By Danielle Miller
ámaZ. Short for Amazon? Amazing? It definitely deserves to claim them both. Our waiter tells me it’s a play on words in Spanish – derived from La Amazonia (the Amazon), as suspected, and also using the word “más,” which directly translates to “more.” These words represent the endless possibilities of the region’s incredible larder of natural ingredients.
After a year living in Lima, I’ve tasted my way through many restaurants in the Peruvian capital, and ámaZ is easily my favorite. Last weekend my fiancé Steven and I used our friend Jonathan’s visit from the UK as the perfect excuse to book a table and introduce him to the lesser-known flavors of Peru.
I say lesser-known because ámaZ doesn’t offer the typical Peruvian fare you may be thinking of — ceviche, potatoes, quinoa. Lima is the gastronomic capital of Latin America, and Peru is becoming just as well known for its food as its Inca ruins. But what’s really underrepresented in this mélange of modern hip Peruvian food is jungle food from the Amazon.Have you tried Amazonian #food? In #Lima here's where to savor it at its best! #Peru Click To Tweet
21st Century Amazonia: Concrete & Neon
As you walk into ámaZ in Lima’s trendy and affluent Miraflores district, right next door to the shiny glass-fronted Hilton Hotel, you’re instantly transported thousands of miles north east to the heart of the country’s jungle region. Now if you’re trying to visualize the jungle don’t just think vines, creepy crawlies and wooden canoes. The décor in the restaurant’s bar area reflects modern urban life in the Amazon and for me it was a reminder that globalization leaves no one behind. Beautiful lanterns made of dried leaves and carved wooden bar stools are juxtaposed with retro neon-colored furniture, modern hyper-realist artwork and a plastic jaguar lurking in the corner.
The eye is instantly drawn to a large painting of a vibrant sunset in the Amazon, but seen through the gaps in concrete breeze blocks. It’s the work of Peruvian artist Christian Bendayán, whose work tackles themes of modernization, pop culture and sexuality in the 21st century cosmopolitan Amazon.
We’re led through to the main dining area, taking us back to safe assumptions of jungle life – our table resembling a small wooden hut with cozy low lighting. The ornate wooden ceiling is inspired by patterns from the Shipibo – an indigenous Amazonian tribe known for their textiles.
Once seated we hit the cocktail menu which offers familiar favorites mixed with unusual twists. I tell the waiter I like citrus and want to try something different and from the Amazon. He doesn’t disappoint and I’m served up a cocktail with gin actually made from 100% Amazonian botanicals, courtesy of the Amazonian Gin Company at the Inca Distillery. Steven tries a tasty concoction made with Pisco and cocona, a fruit which looks a bit like a yellow tomato, but with a surprisingly sharp and acidic taste. Jonathan goes for a classic rum based option, with tropical notes from more unusual Amazonian fruit.
Natural Gluten-Free Yuca Bread
To whet our appetites, we order a basket of yuca bread and plantain “tostones.” Yuca — also known as cassava — is an indigenous tuber grown throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. What made this bread special is that it was made only of yuca flour, without wheat flour, making it perfect for people with coeliac disease like myself or who are just following a gluten-free diet.
The bread is warm, sticky and cheesy with a rich nutty flavor from the yuca. It’s served with two delightful and contrasting sauces and our waiter brings out different berries and fruits to show us what they were made of.
Along with the bread, we try “Los Maduros de Doña Eli” from the menu — small cups of sweet and crispy plantain filled with a zesty salsa and topped with bits of bacon. I love plantain, and the small bites are packed with flavor.Visiting #Lima? Here's Where You Need To #Eat #Peru Click To Tweet
The ámaZ Concept & The Man Behind It
The menu at ámaZ is beautifully presented and illustrated with scenes from the rain forest. It starts with a poem:
We have travelled through the forest,
We have lived with its strong and pleasant people.
We have learned their customs,
Myths and spells.
They guided us
And they showed us the pure life,
In plant, animal, ingredient.
We are back here, transformed by it.
This tells the story of Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, known as the “jungle chef,” the man behind the ámaZ concept. A Peruvian-born chef, his food is the product of his fascination with the Amazon, channeled by an international flair and sophistication from his culinary training in the United States and Italy.
As the poem suggests, Schiaffino has spent a lot of time in the Amazon, learning about the biodiversity of the region and the many incredible endemic ingredients. He’s also interacted with the people to learn how they traditionally prepare the ingredients, and now champions these ingredients and dishes in his restaurants. Over the years Schiaffino has carefully created and developed supply chains, supporting communities to understand and utilize the economic value of their surroundings to their advantage. He’s also passionate about preserving Amazonian ecosystems in the process.
For the main courses we decide to be adventurous and get chatting to our waiter Luis who gives us suggestions for some classic tastes of the Amazon. Hey, that’s what we’re here for after all!
Braving Giant Amazonian River Snails
“Churos Pishpirones.” Out come giant Amazonian river snails the size of tennis balls. I have to admit I’m a bit hesitant. Years ago I tried escargot in France and wasn’t a huge fan, but these snails are sumptuous. The meat is cut into small chunks with a slightly rubbery texture, a bit like squid. The taste is delicate but slightly salty. It’s served in a rich buttery chorizo sauce with tiny round globules. I originally think they are some kind of frog’s eggs, but am relieved to be told they’re made of tapioca. Yum! This is what Schiaffino does; he takes ingredients from the Amazon and serves them up with stylish refinement while preserving the essence of what they are and where they come from.
I want to know more about the interesting food we’re eating, and Luis is happy to answer all my questions about the ingredients and their journey from the Amazon to our plates. He proudly tells us that 80% of the ingredients are sourced from the Amazon and explains that the snails are sourced from the Simiria Basin in Loreto, Peru’s most sparsely populated region deep in the Amazon. The snails in that area come out of the river at certain times of the day and climb up one particular tree where they are harvested by a local family that sell them to ámaZ.
King Of The Amazon River: Paiche
“Steak de Paiche.” The grilled paiche is ámaZ’s star dish, and from the size of the fillet you can imagine the size of the beast that it came from. The paiche, also known as “arapaima,” is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, growing to over three meters. The meat is soft and tender and surprisingly earthy in taste; perhaps not so if you’re used to river fish, but certainly different for someone used to saltwater fish. The fish is served with a tangy cocona sauce. Like much of the menu, the rich earthy dish is balanced, contrasted and elevated with zesty, fruity flavors.
Luis explains that Schiaffino spent a lot of time working with local Amazon communities to develop sustainable paiche supply chains when he first introduced the fish to his menu. The fish is now very popular and at risk of decline due to overfishing and loss of habitat, limiting the supply as an important food source for indigenous people. So ámaZ has taken the bold step of farming their paiche.
Another great dish on the menu is “Ollita de Langostinos” – succulent prawns in a rich sauce with foraged mushrooms. We have this with a side of “Arroz Palillo con Castañas,” sticky rice flavored with brazil nuts. The accompaniment is perfect for soaking up the rich sauce from the prawns.
Heart & Soul Of The Amazon
If you’re visiting Peru, ámaZ is the chance for a unique dining experience that you won’t forget. It really is one of a kind. Schiaffino has succeeded in bringing the heart and soul of the Amazon to Lima, and you’ll leave feeling like you’ve had a true connection with the Amazon, even if you never venture that far.
You’ll find ámaZ on La Paz Avenue in Miraflores, Lima. Reservations are recommended (+51 1 221 9393) especially for dinner at the weekend. Ask for one of the “huts” on the upper level. The prices are mid-range, and offer great value for the excellent food and the whole experience of the Amazon that comes with it. For a cocktail and a selection of starters and mains to share, we spent about $40 each.
What’s your favorite Lima restaurant? Please share in the comments below!
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