, just several tasting options, including vegetarian. I chose the smallest 11 course Ecosystems’ menu. It used the theme of the nation’s diverse elevation levels as orientation for the courses.
We started with sea level and a gossamer green seaweed cracker with black sea snail dip. We moved on and up through the flatlands, jungle, rivers, terraces, low and high Andes. Each was distinct, explained and often accompanied by the visual aid of the starring tuber, seed, mollusc or herb. Only one course had meat.
Some combinations seemed as pharmaceutically precise as they were delicious. A basil sized leaf was folded taco-style to hold one river shrimp, red achiote seed paste and the crunch of pulverised fried shrimp scales. High jungle was a bread-lover’s dream: a tiny, round, warm gluten-free loaf made from macambo nuts, potato and cassava flour; served with equally delicious smoked herb butter.
Several courses came as three or so miniature items which we were instructed to consume in a particular sequence, sometimes ending with a thimble-sized glass of liquid. Perhaps tart coral and snail ink, mustard-like fruit puree, or aniseed infusion. Kids, don’t try this at home.
There was one course entirely focused on the continent’s life-sustaining corn. Kernels here are as large as fat broad beans. Five were steamed soft and filled with savoury corn pudding, served over an intense jus of caramelised corn husks and beef broth. On top of the kernels were shards of crackers made from the 5 colours of corn and tendrils of crispened corn silk threads that most of us are eager to discard from the cob. They know how to extract all the juices out of a theme.
Dessert was of course mucho chocolate organico. Bitter chocolate mousse, shaved white jungle nuts, biscuit of chia and chocolate. All interspersed with cubes of jelly made from the white mucilage that surrounds cocoa beans. And beneath this homage was the sweet surprise of morsels of custardy cherimoya fruit.
And hey, I’m just mentioning a few courses*.
The Brazilian Amazon was in untamed contrast to this studied creation. They drink more lemon grass tea here than coffee. Truly fresh Brazil nuts taste like coconut. The dominant starch is manioc or cassava root, lengthily prepared to defuse its cyanide content. There was manioc bread, cake, crepes, ice-cream, polenta-like batons, and a savoury crumble to sprinkle on heart of palm salad, roast flamingo or one of the 1,000 species of edible fish. Many are large, meaty and strongly flavoured. They eat a lot of tropical fruit that tumbles into the water. Fish are responsible for ‘planting’ 80% of wild fruit trees.
The Amazon doesn’t do small or dull. There are frogs and toucans one metre long, 20 kilo rodents, spiders big enough to eat birds, leaping pink dolphins, and vivid blue butterflies as large as a dinner plate. Night is the busiest and nosiest time with pairs of red and green eyes watching and assessing. Taking small boats to paddle in the dark, we were surrounded by creatures that wanted to poison or eat us. Tip: don’t get lost.
Rio is a hot, sensory explosion – and that’s just the people. Every colour and waist circumference walks semi-clad and proud. I joined enthusiastic anthropologist and guide, Vinicius, and a small group of fellow travellers for the 6 hour walking Eat Rio Food Tour. We browsed a local market with macaw-hued fruits and vegetables; guarana drinks; cashew fruit juice (not nut milk); avocados the girth of rock melons; and 3 cm wide mottled dark tubes that turned out to be tobacco. A pick-me up breakfast or snack was a bowl of what looked like melted chocolate with a purple tinge. This was raw acai seeds ground and pureed with local stevia. White, crunchy, toasted tapioca gets sprinkled on top. Seriously good.
At various region-by-region cafes we sampled cod fish croquettes, bisque-like shrimp moqueca, dried beef with manioc, pumpkin with black beans. And of course the quenching national cocktail: caipirinha made with lime, sugar and cachaça. This clear looking-and-tasting alcohol is produced from distilled fresh cane juice rather than from by-products as rum is.
Argentina is noticeably absent the multiculturalism of Brazil – and Auckland. I walked in a tide of short slim brunettes and saw no other skin colours. Buenos Aires has grand avenidas, parks, statuary and architecture while its pavements and politics are in dangerous disrepair. Locals like to laugh and tell the story how one week they had 5 presidents. Lots of great Italian restaurants, though many do not open until 8:30 pm or later. These developed from the late 1800s when 9 million immigrants arrived, one third of them Italian. In old-world café Parilla Pena, a beef empanada is offered automatically as a starter. The menu shows a large diagram of beef on the hoof from which you choose your cut. They are renowned for their superb steaks with piquant salsa-like toppings. I asked for a half portion. The meat arrived hanging over the plate and was about 5 cm thick. No one in the nation must suffer from iron deficiency.
The countryside is similarly carnivorous. At a century old working ranch, I rode horseback through the estancia. Meanwhile, gauchos built a fire and cooked an excellent barbecue (chorizo, blood sausage, chicken and two cuts of beef) served with chardonnay and Malbec from the nearby Mendoza wine region. Throughout the country when I asked in Spanish for ‘a glass of wine’ they looked perplexed. The smallest serve is often a 375 ml half-bottle!
Dessert was the unattractively named ‘milk pudding’, typical to Brazil as well. This turned out to be crème caramel. Its constituent dulce de leche is everywhere at snacks, dessert and breakfast. I am a caramel fan, but it became teeth-throbbing overkill. After the meal the caballeros displayed their riding skills. They galloped while standing in the saddle executing impressive manoeuvers. Charged masculinity.
From there I flew over the Andes to Peru. Revered Jose de San Martin made such a journey though by horseback to liberate it, Argentina and Chile. Lima is full of musicians: every driver enthusiastically plays the horn. I stayed in elegant Miraflores, a few blocks from the ocean and am welcomed with coca leaf tea. Same plant as cocaine, but a different variety with no buzz whatsoever. Widely available, I try to imagine convincing NZ Customs as to its harmlessness. Instead I snack on a tasty vegetarian quinoa burger (don’t cry for me, Argentina). Later for dinner we share anticuchos (beef heart on a skewer) with hot sauce; tamales (seasoned corn dough baked in corn husks); and stuffed pepper rellenos. Most are accompanied by yet more forms of ever-honoured corn and potato, including causas. These are small mounds of seasoned mashed potato with innovative meat, vegetable and seafood toppings. This was the nation that gave the world the potato and the education continues.
Travelling to small Andean towns is like going back in time hundreds of years. Many people still live in the pre-Spanish way with one room mud brick homes and no ventilation. Lung cancer is common due to the proximity to cooking fires. Parents and four children might share the same bed with long strands of quinoa drying in the rafters above them. Guinea pigs were among the first mammals here and they are reared for food (the meat tastes oily and sweet like duck) as are alpaca (similar to veal or steak depending on the cut). Men finish farming and head for the dirt-floor bar. We try chicha there: pink beer made from red corn and served with a popped corn snack. Peru is exceptional for honouring its traditions and yet with food, painting, fashion, weaving, jewellery and more taking those into innovative, transcendent directions.
My trip started in the jungles of the Amazon and finished at one of the world’s best restaurants – suitable bookend contrasts to this remarkable continent. Muchas gracias to all the friendly people who made my travels so special.
*Some practicalities. Portions are small, but so am I. For health and digestion reasons, I recommend going for lunch at degustation restaurants, which have the identical menu, price and the same luxuriating pace of about 3 hours. I do not feel overly full afterwards, however I can go without dinner later.
Central Mater Elevations’ Menu (each on unique, theme-related serving dishes)
1) ROCK; -10m: Delicate, green Sargasso seaweed cracker with creamed sea snail and limpet dip.
2) STEMS; 3500m: Lacy red and yellow potato gaufrette filled with caramelised wild onion puree; tiny glass of sour vinaigrette-ish field mustard milk.
3) RIVER; 680m: Green leaf folded to hold one river prawn with red achiote seed paste; huampo tree resin; crisp roasted fish scales.
4) FOREST; 300m: White pacae fruit filled with river fish and rolled up snugly. Plantain leaf. Drink of warm inky liquid from the wild Amazonian snail (whole, it is the size of a small melon).
5) HIGH JUNGLE; 2800m: Nutty, round warm loaf of cassava, potato flour and macambo (tree pods; in taste a cross between cacao and cashew) served in bowl of smoked coca leaves. Smoked herb butter. Wild fruit butter. Polenta-like cassava discs.
6) MARINE; 0m: Tangy sea urchin, razor clam and mussel with pepino melon, red and green tendrils of seaweed.
7) LAND OF CORN; 2010m: 5 super soft broad bean-size corn kernels filled with corn pudding. On a syrupy dark jus from corn husks and beef stock. Topped with cracker shards made from the 5 colours of corn. Sprinkled with filaments of crisp corn threads.
8) CORAL; – 10m: Saucy octopus morsels with sea lettuce, squid ink crackers.
9) LOW ANDES; 1800m: Pork belly cooked for 7 hours and covered with black Andean mushroom sauce, dried Kiwicha grain (similar to quinoa), anise seasoning and topped with colourful, petal-resembling tuber slices. Spoonably succulent.
10) AMAZON; 400m: Mega strong cacao lightened with shaved white bahuaja nut. Interspersed with white jelly (from the mucilage surrounding cacao seeds) and sweet chunks of cherimoya fruit.
11) MEDICINALS AND PLANT DYES; 3050m: Cube of pink spongy cake made almost entirely from local nuts, on a bed of yellow broom flowers. Biscuit of chia and 85% cacao. Mini drink of green matico herbal.