For most of my life I’ve heard people say Chattanooga is years behind the rest of the nation in everything from music to social consciousness to the rise and fall of the mullet. I spent the better part of my adult life thinking that as soon as my kids were out of the house I would leave Chattanooga for a more culturally forward-thinking beach town and live out the last half of my life as that eccentric old guy with a gray ponytail, riding a Schwinn to my little crab shack by the beach.
Fortunately, demographic and generational changes have affected the things I one bemoaned about the Scenic City. It’s actually possible to see a band that doesn’t suck, you can sometimes go an entire weekend without hearing a racial or homophobic slur, and mullets are bordering on extinction. Even the food we eat has become more forward thinking—and dare I say even ahead of the curve. Our city’s emphasis on locally sourced foods, our embrace of ethnic foods, the recent food truck outbreak, and growing availability of unique ingredients puts Chattanooga ahead of many cities its size.
I can’t bring myself to openly discuss trends in food, mostly because I don’t possess enough overt cynicism or a pair of American Apparel skinny jeans. But when Ferran Adrià, the father of molecular gastronomy, calls Peruvian cuisine “the future of gastronomy” and decides to make a documentary about the flavors and food of that country, it at least warrants some attention, particularly since we’ve had a Peruvian restaurant in our midst since April 2011.
Ají Peruvian Restaurant is tucked away in an unassuming strip mall at 5035 Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, and unless you happened to be going for a tanning session or visiting your insurance agent you could easily miss it. Family matriarch and chef Pilar Albernas opened Ají in response to the popularity of her catering business and its unique Peruvian flavors.
I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about world cuisines, but you could fit everything I knew about Peruvian food into one of Cee Lo Green’s tiny T-Rex hands. I expected to find something similar to the South American foods I was familiar with—and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Peru’s cuisine has been influenced by a list of invaders and immigrants as diverse as the Olympic Parade of Nations. The Spanish, Africans, French, Italians, Chinese and Japanese have all had an influence on the country’s cuisine, producing a fusion more than 500 years in the making. This isn’t some forced fusion with Peking Duck tacos or Chipotle Miso soup. This is cuisine that’s been developed and fine tuned out of the interaction between disparate cultures and a unique assortment of available ingredients over hundreds of years.
At first glance, the menu looks similar to any other Latin restaurant. Items with Spanish names? Check. Chicken, beef and fish present and accounted for? Check. Flan? Check. But the combination of Asian, Spanish and European flavors spun my tongue and brain into a pleasantly confused Wes Anderson scene of postmodern convergence.
I started with Anticuchos—super tender, thinly sliced, fire-grilled beef heart and ceviche—the Peruvian national dish made with chunks of clean tasting whitefish “cooked” using the acid of citrus juices instead of heat. Then came the “Sabor de Peru,” a sampling of three Peruvian classics. First, a creamy turmeric-spiced chicken dish called Ají de Gallina, then a beef stew-like dish known as Seco Norteño, and finally a fire-grilled chicken dish with onions, tomatoes and peppers that I particularly liked called Pollo Saltado.
Many of the dishes utilize the restaurant’s namesake ají pepper, which the chef imports from Peru along with the Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Prince of corn, Andean purple corn. Juice from the purple corn gets mixed with apple, pineapple, quince and spices similar to apple cider to make an iced drink called Chicha Morada. I could easily drink this every day, even if it is purple.
Thanks to the owner’s Seventh Day Adventist dietary preference, they have a huge selection of vegan and vegetarian dishes so all the folks who sadly eschew the wonders of tasty animal bits can rejoice and gather around a plate of house-made vegetarian meat, tofu or whatever else it is you herbivores call food and have a feast. This would also explain the absence of pork, shellfish and my inability to talk them into cooking up some cuy (I’ll just let you Google cuy.)
Ferran Adrià is probably on to something when he recently proclaimed that “God has spoken, the future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru.” But trend or no trend, supporting restaurants like Ají helps Chattanooga earn its stripes as a forward-thinking food town. I may even postpone my ponytail.
For more pictures of Mike’s meal at Ají visit Facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits.