A whole host of the top names in the culinary world call Peru home, and there are few foodie names you’ll hear more often than Pia León and Virgilio Martínez. Together, this culinary power couple has rejuvenated and transformed the Peruvian food scene. Lima has long been known as one of the top restaurant destinations in the world, and innovators like Martínez and León are what keep the city on the cutting edge.
Virgilio Martínez is most well known for his use of unique Peruvian ingredients in his intricate dishes. (You may even recognize him from the popular Netflix series Chef’s Table.) He is the mind behind Central Restaurante in Lima and Mil in the Sacred Valley, which offer a series of courses reflecting Peru’s many altitudes and microclimates.
Pia León is the creative force behind Kjolle, a newly opened restaurant that highlights Peru’s natural offerings with a focus on its wide range of flavorful herbs and tubers. In 2018, León was named the Best Female Chef in Latin America by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy.
Peruvian Ingredients The Chefs Love
León and Martínez met (and later married) when León got a job at Central Restaurante more than a decade ago, and the two have inspired each other’s work ever since. If you’re looking for insight into the Peruvian food scene, this duo is an endless source of wisdom. Below are three Peruvian ingredients León and Martínez have been associated with, and what makes them such a special part of the Peruvian food journey.
León has mentioned to many a journalist that corn is her favorite ingredient. Peru grows more than 55 varieties of corn – more than any other place in the world – so it’s no surprise that this delicious crop is a staple in many Peruvian kitchens.
Peruvian corn, or choclo, is grown in the Andes and characterized by its large kernels. It’s a popular pairing for ceviche, one of Peru’s most popular dishes. You’ll also find it served as a snack in a toasted, salted form. One of the tastiest ways to enjoy it is to buy choclo on the cob along with a slice of cheese as part of a tasty street food called choclo con queso.
Purple corn, which gets its hue from a pigment called anthocyanin, is an especially popular variety. It’s used to make the beloved Peruvian beverage chicha morada, and is a key component of the dessert mazamorra morada.
At Kjolle, León makes excellent use of mauka, a root that is generally no longer commonly used in Peru – except in her kitchen. Mauka landed on León’s radar thanks to Mater Iniciativa, the biological and cultural research collective that informs the new Peru food ingredients added to Central Restaurante’s ever-changing menu. Mauka is known to have been eaten by at least one tribe during the Inca empire, and rediscovered in Bolivia in 1965. It’s well worth trying again in 2019!
Martínez uses chaco, a type of edible clay, as part of a dessert garnish at Central Restaurante. The clay is composed of deposits that are local to the Altiplano, a region in the high Andes with an altitude of 3,870 meters (12,700 ft.) The unique deposits of the area give chaco a distinctive earthy taste and make-up.
While Martínez has been known to use it to complement dessert, it’s often been used for more staple meals, especially as a dipping sauce to sweeten bitter tubers eaten in the Andes. Chaco is often delicate in physical form, but not in taste. The clay can add a rich, grounded flavor to a dish.
Not sure what to order first? How about all three! Delicious meals are ahead.