There is serious food to be eaten in Lima. Beyond the cuy (guinea pig), 3800 varieties of potato and multitude of restaurants from the Godfather of modern Peruvian cooking (Gastón Acurio), there is one thing that should be consumed in great quantities.
Ceviche. It is a blessing of a dish.
With a heritage that melds Incan/Spanish/ Moorish, it was Japanese immigrants who encouraged Peruvians to just quickly marinate their small pieces of raw fish in citrus juices, instead of letting them steep and flounder for hours in lime.
The result is all zip and zing; ‘cooking’ the fish through the force of the acid, but only just. It’s fresh and light. It’s got a soothing texture, but a taste that pulls an assertive punch. It’s delightful on its own with a cold Cuzqueña beer, pisco sour or some luridly yellow Inca Kola. Yet it also happily beds down against the soft and sweet flavours of sweet potato and fat orbs of corn.
For those in search of the best in Lima, you’d be hard pressed to go much further than La Canta Rana.
In the beach side neighborhood of Barranca, it’s been serving ceviche for more than 26 years. It’s a casual, bustly place. The ceiling is a chaotic rumble of flags and the walls are crowded with framed press, photographs and football jerseys. The floors are mosaic tiles, the tables are sturdy wood, topped with white paper cloths. Its name translates to the ‘Singing Frog’ and a joyful exuberance croaks throughout the room as it fills with large groups of family and the occasional tourist.
The yellow laminated menus are rich with pickings. Classic Peruvian items like causa call out. Here the rich Papa Amarilla (yellow potato) is mashed into a timbale with crab, avocado, a blushing pink mayonnaise and a spritz of lemon. It’s hearty and elegant, arriving as a proud tower of sweet flavours which build bit by bit.
But most people will and should come here for ceviche. There are more than 17 varieties on the menu. The portions are generous enough to share and arrive with blooming coins of yellow corn, steamed sweet potato and side dishes of dried crunchy corn, known as canchita.
The tiradito is a slightly mellower cousin of ceviche. There is no raw onion here, just soft segments of fish marinated in lemon until it turns lightly opaque and holds itself a little firmer on a fork.
For the best effect, order one classic ceviche and one tiradito and swap back and forth, comparing which holds the most favour.
If you still have room for dessert, you could indulge a sweet tooth by ordering another glass of chicha morada – a vibrant Grimace-purple drink made by boiling dark corn with pineapple rind and cinnamon.
Or else undo all of the health benefits of your light lunch and dig your spoon deep into a portion of suspiro de limeña. The literal translation of the dessert is ‘The Woman from Lima’s Sigh”.
It’s a sticky pit of the Peruvian equivalent of milk caramel, gilded with a crown of meringue, dusted with cinnamon. It’s sweet enough to solder teeth, but strangely addictive.
So long as you can get a seat (go early for lunch- before 1 pm), La Canta Rana is an idyllic an introduction to Peruvian food.
Go early and go often. Drink as many fluffy pisco sours as you think sensible at lunch. Sit back and eat ceviche until you’re stuffed. Then spend some time soaking up an atmosphere that’s just as vibrant as the stuff on the plate.
La Canta Rana
(0)1 247 7274
Nb, if this has made you crave ceviche terribly and you just can’t make it to Lima, you can always take this one, inspired by ‘Life of Pi’ for this year’s Oscars Feast . Just omit the ginger and turmeric and serve with some steamed sweet potato for a more authentic taste of Peru.
Spiced Ceviche Boats with Tiger’s Milk
Makes 12-16 boats for canapes for a crowd or starters for 4 people.
Nb, if serving as a starter, consider adding some diced mango into the ceviche before serving to counter the acrid flavour of the lime. One or two boats is perfect with a beer or cocktail. More may become bracing.
300 grams of skinless and boneless snapper/Mahi Mahi/other firm flesh white fish cut into 1-2cm cubes
Good pinch of salt
Juice of five limes (around 100ml)
1/2 red onion, cut into very fine dice
1 green chilli, cut into fine slices
1 knob of ginger, half the size of a wine cork, peeled and minced (remove for a more traditional ceviche)
2 tbsp of fresh coriander/cilantro chopped
1 tsp turmeric ((remove for a more traditional ceviche)
2 endives, ends trimmed and leaves separated.
1) Sprinkle the fish with salt and set aside while you prepare the marinade.
2) Juice the limes (if you heat them in a microwave briefly and then roll them on the bench under your palms you will get the most juice out of them). Add the juice to the fish and allow to marinate for 15-20 minutes.
3) Soak the diced onion in cold water for five minutes. This will soften the flavour slightly and help the pieces to separate.
3) Drain the onion and combine in a larger bowl with the turmeric, ginger, chilli and coriander.
4) Combine the now-opaque fish and lime juice with the other ingredients. Gently stir to combine. Eat the ceviche immediately in endive boats with the tiger’s milk (lime juice marinade) on the side, or refrigerate until serving.