LIMA (Reuters) - Throughout their history of poverty and political turmoil, Peruvians have been fiercely proud of their elaborate, spicy food and new superstar chefs are now a magnet for culinary tourists.
Lima used to be no more than a one-night stopover for international tourists -- many of them backpackers and budget travelers -- flying into Peru to visit the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and the neighboring historic city of Cuzco.
But a culinary explosion, helped by the fame of some Peruvian chefs abroad, has made the Pacific coast capital city more attractive for visitors, especially after a leftist insurgency ended in the 1990s and was followed by economic growth and greater political stability.
“Cooking is now one of the most popular professions, it must be as popular as surfing,” said Fernando Pacheco, chef and owner of Caplina restaurant.
Located in Lima’s affluent Miraflores neighborhood not far from the stony beaches where surfers ride some of Peru’s finest waves, Caplina competes with two other famous restaurants nearby and is a stop on the city’s new Culinary Tour.
The full-day excursion starts at a market to some of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes and corn used in Peruvian cooking, as well as coffee table-sized flatfish.
Tourists savor fresh shellfish sprinkled with lime at the market and then move on to eateries and bars, where they learn to make Peru’s famous cebiche -- fish marinated in lime juice and hot peppers -- and pisco sour cocktails.
Other classic Peruvian dishes such as carapulcra pork and dry potato stew, choncholi tripe, or skewer-grilled anticuchos made of fish, chicken or beef heart are also thrown in.
Cebiche used to be marinated for hours but now it is “cooked” in freshly squeezed lime juice for 5-10 minutes, a
style change adopted with the arrival of Japanese immigrants, one of dozens of foreign influences in Peruvian culture.
The “aji” chili, or hot pepper, gives cebiche a kick. Local legend has it that one foreigner who tasted it gasped “son-of-a-bitch,” which Peruvians then adopted as “cebiche”.
Patricia la Rosa, who heads Culinary Tour Peru, says the more believable version is that it comes from “cebo” -- pieces of fish used as bait that fishermen also marinated and ate.
Her tours are proving to be a hit and she says she has over 300 bookings made through to October, including one group of as many as 100 tourists. Over 200 visitors have already taken the tour since it opened last August.
“That tour is genius. It’s a whole-day thing, so tourists spend more time in Lima. All things culinary are really popular,” said Jose Pacora, a manager with Coltur -- a big local tour operator, which works with 8,000 mainly U.S. and British tourists a year and now plans to offer the Culinary Tour to its clients.
Coltur expects Peru’s overall tourism industry to grow 10 percent this year, partly driven by its increasingly trendy restaurants and cuisine.
For long a favorite among backpackers, Peru now draws more affluent visitors who can spend $30 or more on a fine meal.
Robust economic growth in the past five years and low lending rates allowed many Peruvians to open restaurants and others to dine out more frequently. Many Peruvian spices and products are now exported overseas.
Peruvian chefs went to study or work abroad over the past few years, making their country’s cuisine a hit in places like Spain.
Gaston Acurio was one of those pioneers. He has now opened a network of modern Peruvian food restaurants at home and is extending them across Latin America from Chile to Mexico.
“Gaston was one star, others followed,” said Felix Picasso, the executive chef of the JW Marriott Hotel in Lima, where the food departs from the usually bland international hotel fare.
His Cebiche al Pisco Sour mixes the best of Peru, marinating sliced fish and seafood in the famous Peruvian cocktail made of grape-based pisco liquor, lime, sugar and egg white.
Other restaurants offer daring fusions including mixtures of Peruvian regional food from the main three zones -- the coastal desert, the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle.
New Andean cuisine combining ancestral recipes with modern food is a hit in Lima. For instance, the quinoa grain used by the Incas substitutes rice in risottos.
“Peru with its food has been like a pauper sitting on a bench of gold,” said Pacheco, who has adapted various typical dishes for a foreign palate, for example replacing tripe with octopus in the choncholi dish.