LIMA -- I didn't set out to eat the guinea pig.
But it wasn't until biting into the delicate bone that I truly guessed what this delicious dish -- innocuously called "cuy pekines" on the seven-course tasting menu -- was.
It certainly didn't look like a guinea pig -- or any sort of rodent, really -- its meat sauteed into a savoury "turnip jelly" with fresh herbs on a soft purple corn tortilla.
The "cuy" lingers on the palate, at least until the next course -- a duck ravioli -- followed by braised alpaca and a dessert of papaya sorbet.
We are at Gaston Acurio's Chi Cha restaurant, in Arequipa, Peru, arguably ground zero of a culinary renaissance in a country more famous for Machu Picchu than for prix fixe.
Backpackers visiting the verdant ruins along the Inca trail still wander the narrow streets but Peru today bills itself as the "gastronomic capital of the Americas" and a leading destination for foodies around the world.
More and more, Latin cuisine is shaking up kitchens and nowhere is that more apparent than in this Andean nation of nearly 29 million people, where indigenous traditions and Spanish colonialism, aided by a subtle dash of Asian and Africentric culture, have merged with imagination as fertile as the land itself.
Meld creativity -- if not daring -- in the kitchen and diversity of ingredients and the result is, as Gustavo Borja Durand, executive chef at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, says, cuisine with "identity and soul."
Each dish, he says, is crafted to tell a different "story" and meant to provide travellers with a "culinary experience."
Asked what makes Peruvian cuisine stand out, Elger Celis Martinez-Ignace is emphatic: "The produce," he declares, citing more than 3,000 different varieties of potato in a country slightly larger than Ontario.
Martinez-Ignace oversees the open kitchen at Wayra, in the Sacred Valley, the heart of the lush Urubamba region in the shadow of Machu Picchu. Staples such as pepper, beets and beans dance off the plate once he's through.
More importantly, the revolution in restaurants has sparked a groundshift toward healthy eating across what is still a relatively poor country.
"We're trying to integrate the ingredients for fine food, not fine dining," says Brisa Deneumostier, 34, who recently completed her first season as TV host of Organico Peru and who offers hands-on cooking classes in her home outside Lima.
After training in kitchens from Thailand to Jordan and even under Acurio -- recognized as one of the world's finest chefs and perhaps most well known Peruvian -- Deneumostier returned to Peru in the hopes of spreading the message of sustainability.
"I believe in food as medicine," she says, gliding about the stone kitchen as her guests chop mushrooms and dice basil to use in ceviche, probably the most well known of Peruvian dishes.
A two-hour flight to the northeast, Veronica Rojas says much the same thing.
"We're trying to create an awareness of nutrition. Gastronomy is a way to benefit the whole country," says Rojas, sous chef at Palacio Nazarenas, the newest and most luxurious hotel in Cusco, the soaring former Incan capital and the launching pad of most treks to Machu Picchu.
"We're not trying to impress the world; the world can come later."
In the courtyard of the former nunnery, she leads a tour of her "secret garden," where fresh herbs, vegetables and edible flowers are plucked daily. When one ingredient isn't available in one part of the country, her team will drives hours to where it is.
Rojas goes so far as to use freshwater clay and "cushuro" -- a rock-grown moss -- in her dishes. Even salt is the pink sea salt mined in the nearby town of Maras.
"Everything that is edible, we try to use in our creations," Rojas says in Spanish. "We are continually experimenting to see what goes well with what."
It is a nation blessed with a temperate climate and diverse geography -- jungle, highlands and a long Pacific coast line -- with each region providing its own flair.
At Fiesta Chiclayo, in the Miraflores district of Lima, for instance, northern seafood is the specialty. Today, the business lunch crowd is buzzing as servers offer up everything from tortilla de raya -- manta ray -- to its own special take on ceviche.
Even better for tourists, restaurant prices are generally lower than what one would pay for a similar meal in Canada.
All this probably wouldn't be possible except for the likes of Acurio and fellow celebrity chefs such as Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who a decade ago took ancient grains (quinoa and kwichna) and meats -- long scorned as food for the poor -- and incorporated them into their creations.
And into the country's mainstream.
* * *
PERUVIAN FOOD BASICS
Here are some things to look for on menus in Peru:
Ceviche: A classic fish dish-- typically bass or grouper -- marinated in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with aji or chili peppers. Thought to have originated in south or central America, the dish can vary depending on the region.
Pepper: Rocoto (red chili pepper) or aji (yellow pepper) are in most Peruvian dishes. The former can be served whole, stuffed with cheese, potato or meat; the latter is used in a wonderful sauce.
Chicken soup: Not your mom's but thick -- including a chicken leg and an egg -- cheap, hearty and ubiquitous.
Quinoa: This ancient grain has gained popularity across the world. While we typically limit its use to cereal and salad, in Peru you'll find it as coating for meats, as fritters or as an ingredient in innumerable other dishes.
Solterito: A traditional southern salad, usually served as an appetizer, of fava beans, corn, pepper and other fresh vegetables, along with cheese and spices.
Cuy: That's guinea pig and you can get it ground, stuffed, on a spit, fried, etc. It's also available in the frozen food section of supermarkets.
* * *
One of Peru's ironies is that a country sandwiched between wine-making giants Chile and Argentina, and a producer in its own right of some of the continent's finest grapes, barely registers on the list of wine-making countries. But all that changes when it comes to pisco.
Fermented and then distilled, the blend of five different white grapes ends up as colourless, 90-proof firewater no self-respecting Peruvian -- and few tourists -- can resist. It's comparable to brandy except the latter is stored in oak barrels to give it its amber colour.
Pisco actually is produced in the Ica region but is named after the port, about a half-hour away, from which it was/is shipped. Peru is the world leader in pisco exports but often has to battle Chile over who actually invented it (not to mention which country produces the best). In Ontario, the LCBO only stocks Chilean pisco, which may come as a disappointment to anyone who's had a Peruvian pisco sour.
How big a deal is pisco in Peru?
It has two national festivals: Pisco Day on July 28 and Pisco Sour Day -- named after the country's national drink -- on Feb. 1.
Chile and Peru even argue about who invented the cocktail. One thing most people agree on: It's amazing.
Here's how to make it:
3 parts pisco
1 1/2 parts simple syrup
1 1/2 parts lime juice
Blend with ice and an egg white, shake hard and strain into a glass then add a couple drops of bitters at the end.
* * *
For more on Peru, see hiddentreasures.peru.travel/ or contact Juan Forteza, account director, PromPeru. Also see facebook.com/turismoperu.
• In the heart of the Machu Picchu/Cusco region, Tambo del Inka in Sacred Valley is a perfect combination of serenity and culture.
• Arequipa is filled with former colonial mansions one -- Casa Andina -- has been transformed into a stunning retreat with stone courtyard and private gallery, behind a giant wood door in the heart of the city.
• The Lima Marriott provides waterfront views, a casino and an easy walk to attractions in the Miraflores district.
• In the city of Ica, Vinas Queirolo is set among vineyards, where grapes for both red wine and pisco are harvested. The pisco is made right on the estate. The Sheraton Paracas, about 30 km away, offers oceanside luxury and convenience.