The first restaurant in Peru to earn a Michelin star is a thoroughly modern temple of polished concrete and reclaimed wood. At Lima’s IK bistro, the warm ceviche is tangy and smoky, the buttery jumbo river shrimp playfully paired with tiny melt-in-your-mouth Yorkshire puddings. But today the kitchen is working to incorporate a far more traditional dish: grilled alpaca.
The once marginalized meat has been popping up on Peruvian menus lately. At Malabar (No. 7 on Restaurant Magazine’s list of best Latin American restaurants) fine pieces of dehydrated alpaca are threaded with edible leaves to create a nest for a slow cooked egg. At El Señorio de Sulco, a tender alpaca carpaccio tempts the business lunch crowd. But for many Peruvians, the notoriously tough meat is a hard sell.
The fuzzy-faced, grass-eating alpaca, prized for its downy soft wool, has long lacked a perception of dietary sophistication. “It’s something poor people eat,” shrugs a Limeño friend. It’s traditionally served in the highlands, usually in the form of a thick, medium-well steak with a dull side of potatoes—wedding food at its worst.
“In the past, when Limeños thought of alpaca, they thought of tough meat and a bad smell,” says Alfonso Velasquez, president of Sierra Exportadora, a government agency promoting economic growth for small-scale farmers in underdeveloped regions. Velasquez is eager to get Lima—home to a third of Peru’s population—to embrace alpaca. Employing trickle-down theory, Sierra Exportadora is working first to convince Lima’s top chefs.
At the oceanfront El Señorio de Sulco, the handsomely broad-shouldered chef Flavio Solórzano is a master of updating Peruvian cuisine. He says the quality of alpaca was previously inconsistent. But a demonstration held by Sierra Exportadora changed his mind. “You can cut baby alpaca with a fork,” he explains. “I call it the Peruvian Kobe.”
The average Peruvian’s diet has changed greatly over the past two decades, as the Latin nation has said goodbye to Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and hello to near-double-digit GDP growth. “Now that we’re richer, we want big, Brazilian steaks,” says Solórzano. But a growing global popularity of Peruvian culture has also fostered a sense of pride in the national cuisine. “People are starting to embrace local foods, as they do Peruvian music and the Pisco sour,” says IK’s Franco Kisic, which may bode well for the alpaca and the struggling farmers who raise them.
At Bravo Restobar, the swanky San Isidro home of chef Christian Bravo, alpaca ribs are marinated in mild aji panca peppers, vinegar and oregano and grilled to medium rare. They’re served over a herbed corn purée and finished with bacon salt. It has the flavour and texture of lean pork. And not at all like a charity dish.
FIVE TRUE FACTS ABOUT ALPACAS
6,000 years: How long alpacas have been raised for wool. There are no wild alpacas.
20,000: The number of alpacas in the U.S. and Canada. They’re considered a good investment for hobby farmers.
Up to $45 per pound: The market value of raw alpaca fleece
Lanolin-free: It’s what makes alpaca wool hypoallergenic, though slightly less water resistant.
And flame resistant: The wool meets the U.S. consumer standards for clothing and upholstery