Peruvian chef Martin Morales returns home for a taste of the Andes

Martin Morales in Peru
When chef Martin Morales visits the country of his birth, he takes inspiration from every taste and talent he encounters, channelling it all into his London restaurants Credit: Luisa Dorr

As my place of birth, Lima holds an irresistible draw for me. I return there two or three times a year, not only to visit my family but to meet with a wide variety of  talented Peruvians for some crucial research. Farmers, chefs, restaurateurs, musicians and artists – all are on my list, as they provide  everything from ingredients I can source to inspiration for my own London restaurants, Ceviche Soho, Ceviche Old St and Andina. 

This is also a research trip, but rather than the familiar capital city, I find myself 11,000ft above sea level in Cusco, in the Andes of Peru.

Ceviche owner Martin Morales at Maras Salt Mines in Peru Credit: Luisa Dorr 

My latest mission, and the reason for this Andean journey, is Casita Andina, my new restaurant in Soho. Inspired by quick-service, family-run restaurants in the Andes called picanterías – the places I grew up eating in on visits to my grandmother – I wanted Casita Andina to tell the story of nutritious and  delicious Andean ingredients and simple dishes, but also to show the beauty behind the region’s art, crafts and textiles, which have been admired for many centuries. And Cusco is at the centre of all of this.

I love the fresh, minty taste of Andean herbs, and know immediately that they will feature on my menu at Casita Andina

Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire around the 14th century – developed, on an ancient glacier-lakebed with soil rich enough to grow maize, into a complex settlement of palaces and temples; a city that was invaded by the Spanish in the 16th century and rebuilt, this time with baroque manor houses and monasteries.

Its Incan structure remains: granite walls, grid-like streets, and the ruins of Qurikancha, the Sun Temple, whose walls were once clad in solid gold. 

A herder of llamas in Cusco Credit: Luisa Dorr

I arrive at my hotel, Palacio del Inka, to get some rest ahead of a busy evening touring Cusco’s best restaurants. This majestic hotel is a renovated palace that was once home to Peru’s first Spanish governor, beautifully restored, complete with colonial artwork and furnishings.

At the hotel’s restaurant, Inti Raymi, I eat alpaca loin encrusted with Andean herbs, with choclo-corn pudding made with the native large-kernelled cobs, butternut-squash purée and amarillo-chilli sauce. I love the fresh, minty taste of those herbs, huacatay and muña, and know immediately that they will feature on my menu at Casita Andina.

Feeling revitalised after my 13-hour flight from London, I move on to Limo, a contemporary Andean restaurant set in an old colonial building on Cusco’s main square, where I take a seat on the balcony overlooking the plaza. The spot is as perfect for people-watching  as it is for trying one of my favourite dishes: ceviche, solterito-style. I love solterito; it’s a classic Andean salad, similar to a Greek salad but with broad beans and soft fresco cheese, taken up a notch here with the addition of fresh ceviche.

San Pedro, one of my favourite markets in the world, feels like a whole city in itself, with aisle after aisle carefully organised in themes

Afterwards it’s on to Cicciolina, an Italian-Andean restaurant where my old school friend Cachimire, who has been running it for 15 years, greets me with a eucalyptus chilcano cocktail, punchy with eucalyptus-infused pisco, ginger ale and lime juice.

On my way in I notice squid-ink tagliolini drying on a stick by the window. It arrives, later, served with plump prawns in a delicate, creamy coconut-milk and lemongrass sauce.

Street food in Cusco includes skewers of chicken hearts and beef hearts Credit: Luisa Dorr

I finish the night at Pacha Papa, a kind of modern picantería. On my way I stumble across a packed stall selling chicken-heart anticucho skewers as well as the region’s  traditional beef-heart versions. Over hot embers they sizzle and release the perfect smell under a midnight sky, while I hustle the queue with revellers taking a break from their tropi-bass nightclub sessions.

At Pacha Papa, I order rocoto relleno, a typical Andean dish of stuffed chilli. It’s moist and delicious, and the chilli is subtly spicy, just how it should be.

My research trips, on which I often bring my cooking teams from the restaurants, always involve a visit to the local markets. On the morning of my second day in Cusco I head to San Pedro, one of my favourite markets in the world.

I love the fruit-juice ladies: glamorous, red-lipped maidens in bright bibs and surgical-white aprons

It feels like a whole city in itself, with aisle after aisle carefully organised in themes. There are the bread-makers from Oropesa, just outside Cusco; the cheesemakers with beautiful displays of fresh goat’s cheese and one of my favourites, paria, locally made from cow’s milk; and fruit and veg sellers who arrange their glorious produce in gravity-defying towers.

I sit down at El Gran Sabor de Leo, a rough-and-ready stall serving rustic dishes to eager guests, who cram on to a bench in front of it. The sisters who run the stall remind me of my late great-aunts Carmela  and Otilia, and we chat away while I tuck in to traditional dishes such as pork chicharrón (deep-fried pork rinds) with mote corn,  olluquito with charqui (Andean tuber with  air-dried llama meat), and my favourite: pork adobo stew with rice and beans.

But my most-loved aisle has always been that of the fruit-juice ladies. Wearing bright bibs and immaculate surgical-white aprons,  a row of glamorous, red-lipped maidens mix juices and smoothies with medicinal herbs and nutritious grains, as well as dark beer and herbal teas.

Morales at Cusco’s San Pedro market, sampling a fruit smoothie. Also available are breads, cheeses and freshly cooked Peruvian dishes Credit: Luisa Dorr

I try a smoothie made with grilled pineapple and camu-camu powder, which has a tropical but slightly smoked  flavour; this one is sure to appear on Casita Andina’s menu.

I move on to El Baratillo, Cusco’s flea market, where one can find just about anything. I pick up some antiques, including small pots and ceramics, as well as a traditional dancer’s  hat, brightly coloured and decorated with hundreds of beads. It is destined for the wall of Casita Andina.

I spot a busy seller serving chayro, the quintessential Cusco soup made from more than 20 ingredients, including lamb, beef, tripe, wheat, pumpkin and freeze-dried potato. With a pot almost as large as her, she stirs the soup while offering it to her small but loyal huddle of customers, which now includes me. Perhaps this should be on the menu, too.

On my third day, I set off early for Ollantaytambo, a town two hours from Cusco. There I meet with Awamaki, a non-profit organisation that has connected me with Andean weavers in remote communities.

We head off to Patacancha, where Doña Felicitas and her team are hand-weaving a design we created back in London for Casita Andina’s seating. The colours, textures and complexity of their work blow me away, and I am so thrilled to be able to display their beautiful pieces back in London.

Hand-weaving by a craftsperson in Patacancha Credit: Luisa Dorr

We are also treated to a pachamanca – a hot ground-pit style of cooking that is a delicacy in the Andes. Marinated in chincho and huacatay herbs, the lamb tastes incredible and  the freshly harvested potatoes have a chestnut flavour I’ve never experienced before.

Reflecting, I feel grateful to be able  to spend time with them and to work with craftspeople and artists in Cusco, as well as meet chefs who love what they do, just as I do

We leave for the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba hotel, perched magnificently in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, where I am lucky enough to put my ideas to the test in the kitchen. The hotel has a 10-acre organic plantation, and I’m excited to get out there and begin the hunt for ingredients, some of which I have never tasted or cooked with before.

Back in the kitchen I try an idea for a crisp, nutritious salad made from maca, amaranth, red and black quinoa, lucuma fruit, avocado and cape gooseberries (Peruvian golden- berries); a ceviche using local trout with a  mix of avocado, red onion, sweet potato and amarillo-chilli tiger’s milk, which I want to call Ceviche Casita Andina; and a new version of the classic prawn chowder chupe stew.

Back in Cusco the following morning, I meet children from the Amantaní boarding houses, a charity we support and of which I am a  trustee.

Reflecting, I feel grateful to be able to spend time with them and to work with craftspeople and artists in Cusco, as well as meet chefs who love what they do, just as I do.

They are many miles away from London, the place I call home, but I take heart knowing that all their influence will be fully felt at Casita Andina.

Casita Andina, 31 Great Windmill Street, London W1  (020-3327 9464)