Latin American flavor north of the Han

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Latin American flavor north of the Han

On my first visit to Cusco, Korea’s first and only Peruvian restaurant, a very happy-looking group of Spanish-speaking men greeted me as they were leaving. The chef, Jaime Campana, said they were Peruvians and Colombians who visited often.
Since opening Cusco eight months ago in the Mapo district in northern Seoul, proprietor Lee Won-jong has provided Korea’s small population of South American expats with something of a community service: a buffet of a few traditional Peruvian dishes, draft beer included, for just 20,000 won ($16) on Saturday evenings. “Most of them are factory workers from Bucheon, Ilsan and Dongducheon who cannot afford expensive foreign food in Korea,” Mr. Lee said. (The buffet has been briefly suspended for a menu change, but will be resumed in November.)
Mr. Lee developed a passion for Peruvian culture while traveling in Latin America as a travel agent. His restaurant is named after the ancient Inca capital, known as “the navel of the world.” In Cusco itself, Mr. Lee also owns a small Korean restaurant, where he serves cheap, spicy noodle dishes.
Cusco, the restaurant, is a modestly decorated place with seven tables and a bar; it seats about 30. The two chefs, Ttito Ceredonio and Jaime Campana, who used to work in Mr. Kim’s restaurant in Peru, whip up Peruvian food as well as Mexican items like tacos al pastor, enchiladas and quesadillas. Mexican tequila and Chilean wines are stocked at the bar.
A late dinner with Wilbert Haya Enriquez, second secretary and consul of the Peruvian Embassy, started with a frothy cocktail called pisco sour (6,000 won). Made with the Peruvian liquor pisco, lemon juice and egg whites, this sweet-and-sour drink would have been perfect for a lazy summer afternoon, but was somewhat too potent for a weeknight dinner.
Mr. Enriquez helped me choose from a TGI Friday’s-style menu, while giving me an introductory course of Peruvian cuisine using two gorgeous cookbooks he had brought along.
The Andes are home to hundreds of varieties of chili peppers, potato and corn, he said, and everyone loves papa rellena (12,000 won), deep-fried croquettes filled with creamy potatoes, chopped carrots and peas. Covered with brown bread crumbs, these dumplings were served sizzling hot, and were very soft and tasty. On the side were boiled green peas and a raw onion slice, which we didn’t touch.
A fancier treat was seco de cordero (12,000 won), a lamb steak served with steamed rice, steamed peas and carrots. Chef Jaime’s personal favorite was aji de gallina (7,000 won), spicy chicken with yellow paprika cream, so we ordered it. Soon the table became colorful and aromatic; it looked like a meal prepared at a country farm.
The chunky slice of lamb, an Australian import, didn’t exactly melt in my mouth; the green sauce made with cilantro puree wasn’t so velvety, and the rice was typically Korean. But surprisingly, the combination of all three was homey and delicious. In one of his cookbooks, Mr. Enriquez showed me what seco de condero might look like when prepared elegantly by a top chef; in the book, it had a definite European look, with long-grain rice, perfectly reduced sauce and beautifully glazed meat. Mr. Enriquez said Peruvian cuisine has embraced Portuguese and Spanish influences, since the 15th century.
The chicken dish, served in a pool of thick yellow sauce with a half a boiled egg, is in fact one of Peru’s oldest Spanish fusion dishes. The mildly spicy sauce is made with cumin and paprika, as well as Peruvian chili pepper paste, or aji mirasol. Instead of being served with bread and nuts, as in Peru, this version came with chunks of potato in the sauce. On the side, the chef served a bowl of chopped peppers and onions, which tasted like a super-spicy salsa. It was a meal with plenty of potatoes and rice, which went well with both sauces. At the end of the meal came a cup of hot Peruvian tea, mate de coca, made from coca leaves. It was very pleasant and mild.
I’d had three pisco sours with my dinner, and when I confessed that I was feeling the effects, both Mr. Enriquez and Mr. Lee had the same idea. They explained that on the morning after a big, drunken bash, every Peruvian drinks what’s called “leche de tigre,” or tiger’s milk. Served in a large shot glass, it was extremely pungent, salty and sour, with a few bites of raw fish floating in it. Sound weird? I actually liked it. And it sobered me up almost instantly.

English: Spoken, along with Spanish and Korean. English menu available.
Tel.: (02) 334-6836.
Location: Mapo district, northern Seoul.
Subway: Near Hapjeong station, lines No. 2 and 6, exit 6.
Hours: Noon-2 p.m, 5 p.m.-midnight. Open daily, except the first and third Wednesday of each month.
Parking: Paid parking lot nearby.
Dress: Smart casual.

by Ines Cho
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