Peruvian cuisine with Virgilio Martínez
and his recipe for ceviche

Indigenous women in Peru

Peru

Peru’s extreme and varied landscape is a culinary playground for chef Virgilio Martínez, who searches (literally) high and low for the best ingredients the country has to offer. Guests at his restaurant Central can enjoy a rollercoaster ride through the Andes and high altitude wetlands, before plunging deep into the Amazon rainforest. For Virgilio however, nothing represents his personal culinary history as accurately as ceviche, a dish made with the freshest fish and bathed in a citrus dressing known as tiger’s milk.

What food did you grow up eating?
“Ceviche was a favourite for us, because we lived right next to the sea. There’s quite a strong beach culture here in Lima, and while my friends were surfing or playing on the beach I would go and talk to the guys making the ceviche, or try the food at the small fish restaurants.

“We had lots of seafood at home as well; I remember we used to go to the fish markets for fresh fish, which we would combine with traditional Peruvian ingredients like quinoa, beans, grains and lots of vegetables.

“Meat wasn’t on the menu very often – we say that you have to go to Argentina if you want to eat good meat.”

Peru suffered long periods of conflicts and terrorism, including wars and internal conflicts between the government and insurgent groups. What was it like to grow up in Peru in the ’80s, and how did you see the country change?
“We weren’t able to wander much through the streets. The kind of lockdowns we have now are not that different. When I was about ten years old, we were used to staying at home. There was much violence and terrorism back then.

“The past 15 years in Peru have been amazing however. I left Peru in 1996 to work in restaurants around the world because I was really concerned about our future in Peru. We didn’t have any ambitions to stay, but most of us started to come back about 15 years ago because there was a boom of creativity, a boom of gastronomy. It was improving a lot. Lima is quite a good place to live in now. It’s at the seaside, and you can get to the mountains of the Andes or the Amazonian rainforest in an hour. There is so much diversity and culture, and a great representation of our Latin American spirits.”

The menu at your restaurant Central (Lima) is elevation based: from below sea level to the extreme altitudes of the Andes. What do you find fascinating about altitudes?
“It’s quite a normal way to see our geography. It’s the way the Peruvians from the mountains - not the ones from Lima - look at life: through elevations and altitudes. It’s how they calculate seasonalities and the way they connect to nature. So if you want to reflect that connection to nature in a restaurant, you have to reflect the elevations in a similar manner.”

Machu Picchu, Peru

Do ingredients grown at higher altitudes taste differently than those grown at sea level?
“Sure. Most of the vegetables from the coast taste completely different when grown in the Andes. Potatoes are a good example. When you grab a potato from the Andes, it tastes like the terroir of the Andes, just like wine. You can really taste the soil of potatoes grown at those altitudes. Potatoes in the Andes are often prepared in a huatia, a traditional earthen oven. It’s a great example of how you can cook things in the same soil in which it has grown. We all talk about sustainability, but it is starting to lose its meaning. With huatia, the food doesn’t travel. You are using fire that you started using the barks from the same plant, cooking the potatoes underground in the same soil. It’s so rustic, so connected to nature and so elegant and fine. Preserving this tradition is important to us. It has such a big ceremonial meaning, in which the local communities show their gratitude for the harvest. It’s about giving back to the soil.

“The people in the Andes also have a special way of preserving their potatoes, it’s called chuño. The potatoes are frozen at night and then dried in the sun. They turn very white and keep for years. Before consuming, you need to boil them for many, many hours to rehydrate them. Imagine eating a potato that has been in someone’s house for six years!”

Interestingly, we’ve heard about Bolivian freeze-dried potatoes called tunta before. Their flavour must be amazing! What other ingredients do you hold dear?
“I love the fruit from the Amazon. There are Amazonian fruit species that nobody in the world has seen yet! We’re still discovering these. The fish from the Amazon is also quite different from what we know in Lima. Here we get fish from the ocean, every day. Those fish have a natural saltiness. We don’t do much with the fish in terms of preparation, which comes from our Japanese influence. We were told to treat the fish very well, in terms of using it fresh, using the proper knife, the proper way of cutting. We were really ‘wired’ to do things right with fish.

Huatia

"Huatia has such a big ceremonial meaning, in which the local communities show their gratitude for the harvest. It’s about giving back to the soil."

Virgilio Martínez

“But the Amazonian cultures do it differently. They ferment the fish, or dehydrate them. That’s what we’re doing in our restaurant now as well. The fish from the Amazon is used as a seasoning; we sometimes just use shavings of dehydrated fish on vegetables, or on top of anything really. The concentration of flavours is so deep that we don’t serve the fillets or fish as such, but prefer to treat the fish in another way.” What about seasonal ingredients? Anything in particular you look forward to?
“Tomatoes! It’s fun to see that they come from the same plant as potatoes. The seeds of the potato plant have a little, non-edible tomato that you need to domesticate in order to grow tomatoes - this is a process of years. We still have some tomatoes in Peru that are pretty much unknown. The Mexicans were the ones who domesticated the tomatoes, and now almost everybody in the world eats tomatoes every week.

“Cacao is another example. The harvest of the cacao is happening now [mid-April]. We don’t grow cacao here on the coast because the conditions aren’t good, so I go to the Amazon to check on the harvest and the fermentation of the seeds. Once the cacao is harvested, you need to be there to pick the best batch and make sure the fermentation process is done well. It’s quite a tricky thing for us to achieve.

“We have one dish that uses the whole of the cacao fruit including the skin, flesh, bean, leaves and even the skin of the beans. The purpose of the dish is to show how far you can go with cacao.”

Virgilio's cacao dish

Virgilio's cacao dish

Peru is known to be a diverse country thanks to indigenous Peruvian cultures, Spanish colonisation, Chinese and Japanese immigrants and much more. What effect has that had on Peruvian cuisine?
“Well, the people in the Amazon and Andes have entirely different cuisines. The melting pot that you’re referring to is actually Limian cuisine, but the capital has had this natural fusion for 500 years. To many Peruvians, food was already an obsession before we had food trends, food bloggers or food critics. We were all food critics and talking about food since my grandfather’s generation! When time passed and food became more visible on TV through shows like MasterChef, it was quite simple: we used to have shitty places serving excellent food, so it wasn’t difficult to upgrade these to excellent places serving excellent food.”

Ceviche

The Dish

What does ceviche mean to Peru?
“For Peru it’s our lifestyle: living next to the sea, going to the cevicheria. It’s part of the identity as people from the Pacific coast. Ceviche with different colours, different seafoods or fish is a good representation of our culture. It also has this melting pot aspect, where the lime came from Spain, the way to cut the fish is Japanese and the presentations tend to be quite Chinese. It has this evolution of our relationship as a society with the sea.”

Who taught you to make ceviche?
“My father is a so-so ceviche maker. It was actually my grandfather, because as I said: it’s a family affair. I remember being very young and seeing my grandfather making the ceviche, but not just him, the whole family was involved. That’s why there’s not only one recipe for ceviche, there are many. Every family will have their right one, which is quite funny. My favourite is just simple: the freshest ingredients and white fish.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“Instead of fish, you could use artichoke hearts or shavings of white asparagus.”

The Ingredients

Cured sea bass
500 g
sea bass fillet
500 g
salt
500 g
sugar
Tiger's milk
0.5
small white onion, peeled and cut into big chunks
1
small clove of garlic, peeled
1
small celery stalk, cut into pieces
1 tsp
fresh ginger, chopped
80 g
fresh white fish, in chunks
300 ml
lime juice (squeeze the limes without pressing too hard to avoid bitterness)
2 tbsp
chopped coriander
0.5 tsp
spicy chilli pepper (like the Aji Amarillo or scotch bonnet)
salt
40 g
ice
Ceviche
500 g
cured sea bass (see above)
Tiger's milk (see above)
1
large red onion, peeled
1-2
hot chilli peppers
2 tbsp
chopped coriander
Garnish (optional)
300 g
sweet potato
100 g
cancha corn
150 g
choclo corn
Cured sea bass
18 oz
sea bass fillet
2 cups
salt
2 cups
sugar
Tiger's milk
0.5
small white onion, peeled and cut into big chunks
1
small clove of garlic, peeled
1
small celery stalk, cut into pieces
1 tsp
fresh ginger, chopped
3 oz
fresh white fish, in chunks
1 1/4 cups
lime juice (squeeze the limes without pressing too hard to avoid bitterness)
2 tbsp
chopped coriander
0.5 tsp
spicy chilli pepper (like the Aji Amarillo or scotch bonnet)
salt
1/3 cup
ice
Ceviche
18 oz
cured sea bass (see above)
Tiger's milk (see above)
1
large red onion, peeled
1-2
hot chilli peppers
2 tbsp
chopped coriander
Garnish (optional)
2 cups
sweet potato
1 cup
cancha corn
1 1/4 cups
choclo corn

The Recipe

Total preparation time: unknown | Yield: 4 servings | Category: starter

Cured sea bass

  1. Mix the sugar and salt in a bowl and cover the sea bass loin with the curing mixture.
  2. Leave the loin for 20 minutes and rinse with cold water.
  3. Cut the loin in 2 x 2 cm cubes and set aside.

Tiger's milk

  1. Brush the bowl surface with half a chilli pepper to extract the aroma and a little bit of spiciness of the pepper.
  2. In the same bowl, mix the lime juice with the onion, garlic, ice, celery, ginger, salt and fish and let infuse for about 10 minutes.
  3. Blend slightly with a hand mixer to extract all the flavours and break up the flesh of the fish.
  4. Strain into a bowl with the chopped coriander and let infuse, pressing the coriander with a spoon to extract the aromas.
  5. Strain again and emulsify with the hand mixer, adding the olive oil little by little. It should get shiny and thicker.
  6. If you want more spiciness, add some chopped chilli pepper to infuse.
  7. Set aside in the refrigerator.

Ceviche

  1. Cut the red onion in julienne (small strips) and leave in a bowl of iced water for 2 hours.
  2. Clean the spicy chilli pepper by removing the veins and seeds and chop into a very fine julienne.
  3. Cut the coriander finely and set aside.
  4. Strain the onions and mix all the ingredients1 minute before serving.

Garnish

  1. Cook the sweet potato in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, or until completely soft, then peel after letting it cool slightly.
  2. Cut the sweet potato into big chunks and refrigerate.
  3. Puff the cancha corn in a pot with hot oil as if you were making popcorn. Set aside in a dry place.
  4. Cook the choclo corn for 25 minutes and refrigerate.

Plating

  1. Place the ceviche in the middle of the plate.
  2. Add the remaining tiger’s milk in the bottom of the dish.
  3. Place 3 pieces of sweet potato on the side.
  4. Place some canchita in a separate bowl.
  5. Serve the cooked choclo besides the camote in the ceviche bowl.
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