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Photograph: MASL

Review: MASL brings Peru closer to Singapore than ever before

Embark on a thought-provoking culinary journey through this one-in-a-lifetime showcase of exotic ingredients, flavours and textures

Dawson Tan
Written by
Dawson Tan

When it comes to Peru, most of us associate it with an arduous 30-hour flight that departs from Changi. Fair enough – though we’ve heard flying through Amsterdam shaves it down to 24 hours. To ask those who’ve been, most would say it is well worth the trouble. Of course, there are the breathtaking Andes, the vast Amazonian Rainforest, and the Sacred Valley to the poster boy of Peru, Macchu Picchu – the list goes on. 

But I always thought “What about the food?”. That quite often goes unanswered. Just ask Gael Greene – the insatiable restaurant critic for New York magazine – about her first ever trip to the Amazon where she visited with a goal to scale Macchu Picchu before her knees buckled. But it was ultimately Lima’s restless food scene and mercados (markets) that made her return to Peru.

Chefs Pía León and Virgilio Martínez
Photograph: MASL

Today, gifted chefs like culinary super couple Virgilio Martínez and Pía León – both behind No.2 World Best Restaurant, Central in Lima – share their take on Peruvian cuisine with the world like never seen before. And no, you won’t need to endure a back-breaking flight for this once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience featuring a plethora of Peruvian ingredients and flavours.

Deep dive into the Peruvian Sea

The 11-course menu opened at five mbsf (meters below sea floor) with three daintily arranged seafood dishes inspired by the Peruvian sea. Clams in its own foam and algae oil, creamy fresh carabineros in its own fragrant oils, and sweet crab meat dressed in its own corals served on its shell. A series of elegant breaths of the seas, if you may.

Photograph: Dawson Tan

Then we go deeper where the cephalopods dwell at 10 mbsf. Here, different textures of squid are showcased (pictured above). Fresh slivers of squid are camouflaged by black crisps that were made from squid broth, drizzled with tinkles of squid ink emulsion that were as dark as vantablack. The crisps were as light as air yet dense in flavour – though it vaguely reminded me of keropok sotong and I say that in the best possible way. Alongside was a briny morsel of algae-cured brioche topped with a slice of abalone and caviar.

Scale the breath-taking Andes

We adjourn to 3280 masl (meters above sea level) where a distinct aroma of the maca root greeted us before it arrived at the dinner table. There it was, a rustic brown loaf of freshly baked bread that has a brittle crust and dense earthy insides. Instead of just butter, two dips were served: a sweet honey-like yacon (root from the sweet potato family) yoghurt reduction and a luscious lilac hibiscus uchucuta made with ancient Andean techniques. “A worthy challenger of sourdoughs, or better,” I thought to myself as I had a crack at another slice.

But before I could leave more crumbs on the pressed white tablecloth, we descended to 1800 masl, where sweet potatoes are abundant. A showcase of different textures, the dish saw a comforting mix of chopped sweet potato, avocado puree, and a hint of huacatay (Peruvian black mint) with sweet potato foam and smoky ashes. Thankfully, the leftover bread ensured that none of this delightful purple mash would go to waste as I mopped the dish clean. Though it did earn me a few glares from the neighbouring tables – well, to heck with that, I was happy there and then.

The air thins

MASL Peruvian Corn
Photograph: Dawson Tan

I confess that I’ve only ever seen Andean corn on flat screens. I’ve got a deep appreciation for its alluring colour pigments. Seeing and holding it up close and personal for the first time at 3550 masl – brushing my fingers through each gristle and feeling its heft – was quite a surreal moment. From the way I was grinning, you could tell that I was beyond excited to taste it. An enchanting riff on texture, the corns (pictured above) are expressed in a puree with grainy pops of purple and yellow kiwicha (quinoa variant). There’s also a bit of a crunch from the purple corn crisps to finish. And what do you know? It had an uncanny resemblance to the flavour profile of the popular Southeast Asian street snack, apam balik, which I very much adore.

Now we ascend to Chahuay of the Andean mountains at about 3850 masl where a spiritual celebration of harvest awaits us. Native tubers and high-altitude leaves are found exclusively in such harsh growing conditions. The Andean people honour the land by forging a Huatia (a type of underground earth oven) out of clay and hot rocks to cook the tubers. Here, the couple presents their slice of the Andes to the table where whimsically shaped potatoes carry the slightest bit of the earth with them with each bite. It comes with a pleasantly creamy yet subtly minty Uchucuta (traditional Peruvian chillies and herb sauce) to brighten up your tastebuds in between. It was a dish so sincere yet inimitable.

Trek through the mystical Sacred Valley

MASL Blue Spirulina and Scallops
Photograph: Dawson Tan

The rest of the courses are steady representations of the team’s cooking prowess. At 0 masl, a bewitching bowl of possibly seafood ceviche (pictured above) represents the crashing waves on coastal rocks. There are luscious scallops tossed in a citrusy bright leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) and fresh uni bejewelled with dustings and crisps made from blue Spirulina and blue cucumber. Followed by a trek to the Sacred Valley at 2700 masl where wild pigs roam free. Think nutty melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, toothsome yuca (cassava) mash, and a dense crispy cage made from woody high-altitude mushrooms. 

Uncover the lush Amazonian Rainforest

At 185 masl, the first of two desserts highlights the use of the Amazonian nut and textures of bright yellow squash. The chestnutty flavours run deep in the comforting ice cream topped with clippings of the toasted nut. It is also when I learned that there are many varietals of Amazonian nuts and not all are Brazil nuts. But alas, it was only right we drew the evening to close in the high jungles of Peru at 1450 masl.

MASL Peruvian Cacao
Photograph: Dawson Tan

What was a decadent showcase of the whole Chuncho fruit (a species of cacao native to Peru, pictured above) sees not only the use of the prized seeds but also its husk and nibs. The result was an intensely chocolatey birthday cake with crunchy cacao nibs and hints of complex fruitiness. To balance out the unctuousness, it comes with refreshing textures of mango finished with a delicate gel made of high-altitude mead to pair. 

Closing thoughts

MASL Residency at Art Restaurant
Photograph: Art Restaurant/Kar-Wai Wesley Loh

In between sips of the balanced and bodied roast of Peruvian coffee from Cajamarca, I can’t help but reflect on the three-hour journey where everything was tailored with much thought. From your seat with the jaw-dropping views of the Marina Bay behind you – recreating a literal sense of being above the sea – and the ambience – almost spa-like melodies of nature, wildlife and flowing water – right down to the intriguing storytelling of each ingredient. This is definitely not your average meal. 

It is a meal that is very much thought-provoking and tastefully educational and yet it manages to engage – as if you’re on a thrilling altitude rollercoaster ride through and through. But there’s still a lot to do. And this residency is definitely a giant step toward a wider appreciation of Peruvian cuisine. As for Virgilio and Pia, they carry the torch for the next wave of talented Peruvian chefs and I dare say it is in good hands. I know Gastón Acurio would agree.

Limited seats available, book hereThis exclusive three-month residency is now happening at Restaurant Art of the National Gallery of Singapore until 30 October 2022, serving up an 8-course lunch (from $320) and an 11-course dinner (from $448) from Tuesday to Sunday.

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