What did the Incas eat?
It’s very likely that their diet was based on tubers and grains, very little meat, and certainly not pollo a la brasa.
In other words, the Peruvian diet was far more vegetarian and vegan than it is now.
Unlike Argentina or European countries, Peru is not regarded for its beef, fine cheeses, or really any animal products. So, what is Peru regarded for, in terms of food output? The unfathomable variety of potatoes and tubers that grow in the highlands, the bevy of fruits with strange shapes and features that emerge from low and high sections of the Amazon jungle, and the grains that spread across the nation’s plains, to name a few.
“This is one of the easiest countries to be vegan,” says Santiago Santolalla, referring to his native Peru. The young chef and owner of Seitan Urban Bistro, a quaint eatery on the edge of Miraflores and Surquillo, is putting such plant power at the forefront. Taking it’s name from the gluten ‘meat,’ Seitan has been making a lot of noise in local vegan, vegetarian and curious crowds who have not only been waiting for more dining-out options, but something with more flair and spunk than a typical bowl of salad can provide. Take for example the weekly event Vegan Nights, that serves up plant-based makis bathed in tasty leche de tigre and chimichurri sauces.
Every Wednesday, Seitan serves up vegan makis (Photo: Living in Peru)
“I’m learning everyday,” says Santiago, who has been vegetarian for over a year now. Quite the transition from his butter-drenched, meat and dairy-heavy days of French culinary classes. “The customers, techniques, ingredients – it’s completely different from anything they teach you in culinary school.”
As we chat, seated outside on the restaurant’s patio, Santiago’s mother brings out a small plate of warm bread with green olive and chestnut tapenade along with muña-infused water, a courtesy for those who dine off the weekday menu. (As our visit progresses, we come to find that Seitan is very much a family affair, as Santiago’s parents lend a hand with hosting and waiting on tables on the daily.) Throughout the work week, Seitan serves up economic menus (S/ 14.99) where every component is homemade. The choices are a mix of animal-free renditions of Peruvian classics (think saltados, guisos, and cau-cau) as well as unexpected creations, such as curries and tabbouleh, starring native ingredients.
Risotto a la Huancaina, a typical weekday menu option at Seitan (Photo: Natasha Clay/Living in Peru)
However, Santiago’s skills really shine with the plates offered on the stationary menu. A true creator, Santiago takes Peruvian ingredients and experiments with their textures, forms, flavors, and eventually their colors, as seen in the beautifully executed plating, done with an artistic touch.
All camera phones come out when the first plate is brought to the table. The Hojaldre de tomates silvestres is a delicate stack of crunchy layers divided by kisses of tofu and avocado mousse, colorful native radishes, and wild cherry tomatoes. Though it may look intimidating (see main photo), this starter is in fact a joy to eat. Once the milhojas have been broken up, they act as a chip to scoop up the smooth sauces and fresh, bite-size toppings.
Use your hands and bite into a crunchy Bombitas de pepillano (Photo: Natasha Clay/Living in Peru)
Santiago continues to show us the diversity that eating plants can offer as we come face to face with the Bombitas de pepillano. Lightly breaded and crispy, these rounds are filled with a smooth purée of corn, a textural delight to your senses. Once again we see the exquisite mousse de palta, an elegant take on the ever popular guacamole, as well as a tofu cream and scattering of small crisps made from black olives. This is adult finger food at its best.
Both of the starters we tried offered up a playful elegance that served as a preview for the main dishes to come. A light and summery salad of avocado, cucumber and tofu (Ensalada de palta y pepino) sprinkled with black sesame seeds was a refreshing and cool option, especially for these hot summer days. Served with a few airy rice chips, once again we were encouraged to eat with our hands. While the portion was decent, it would have been nice to break up the soft textures with a side of brown rice or even the rice noodles that we sampled in the upcoming dish, Sahofan. This Thai-inspired dish consisted of wide rice noodles topped with vegetables and a variety of thick mushrooms; an effortless and satisfactory plate that proved eating plant-based can be fuss-free.
Sahofan, a taste of Thai on the current stationary menu (Photo: Natasha Clay/Living in Peru)
While Santiago does not consider himself a nutritionist, nor sees his restaurant as a platform for lecturing more to eat plant-based, he does hope Seitan encourages people to eat with more consciousness both for their personal well-being as well as the planet’s. Just blocks from one of the city’s most popular tourist areas and plenty of restaurants offering up standard Peruvian classics, Seitan, with a playful perspective, focuses on the finer things that Peru’s diverse regions have to offer. Which, when you come to think about it, is basically plants.
Seitan Urban Bistro
Alfonso Ugarte 150, Miraflores
Monday-Saturday: 12:30 pm – 10:30 pm (closed Sundays)
Menu (S/ 14.99) offered weekdays, 12:30 pm – 3:30 pm
Vegan Nights (S/ 20 per 8 pieces), Wednesdays, starting at 7 pm