LIMA, Peru (AP) — Olympic swimmer Renzo Tjon-a-Joe from Suriname says his "love affair" with Peruvian cuisine began during his recent trip to the capital of Lima for the Pan American Games.
Days after eating at "Central," the self-proclaimed foodie still savored the journey of flavors — from the ocean, the Andean highlands and the jungles of the Amazon — at the restaurant in Peru's capital that is ranked at No. 6 on the annual list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants.
"Peruvian food is the best in the world. Don't get me started, I can talk for hours," said Tjon-a-Joe, a student at Harvard University who has qualified for Tokyo 2020, and who's on a quest to visit restaurants on the San Pellegrino list and the Michelin Guide.
Peruvian food was unquestionably the star at the recent Pan Am Games. Athletes from 41 countries across the Americas tasted the highly-regarded cuisine that blends indigenous traditions with European, African and Asian influences with an abundance of seafood from the Pacific Ocean's cold Humboldt current.
"I had a lot of great food. Just blow-your-mind kind of food," Tjon-a-Joe said outside the athletes' village. "I walked away with the feeling that I had tried out something out of this world. Like my taste buds were about to explode."
Sitting across from him, Mexican swimmer Sofia Revilak nodded. She tasted toro tuna and other bite-sized plates at "Maido,"a Nikkei, or Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant that's ranked No. 10 in the world. But she couldn't get enough of cebiche, the rawfish 'cooked' in lime juice that is Peru's national dish.
"Mexico and Peru have a lot of dishes to be proud of," said the graduate of Notre Dame. "But I'm a big fan of cebiche. And I have to say that there's nothing like Peruvian cebiche in the world."
Other popular dishes at the Pan Am athletes' village and beyond included 'aji de gallina,' deboned chicken drizzled with creamy chili sauce; lomo saltado, Peru's classic beef and tomato stir-fry; and quinoa, the Andean "superfood."
"It's amazing!" Shannon Nishi from Hawaii said after she tried lomo saltado for the first time. Nishi won the Pan Am Games gold medal in the 50-kilogram karate kumite class in the games that ended Aug. 11.
The scene there was repeated at every table: Brazil's men's handball team chowed on cebiche before a match; Panama's golf team put its clubs aside to taste lomo saltado. Others went for chancho al cilindro, pork slowly roasted on an oil drum with coal, or the Chinese-Peruvian chaufa fried rice. Some were less adventurous.
"We've been eating pizza and burgers. We haven't had any of the traditional Peruvian food except what's in the dining room," Renee Hildebrand, the coach of the U.S. inline speed skating team said about the huge dining hall that was about the size of one and a half soccer fields. "Maybe we'll get out there and check it out because it looks great."
Peruvian cuisine blends rich indigenous traditions and Spanish cooking that dates to the conquest in 1532, but that also includes North African influences from nearly eight centuries of Moorish presence in the Iberian peninsula, according to the book "The Arts of Peru, The Cuisine." It also includes other, more recent fusions that bring out the best of its millenary ingredients.
"It's the potato and the quinoa, the corn and the passion fruit, the sweet potato and the yucca. It's the Spanish cuisine, which was also Middle Eastern ... It's the blend of Chinese, Japanese and Italian cuisines due to migrations," said Teresina Muñoz-Najar, a journalist and author of cookbooks on Peruvian cuisine.
"It's the biodiversity," she said. "We have all the lands, all the climates, all the altitudes, and the Pacific Ocean, that's mind-blowing. Our regional cuisines and cooks are creative and passionate. We have confidence. But above all, we have flavor."
The flavor was always there, but for long, that confidence seemed to be lacking. Gaston Acurio, the nation's wildly popular leading chef, has said that Peruvians perhaps felt that nobody would like their food, even when it was delicious. But he was full of confidence, and for long, he's been widely credited with changing the global status of Peruvian cuisine.
After leading television shows that showcased the country's cooking and authoring respected books, Acurio's culinary empire spread with high-end eateries Astrid & Gaston in countries like Colombia, Chile and Spain, and the more casual La Mar in Buenos Aires, Miami, Mexico City and San Francisco.
In the food-crazed capital of Peru, people these days line up late at night to taste grilled cow heart kebabs known as anticuchos; or causa Limena, the Limenian potato salad; and a seemingly endless list of soups, entrees and desserts that have made Lima the proud culinary capital of Latin America.
"Gaston began to spread our gastronomy by traveling to every corner of the country. We owe him a lot," said Muñoz-Najar. "He's the true driving force behind Peruvian cuisine. Now, we see it without any insecurities...we're proud of what we eat in the sierra (the mountains), the jungle or the coast. We recognize each other as Peruvians through our cuisine."