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Daniel Chavez on Peruvian Cuisine

Eight questions about Peruvian cuisine with Daniel Chavez.

Born in Peru and trained in restaurants in the US and Spain, Daniel Chavez first came to Singapore to work in the kitchens of Les Amis before a brief stint in Dubai, where he headed the highly lauded Ossiano restaurant. He returned to Singapore in 2010 to helm restaurant Santi by three-Michelin-star Spanish chef Santi Santamaria in Marina Bay Sands. He is currently the chef-owner of two-year-old Spanish restaurant Ola Cocina Del Mar at Marina Bay Financial Centre.

Why do you think Peruvian food has captured global attention?
It has a wide range of flavours so it appeals to many people around the globe. Peru has seen different waves of migrants throughout its history, from Spanish, Italian and African to Chinese and Japanese – all of them have added to the already existing pre-Hispanic cultures and created a new and constantly evolving cuisine with many different and exciting flavour combinations.

Is there a national dish of Peru?
The national dish of Peru is undoubtedly the ceviche. Its popularity in Peru over the last 30 years has grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined. There are many versions of ceviche in Peru and all over Latin America. My personal recipe calls for any fish or seafood that is super fresh, seasoned only with lime juice and chilli and garnished with red onions. It is that simple.

What are other classic Peruvian dishes that everyone should know about?
Another classic would be the lomo saltado, a dish that comes from our Chinese heritage. This consists of cubed beef tenderloin wok-fried with red onions, tomatoes, soya sauce, aji amarillo – a South American yellow chilli pepper – vinegar and coriander. It is then served with French fries and white rice. Another is called conchas a la parmesana, which is telling of the Italian influence in Peru. This dish is essentially scallops baked with parmesan cheese, brandy and lime juice until golden brown. The simple combination ends up in perfect balance and makes for an amazing starter. These two dishes, together with the ceviche, are very well received at Ola.

How about popular beverages in Peru?
The national drink of Peru is the Pisco Sour. The main ingredient is pisco, the typical distillate of our country made from the fermented wine of certain grapes. Ice, lime juice, sugar syrup and egg whites are added and the cocktail is usually garnished with some Angostura bitters. It is a refreshing drink for the summer and I see it in some restaurants and bars in Singapore.

How is Peruvian food different from other South American cuisine such as Colombian or Venezuelan food?
There is great cuisine all across Latin America but, in Peru, we are extremely lucky as we have some of the most giving fertile lands in the world. Many ingredients in the world are indigenous to Peru. We are well-known for having over 3,000 varieties of potatoes alone, along with different types of corn and tomatoes. This has contributed to the development of a very versatile cuisine over the centuries. Lima has been awarded the food capital of Latin America several times in recent years.

What are the key ingredients that every Peruvian larder needs?
You would find ingredients as diverse as Asian soya sauce and Italian parmesan cheese in a Peruvian kitchen. We also like to squeeze lime juice on most of our food, as well as add some aji amarillo. This makes up the DNA of our cuisine.

Who are the leading Peruvian chefs and upcoming names to watch?
Gaston Acurio is the current ambassador for the Peruvian gastronomy movement. He has been championing Peruvian cuisine for a long time, with a lot of social impact in Peru. Besides appearing on television shows regularly, his flagship restaurant Astrid y Gaston that he started with his wife, Astrid, in 1994 has several franchises across South America. It has also recently expanded into Europe. Some of the other leading chefs that are getting international recognition are Pedro Schiaffino of Malabar restaurant and Virgilio Martinez from Central. Both of them have cooked at special events in Singapore in the recent years.

Do you think Peruvian food will be well accepted in Asia? Why or why not?
I was just in Hong Kong a while ago and saw two Peruvian restaurants that were doing very well. This also seems to be the case in Bangkok. I believe the flavours that are essential to Peruvian cooking are something that the Asian population can relate to. Coriander, limes, chillies and soya sauce are flavours commonly used in both cuisines, yet presented in a very unique manner on the Peruvian dinner table.

I personally think that a cebicheria would be a great new addition in Singapore. A cebicheria is a type of Peruvian restaurant that specialises in the cooking of seafood and is a place where people go to relax and unwind. A key characteristic of this restaurant is the warm service and the many different kinds of raw seafood dishes offered, such as ceviches and tiraditos – sashimi-thin slices of raw fish dressed with a citrusy salsa.