Forget all the fashionable foodie fare

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 15:13 16/07/2013
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LIGHT AND LOVELY: Peruvian Ceviche is refreshing.Unlike tacu tacu, not all dishes will make you feel like you've eaten a bag of cricket balls.

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HEARTY FOOD: A Peruvian woman prepares a meal outdoors.

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A word of advice: if you're going to order the tacu tacu, make sure you're hungry. Not peckish. Starving. Ravenous. Haven't eaten in a week. Famished.

Otherwise you're doomed.

I made the mistake of having breakfast today, and there might have even been a mid-morning snack, which was a serious error in judgment.

Because now here I am faced with the biggest pile of food I've ever seen, surrounded by very nice people who would really like to see me enjoy my meal, and I'm not sure I'm even going to make a dent in it.

Tacu tacu, for the uninitiated, is a gigantic pile of Peruvian carbohydrates that's patted into a huge, thick pancake and fried.

There's usually some sort of meaty accompaniment to this monstrosity, but the star of the show is the solid frisbee of rice and beans that looms like a challenge on the plate in front of me.

This is northern Peruvian food at its most traditional and basic. There's nothing refined or fancy about tacu tacu. There are no Michelin stars for this meal. It's the equivalent of a pie at the footy, a simple dish that's there to do a job: fill you up.

And that it does.

You've heard about Peruvian cuisine, of course. Everyone has. There's all sorts of buzz around dishes such as ceviche; suddenly Lima is a foodie hot spot.

Strangely, that's not the Peru I remember from previous trips - the Peru I remember is that of endless versions of lomo saltado, the dish of chopped beef with onions and capsicum.

It seemed like everywhere I went last time I was served lomo saltado. Now all of a sudden Peru is culinary heaven? It doesn't make sense.

On this trip, however, I'm starting to get it. And it's not the fancy stuff in the capital that's proving the point, but the down-home, simple food of the north.

This is all "a lo pobre" - of the poor. It's peasant cuisine, but it's amazing.

Unlike tacu tacu, not all dishes will make you feel like you've eaten a bag of cricket balls. Ceviche is light and lovely. It's usually made with sea bass, sliced and cured in citric juices and served with chunky kernels of local corn.

But most of the food around here is heartier. A few days ago I was in the town of Trujillo, eating stewed baby goat, real food of the poor. It was slow-cooked on the bone, smothered in sauce and served with fried potatoes. Delicious.

Out on the coast I was into chicharrones de pescado - chunks of fish crumbed and fried and served, once again, with potatoes.

The king of northern Peruvian cuisine, however, is not chicharron, or baby goat, or ceviche, or even lomo saltado. The winner by the length of the Andes is arroz con pato - rice with duck.

I ate it yesterday in the town of Lambayeque, at a little restaurant called El Rincon del Pato. It seemed unassuming from the outside, but in its brightly decorated interior sat a well-dressed diner surrounded by a whole film crew while he forked large slabs of duck into his mouth.

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"He is a celebrity chef from Lima," one of the locals told me. "He's making a TV show. Like, maybe, Anthony Bourdain."

Right, so Peru's version of Anthony Bourdain chooses to eat his duck here. Good enough for me.

Arroz con pato is a dish borne of convenience, using local ingredients that were always easy to procure: duck, rice, coriander, onion, capsicum.

The whole lot is slow-cooked together to form a sort of pilaf, and it's one of the tastiest things you could hope to eat. Our celebrity friend clearly agrees.

And this is what the hype is all about. This is why people talk about Peruvian food. It's not the endless lomo saltado - it's the duck, the ceviche, the goat and the fish.

And, to a lesser extent, it's the tacu tacu sitting in front of me right now. This version is served in a beachside restaurant in Pacasmayo, a little coastal spot that's popular with surfers and domestic holidaymakers.

Tacu tacu is stern stuff, built for farmers who've spent a long day in the fields, or surfers who've had a long day in the water. It isn't served on its own, but drowning in a seafood stew, chunks of squid, prawns, octopus and fish bulking out an already enormous meal.

I can only make the smallest dent in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Next time, I'll skip breakfast. For about a week.

Which country's cuisine do you favour? What's been your experience of local food overseas? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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