Me: I’m going to a Peruvian restaurant.
Friend: Cool. What do Peruvians’ eat?
Me: Uhhh… food.
Friend: Ya, what food?
Me: Food, food. It goes in their mouths. They eat it. You know, food?
Friend: Gosh, you are wise.
To be honest, up until last week I pretty much knew ‘zilch’ about Peruvian food. I don’t even think I would have been able to pinpoint it on a map. I’m not very good at Geography.
With no preconceptions and an exceptionally empty stomach I went to Keenwa.
The double storey restaurant has space to seat about 45 inside and 20 alfresco. Upstairs is a bar that can be rented out for functions, where you can smoke hubbly bubbly/nagila. The owner, German (pronounced Gggghhher-mun) moved to Cape Town in 2008 and has brought all his staff here from Peru. Although the décor wasn’t my fave, the authenticity of the menu got me all giddy with excitement as I prepared myself to eat at South Africa’s first Peruvian restaurant.
I had been recommended Pisco Sours, a drink that both the Peruvians and Chileans claim to have created. Pisco, similar to tequila, mixed with lemon and/or lime juice, sugar and frothed egg whites. A few tables around me were knocking them back with great satisfaction I tried to do the same, but completely misjudged my sip, so the egg went up my nose and the tequila hit me in that spot, you know that little spot, which makes your hair stand up on end, your head creak to the left and sends shivers down your spine? Yeah, it didn’t bode well for me.
Our first starter was a ceviche, served with a side portion of sweet potato, topped with sweet potato chips and a red wine and balsamic reduction. Instead of serving thin shavings of fish, it was cut into bite-size chucks, doused in lime juice, salt and chilli. I loved the ceviche itself – it was refreshing to have substantial pieces so you can taste the flavour of the fish, rather than just the using it as a base for the “toppings”.
The Causa de Cangrejo is a creamy crab salad with peppers and chives; on a bed of lime and chilli mashed potato; topped with a King prawn; and drizzled with a prawn and butter reduction. The various textures make it, and it was easily one of the most interesting and flavourful dishes of the night, matched only by…
…Papa a la Huancaina con Anticucho or spiced beef heart kebab. German is going to hate me for outing his secret ingredient, but I had to do it, mainly because I need all of you to understand how delicious it was. I ordered this starter without knowing that Anticucho, means heart. The heart is cleaned and marinated in Anticucho sauce, made by blending vinegar, cumin and chilli, garlic, coriander. It is then grilled on an open flame for a smoked flavour. Served on fresh veg with a side portion of new potatoes topped with a creamy feta and chilli sauce, the Anticuchos were d.e.l.i.c.i.o.u.s. You can swap it for a beef fillet, but I URGE you to try the original. Although slightly chewy, the meat isn’t tough at all. It was the first time I ate heart but I will definitely have it again.
Now on to the main course. We asked for half portions so you can just imagine what the full portions must look like.
Lomo Saltado is the “stirfry” of the Peruvian world. Strips of beef fillet sautéed with soya sauce, tomato, peppers, onion, spring onion and coriander, served with a portion of white rice topped with sweet potato chips. In what I hear is true Peruvian tradition, there were also chips, yes chips in the stirfry itself. Although delicious, it wasn’t particularly exciting. I would recommend it to a fussy eater who isn’t a fan of trying something new.
The Pescado a lo Macho is grilled hake served in a spicy seafood, tomato-based sauce, with prawns, mussels, calamari, peppers and chilli, lots of amazing chilli. Served with white rice, it was a homely, rich and flavourful main course.
Finally, one of the oldest dishes in Peruvian cuisine, Carapulcra con Sopa Seca. Grilled chicken breast, served on dry soup and minced potato. The chicken itself is very simple, seasoned with just salt and pepper. Raw potatoes are minced, left to stand in the sun so the water evaporates and the mixture hardens. Once dry, it is then reconstituted by boiling with a very hot and spicy chilli and peanut sauce. The dry soup is spaghetti where the water has been cooked away, then tossed in a simple basil pesto. It was an interesting but satisfying combination of flavours that I would never have thought to put together, which somehow worked.
For dessert we had Alfajores; shortbread biscuits, sandwiched with Manjar Blanco, which is a milk-based, thick, sweet and creamy spread, which is very similar to caramel treat. The biscuits were light, crispy and glorious and the caramel spread, perfect.
We also had Mazamorra Morada, a deep-purple corn pudding served with stewed fruit and cinnamon. The flavour of the corn was not different to any other corn dessert, but the colour was incredible.
If I could click my fingers and all of you listened to me I would tell you to go to Keenwa. I would then tell you to get over any fears you may have and try something new. I would tell you that you will like it, but if you don’t, then so what? At least you tried, at least you have lived a little, at least you have a story about eating heart, to tell the grandkids.
FYI: As you may have realized, Peruvians like their potatoes. They like their potatoes so much, they have created The Institute of the Potato, where all 3000 or so varieties of registered potatoes found in Peru, can be appreciated.
Directions to Keenwa
50 Waterkant Street
021 419 2633
– Monday to Friday from 10:30am to 4:00pm.
– Tuesday to Saturday from 6:30pm to late.