Peru and Japan have had deep cultural ties since the late 1800s, when waves of Japanese immigrants began arriving in Peru for the first time. Today, individuals of Japanese heritage are the largest minority group in the country. With this history in mind, then, it is natural that Peruvian-Japanese came to mind when Zengo wanted to create a special fusion menu.
Available for the month of October, the “Taste of Lima-Tokyo” menu is the first in a series of menus that take Zengo’s overall Latin-Asian fusion concept and narrow it down to focus on specific locations on those two continents and bring out the connections and contrasts between them, while infusing it all with a modern, cosmopolitan taste. The special menu consists of a collection of small plates and cocktails.
Last week, Zengo hosted a tasting for members of the media and food bloggers, where we were offered the opportunity to sample all the items off the food and drink menus and hear from the chef and bar director about their inspirations. Chief among them, the traditional grape brandy native to Peru, Pisco.
In attendance at the event was the founder and CEO of Macchu Pisco, Melanie da Trindade-Asher. Her piscos served as the base of most of the cocktails on the menu, as well as pairing on their own with the cuisine – particularly the sophisticated La Diabladia and luxurious Ñusta Pisco.
At the beginning of the tasting, Ms. Trindade-Asher asked guests to raise their hands if they had never tried Pisco before. About half of the group did, reflecting the sprit’s relatively less well-known status for many American drinkers. She noted, though, that when she hosted events like this a year or two ago, the number of people new to the spirit would have been much more than half – and that popularity of Pisco is growing rapidly.
A newcomer to Pisco would be served well at Zengo, where cocktails are whipped up to make the spirt accessible and fresh. The classic Pisco Sour, the most essential of Pisco cocktails, is totally reimagined in my favorite of the Lima-Tokyo menu’s drinks, the Spicy Passion Fruit Pisco Sour. It bares almost no resemblance to the traditional Pisco Sour one might have in mind. Instead of appearing up in a cocktail glass, topped with frothy egg whites and dark orange bitters, here the drink is in short glass spicy with amarillo chile and juicy and thick from passion fruit puree. Regardless of expectations, the result is genuinely spicy (so few cocktails that claim to use chile actually deliver on the heat) and delicious.
If that spicy, assertive, and colorful drink represented more of the Latin influence, the Sparkling Sake Pisco Cocktail, which served as an aperitif at the dinner, had a distinctly more Japanese style. Delicate, subtle, and minimalist, the pale-pale blue drink had a sort of biscuity, genever-like note and elegant carbonation from the Sparkling Flower sake. To garnish, a single purple grape, which had been left to soak in Pisco, then frozen, before being dropped into the glass of Pisco and sake.
While the Macchu Pisco is brilliant for mixing, the two aged Piscos served on their own to sip where unusual and delightful. The La Diabladia’s name refers to a traditional Peruvian dance said to be between angels and the devil – in the glass, as Ms. Trindade-Asher said, this Pisco is “Spicy like the devil at first, but finishes sweet, like an angel.” Made from a blend of four grapes, it is the only vintage-year designated Pisco currently sold in the US. To finish the meal, an after dinner sip of Ñusta Pisco, a luxurious and rare aged spirit, of which only one hundred bottles are produced each year. It has a grape quality somewhat more like grappa than other Piscos, and could be my new go-to after-dinner spirit were it more widely-available.
To go with – and inspired by – all of these drinks, Zengo’s Chef Gahram Bartlett crafted small sharing plates of foods which drew from the food traditions of Tokyo and Lima. Obviously, with that source material, the natural place to start is raw fish, a favorite of both nations, and his Rainbow Ceviche pleased the crowd, using a variety of seafood along with cilantro, Asian yuzu citrus, and Japanese purple potato.
The purple potatoes reappear elsewhere on the menu, including alongside a Oyako roasted chicken breast with quail egg and on one of the most talked-about dishes amongst the people at my table, a seafood soup called Chupe de Mariscos. This waterzooi-style concoction was served in individual portions with about three dishes – one bowl for the soup and several receptacles for the shells of the shrimp, clams, and cockles which came in a milk and dashi broth. The soup was salty and spicy as well as creamy. While most at the table seemed to enjoy the soup, the consensus was this was a dish to order when out with friends, but maybe not on a first date – it was not the most elegant thing to be seen shucking at slurping at and making a little bit of a mess.
The fresh salad which opened the meal was one of my favorites. A combination of lima beans and green beans on a bed of baby arugula and watercress it has a bit of pepper and spice, played up by a ginger-peanut dressing and salty crumbled feta cheese. Given the richer dishes to come, it was a great starting point, but it would also have been a perfectly pleasant entree on its own. This is not the too-common after-thought salad tossed off to get something green on the table, but rather a really good dish on its own which carried through on the fusion concept.
At the end of the night, Mr. Luis Chang Boldrini from Peru’s embassy, gave a brief speech about the diversity of Peru’s food and gastronomy culture, and, of course, the national drink, Pisco. Himself of Peruvian-Chinese heritage, he represented the natural fusion of East and West that Zengo hopes to capture and offer to diners. With their Lima-Tokyo menu they have highlighted the perhaps underrepresented Peruvian cuisine, and it will be exciting to see which locations they focus on in future menus of this series.