Mistura Celebrates All Things Peruvian

LIMA, Peru – The smell of smoked and roasted pig, or lechon, fills the air near an otherwise unremarkable stretch of the beach here along the Pacific Ocean.  It’s not the result of some weekend warrior Food Network Star wannabe contest, but rather, a Super Bowl of sorts, at least among Peru’s highly competitive barbecue professionals. I’m at the annual Mistura Food Conference, a 10-day festival located along the beach, extending more than a mile long. The annual gathering brings together the country’s farmers, artisans, chefs and restaurants, in an exhibition the likes of which I’ve never seen.

 

 

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Amazonian specialties in the Amazon World Pavilion

 

Several cities have Food & Wine events these days, partly as a way to bring in tourism, but also to highlight unique, regional offerings and show off their talented industry professionals. They are usually more party than education, with a few exceptions. Most of them span a long weekend, and outside of throwing sponsor-heavy parties and “celebrity” chef dinners, there typically isn’t a whole lot people remember from these booze-and-foie-filled bacchanals. Mistura is a completely different animal. For one thing, the government gets involved in a big way, helping to promote the event and bring in small farmers from the countryside, the Andes and the Amazon. The President of Peru made the rounds on Day 1, hitting a few booths, but the term “booths” doesn’t quite describe it.

 

Among the giant, educational seminar buildings temporarily set up for the occasion, there are 12 different “worlds” beneath covered pavilions, each with its own theme: ceviches, The Amazon, Sweets, Sandwiches, Drinks and my favorite – Oriental – which really means chifa and nikkei. The former, a hybrid of Chinese-Peruvian (think fried rice with Andean corn or pasta); the latter, a fusion of Japanese-Peruvian (pigeon nigiri anyone?). Within each of these Worlds, there are about a dozen individual businesses or restaurants, and each one is outfitted with a full kitchen – in one case, I saw four woks set over sturdy, temporary gas stoves – and the care with which they decorate their booths is remarkable. Each one is more impressive than the next; you get the feeling that if they put that much love and effort into their displays and their kitchens, then the food must be more than halfway decent (it is). This is not a Taste of Chicago-style eat around. More like Taste of South America on the beach with booths by Colin Cowie.

 

One of several styles of live fire cooking

One of several styles of live fire cooking

 

Then there are those barbecue dudes – and I’m not exaggerating, it’s mostly dudes, with the exception of the woman I saw parked in front of her enormous forno, or oven, unwrapping chickens that had been baked inside paper that was covered in colorful knit blankets. This live fire exhibition stretched for at least a block, with all sorts of cool contraptions. There were Caja Chinas, or outdoor roasting boxes, but rather than filled with whole pigs, they typically just had hunks of pork seasoned with salt; some of them also had rotisseries or horizontal grills fitted above, to capture some of the heat escaping from the top, and thus, were able to grill large pork bellies.

 

Chancho al Palo roasting

Chancho al Palo roasting

 

Chancho al palo was one of the coolest methods I saw. Giant, square steel racks are loaded up with hunks of pork that have been seasoned liberally with salt. The racks are locked up, holding the pork in place, then placed near a blazing wood fire, tilted slightly so that the flames and smoke cook the pork evenly. The amount of wood these restaurants bring with them resembles the backyard of an Austin, TX barbecue joint. Basically a small forest.  Then there are the restaurants featuring smoking. I saw a company working with what looked like brand new oil barrels, fitted with racks inside, to hold up cuts of meat while the wood was loaded below:

Vertical smoking in a barrel

Vertical smoking in a barrel

 

Like most food events, you buy tickets, then hand them over to the booth once you order a plate. The average price for a generous plate of food was about 13 soles (about $4).  In addition to live music, parades and featured speakers, there are also some cool demonstrations, led by Peruvian chefs, featuring indigenous ingredients. Lucuma is a fruit you’ve probably never heard of, but this “superfood” was made available to taste at the festival, while local chef Maria Jesus Nakamura (nikkei, obviously) demonstrated how to make a lucuma champu (hot drink). You could then sample it in various forms among the different “worlds” such as in a juice over in the Liquid World.

 

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So many worlds to conquer…

 

 

Peru is known for its thousands of varieties of potatoes, corn and grain – quinoa being the most well-known for its health properties – but Mistura also gives producers a chance to show off what they think the next Big Ingredient will be as well. Tarwi is a grain few of the writers on assignment had heard of, yet this legume is loaded with protein and is harvested this time of the year in the central Andes. It shows up in porridge, stews, even ceviche, and again, local chefs were using it for demonstrations as well as incorporating it into dishes in the South World, where it showed up in a cream served with fried trout, a typical dish in the southern regions of Peru. Who knows, perhaps in a year or so we’ll see tarwi cakes and lucuma juice at a Whole Foods near you. Mistura runs for 10 days, ending this Sunday, the 14th. Mark your calendars for next year, and see if you can swing it. It’s a six hour flight to Lima from Houston, and the time zone is Central, so you don’t get jet lag.

 

Potato assortment in the Produce World Tent.

Potato assortment in the Produce World Tent.

 

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you more about where we ate in Lima when we weren’t walking around the festival. The city is going through a pretty impressive food revolution right now, at least in terms of Michelin stars vs. holes-in-the-wall.

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