If Korean food is having a moment in Melbourne, then Peruvian food is having a thousand moments all over the world. In 2011, culinary royalty Ferran Adrià endorsed Peruvian cuisine, pronouncing it the key to the future of gastronomy. In 2013, chef Alain Ducasse nominated Peru as a leading player in the global culinary scene.
Shortly after, Peruvian restaurant Lima in London was awarded a Michelin star. And two Peruvian restaurants (both in the capital Lima) have featured on this year’s World’s Top 50 Restaurants list.
While Peruvian cuisine is trending right now, not many Melburnians have tasted, or even know what Peruvian food really is.
In comes Carmen Barra, grandmother of eight, accidental trendsetter and owner of and chef at Mi Peru D’Carmen, Melbourne’s first all-Peruvian restaurant, which opened late last year.
Born in Lima, Barra migrated to Melbourne in 1980, a time when the Peruvian population was microscopic and the cuisine was unheard of. She dreamed about opening a Peruvian restaurant, but she waited until her three children grew up.
Thirty-four years later, she opened Mi Peru, a restaurant devoted to serving traditional Peruvian cuisine. This means lots of potatoes, corn and chilies, as well as grains such as quinoa; all of which grow rampantly in the Andean highlands.
With these staples, Peruvians perfected cooking styles influenced by its Inca ancestors, and later its European, Asian and African migrants.
“Peruvians roast their potatoes and chilies, just like the Incas used to,” Barra explains. “Then we add meat and blend it with ingredients brought in by our migrants, ingredients like garlic, onion, nuts and rice.”
An example of this is aji de gallina, which is chicken cooked in a thick sauce made from roasted yellow chilies, garlic and walnuts, served with potatoes and white rice. The dish, cooked and served in a ceramic bowl, is wholesome, earthy and deeply comforting.
Another starchy crowd pleaser is picarones, a dessert with African origins. The pumpkin-and-sweet-potato donut is served with syrup, brown sugar and figs. It’s light, fluffy and deliciously moist, rendering cronuts yesterday’s news.
But it’s not only carb-heavy dishes Peruvian cuisine is known for. The western coast of Peru yields fresh seafood, making fish dishes very popular. The national dish is ceviche ¬– diced raw fish marinated in lemon juice, garlic, onion and chilies.
Peruvians take great pride in preparing ceviche and it’s rarely served after 5pm (the fish caught during the day is not considered to be fresh any more by that point). They even drink the marinade, believing it to be both a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac.
While Melburnians aren’t rushing in to drink that acidic concoction, Barra has found local appetites for Peruvian flavours very encouraging. She hasn’t modified any of her recipes to suit Australian sensibilities and she finds Australian chilies to be an excellent substitute for the real deal grown in the Andes.
Surprisingly, Barra is often asked if alpaca (coming soon) or guinea pig (not allowed) will feature on the menu. The curiosity comes from returned travellers who have tried, and loved, these furry animals en route to Machu Picchu, or intrepid eaters following the international food trend.
But Barra didn’t mean to start a trend. Mi Peru isn’t in a laneway, fitted with retro or designer decor. It’s not a warehouse conversion. It has a simple shopfront next to the local fish-and-chip shop some 20 kilometres out of town (Barra picked Parkdale because it was where she found the most interest in her beloved cuisine).
The restaurant is warm and welcoming and full of enthusiastic diners. Barra’s focus remains clear: quality, home-style cooking prepared with authenticity and pride.
Peruvian food is finally making a move in Melbourne. A Peruvian-Italian fusion opened in Ivanhoe two months ago and a ceviche bar is set to debut off Flinders Lane next month.
It’s about time.
Mi Peru D’Carmen
242–246 Como Parade West, Parkdale
(03) 9587 8002
Wed to Fri 5.30pm–10.30pm
Sat noon–2pm, 5.30pm–10.30pm