Martin Allen Morales' Lima

The Peruvian cook who brought ceviche to Britain takes us into the sultry streets of the country's capital in search of Andean stews, early-morning pork rolls and steaming cups of hot fish stock

Martin Allen Morales' Lima Photo

Of the 3,000 varieties of potato that exist on the planet, at least 2,500 grow in Peru. Martin Allen Morales hasn’t seen them all but he reckons he’s encountered at least 40 in Lima’s food markets. ‘You see this explosion of colour,’ says Martin. ‘There are not six varieties or four varieties like we see in our local shops in the UK, there are thousands.’ It’s the same story with chillies. ‘When you’re trying to create a masterpiece, you need an accomplice to the protein and, in Peru, that accomplice is always chilli,’ he continues. ‘Amarillo, panca, rocoto, limo, Colorado, the Amazonian chillies – all colours, shapes and sizes.’

From its ancient Inca history to the roll call of migrants who have made it home, Peru’s cuisine is defined by its diversity. Add to that its wildly contrasting climates (rainforest, desert, high-altitude Andes) and a vibrant ingredients list and it’s clear why Martin felt London was sorely missing a taste of Peru when he launched his first restaurant, Ceviche, in Soho.

Born in Lima, Martin moved to the UK at the age of 11, forced out by threats against his father made by Shining Path, the revolutionary Communist guerrillas who terrorised Peru during the 1980s. Since then, Leicester and London have both been home, although he still visits Lima most years.

After cutting his teeth in the music industry, Martin switched from turntables to hob tops in 2012 to launch Ceviche, and his first restaurant has been credited with introducing Britain to South American cuisine. His debut joint was swiftly followed by Andina, in Shoreditch, before a second Ceviche branch arrived on Old Street. Londoners (and critics), who’d only experienced raw fish in the form of sushi, were beguiled by platefuls of dazzling colour, distinctive ingredients and Peru’s signature dynamism.

The ceviche dish itself – raw fish (often sea bass) ‘cooked’ with lime juice and scattered with chillies, spring onions and more – has come to define British understanding of South American food, thanks in no small part to Martin’s roster of restaurants.

But limiting Peru’s cuisine to just one plate underestimates its depth. Martin's childhood food memories are plucked from across the seasons and well beyond the fish markets. Summer in Lima was marked by solterito, a salad of potato, queso fresco (fresh cheese) juicy Botija olives, onion and broad beans. Winter saw much use of pulses and meats. 'There's papa rellena, a deep-fried potato filled with a ragù of cinnamon and raisin- spiked beef,’ explains Martin. ‘Arroz con pato, rice and duck, made with coriander and beer, and arroz con pollo, rice and yellow-red chicken, with Amarillo and smoked panca chillies.’

His cooking skills were gained in the kitchens of his great grandmother and her sisters. ‘My grandmother Mamita Natty lived up in the Andes and grew her own chickens and guinea pigs,’ he says. ‘She had her own fields of corn and potatoes. All our food was farm-to-table, nose-to-tail. I’d visit her a few times a year but I spent most weekends with her sisters, Carmela and Otilia, in the Lince neighbourhood [of Lima]. We went to the markets and carried heavy bags back home, about three blocks away, full of mangoes, avocados, chillies and fish.’

Hemmed in between the South Pacific and Andes range, Martin's home city is caught between extremes. Ceviche looks to the ocean but heartier dishes trace their origins back to the mountains’ chiselled, breathless heights. ‘In Lima, the culture is both eating out and eating in,’ explains Martin. ‘But we cook from our grandmothers’ recipes – traditional, hearty Andean dishes: quinoa, maca, amaranth, chillies, potatoes, corns, herbs, vegetables. This encapsulates the roots of our food.' His favourite potato dish, papa a la Huancaína, is itself an Andean migrant, created over 100 years ago in the city of Huancayo: boiled potatoes with a houmous-like sauce crafted from chillies, cheese and peanuts. ‘It’s exquisite,’ adds Martin.

The chef's second restaurant, Andina, put the spotlight on Andean ingredients and the women he credits with driving Peruvian cuisine forwards. ‘Picanteras are the mothers of Peruvian food,’ he says. ‘They own family restaurants in Andean cities like Arequipa. La Nueva Palomino is a favourite. Go at 9am on a Sunday, after a strong hike and with an empty stomach, to eat the adobo, slow cooked smoked panca chilli, pork and chicha corn brew. It’ll awaken all your senses.'

Ceviche, on the other hand, took inspiration from the erratic streets of the capital and its unlikely mismatch of neighbourhoods. Colourful Barranco – ‘full of galleries, restaurants and bars, it’s buzzy, you eat outdoors, the markets are great’ – and San Isidro, the financial district. ‘In San Isidro, you have food from around the world, the best restaurants and the best produce.’ Martin rates Chifa Titi, a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant, where steamed frog fish joinsroasted duck and lychee ice cream on the menu.

Part of the joy of Lima is the hole-in-the-wall spots that bear no name. You’ll find them in Los Olivos, a rough-and-ready neighbourhood rich with regional cultures. Family-run places boast strange opening hours and even stranger locations. ‘I remember my uncle taking me to a restaurant inside someone’s garage to eat shambar,’ says Martin. ‘That’s Monday soup, because everything from the weekend goes into it. It's very hearty. The guy showed me every single ingredient – there were about 20 or 30. Pulses, chickpea, pork, garlic, huacatay, which is Peruvian black mint, parsley, potato and giant kernel corn.’

Although Lima frequently tops lists of the world’s best gastronomic cities, claiming five Michelin stars and some first-class chefs, Martin is more interested in the restaurants that dispel with airs and graces. Quick bites, such as tamales, are top of his list. ‘Head to the organic food market, Bioferia, in Miraflores on a Sunday. There are two lovely nuns selling tamales, raising money for their convent. Theirs are the best.’

Limeños start the day with coffee, perhaps at Tosaduría Bisetti in Barranco, before breakfast. ‘I’d take you to Las Vecinas for breakfast,' says Martin. 'An asparagus tamale with a poached egg. Or some Andean bread with homemade jams, like cherimoya or papaya.’ Fruits pepper Peru’s national menu. It’s not uncommon for diners to swerve an alcoholic tipple for a guanábana (soursop) juice. The green fruit offers a creamy, sweet interior with citric notes.

‘After Las Vecinas, I’d take you for a chicharrón sandwich,' says Martin. 'It’s what every hard-working person has on their way to work on a cold day. We’d go to La Lucha for the confit pork with sweet potato in a crusty white roll, with a red onion and chilli salsa.’

And then it’s lunchtime. ‘You’re spoilt for choice,’ says Martin. ‘Peru is the country for lunch. Many restaurants don’t even open for dinner. We’d go to the Surquillo Market. It’s an orgy of seafood – all live. Conch shells and clams. Prawns, octopus, crabs, lobsters. And right in the middle is a ceviche stall manned by this fantastic chef who tells the best jokes in Lima. It’s called El Cevichano.’

Don’t expect a pisco sour with your ceviche, though. ‘If you’re in someone’s house, you’ll be welcomed with a pisco sour but we never have them with ceviche,' explains Martin. Ask for a cold Christo beer. Or have leche de tigre, tiger’s milk, the marinade that’s used to make ceviche. We serve it in cups.’ If it’s cold, regulars might turn to a fish- market favourite – a steaming cup of chilcano, fish stock. ‘It’s part of that zero-waste culture,’ says Martin. ‘It’s like a miso soup – clear and full of flavour, with spring onions, coriander and a little squeeze of lime.’

Then, it’s back to the snacks, reminiscent of the bakery Martin opened beside Andina, specialising in fermented breads. ‘Pastelería San Antonio, an old- school Lima bakery, has incredible bread, or try Café De Lima. Their artichoke empanada with icing sugar and lime might sound crazy but it tastes divine.’

After leaving the Ceviche group last year to focus on supporting sustainable food companies, Martin has had time to focus on his other love: music (he owns a record
label, Tiger Milk). Those beats provide a strong pull on a warm Lima evening. ‘I’d go for a drink and a boogie, then a hot, late-night sandwich at Monstruos in Barranco,’ he says, describing his perfect night. The shop is famed for its tambourine-sized baps filled with meat, chilli and salad.

He rhapsodises on the city’s peñas, too – bars which, on Saturdays, fill with the dizzying beats of Afro-Peruvian music. 'It’s like something you’ve never experienced: the best musicians, dance, laughter and happiness,' Martin explains. 'It’s that richness, that incredible diversity, that makes Peru so special. It’s a real feast for the senses.’

Martin's hotspots

El Mercado Chef Rafael Osterling plates up the daily catch at his laid-back, bistro-style fish stop. Try the ceviche of the day, served with avocado as ripe as a soft-serve scoop.

La Picanteria Another fish-focused Lima favourite, Héctor Solís’s casual Miraflores restaurant serves specialities from Chiclayo, his hometown in north-west Peru. It’s a lunch-only spot and fish is priced per kilo. Get there early as there’s a limited offering and once it’s gone, they close.

Shizen Barra Nikkei Pulling from the historyof 18th-century Japanese migration to the city, this Peruvian-Japanese restaurant crafts exquisite, creative dishes.

Don Fernando A no-nonsense establishment serving criolla (Spanish-influenced) food. Expect to wait for a table as it’s loved by locals.

Barra Lima One of San Isidro’s finest. Chef John Evans plates up Lima classics with an edge. Avenida Los Conquistadores 904

Words by Lucy Kehoe.

This interview was taken from the December 2020 issue of Food and Travel magazine.

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Martin Allen Morales' Lima Photo

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