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Peru: The Rising Boom of Peruvian Cuisine

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Ceviche with Jalea, two types of prepared fish. Photo by Juan Arellano

There has been a national and international boom in regards to Peruvian gastronomy. Over the past years, talking about Peruvian food has been something very common. Radio and television programs, newspapers, books, cooking schools and of course, blogs have all taken part in the discussion. No Peruvian doubts that his or her food is the best and many foreigners think the same, but it should be asked: how can this be explained? When did it start? What does it mean?

To begin, an excellent historical overview and collection of dishes can be found at Wikipedia, in its Spanish entry [ES], as well as its English and French [FR] versions.

En la comida peruana se encuentran al menos 5.000 años de historia preinca, inca, colonial y republicana. Se consideran tres siglos de aporte culinario español, (fuertemente influenciado inicialmente por la fusión durante los casi ocho siglos de presencia musulmana en la Península Ibérica), las costumbres gastronómicas traídas por esclavos de la costa atlántica africana y la fuerte influencia de los usos y costumbres culinarios de los chefs franceses que huyeron de la revolución en su país para radicarse, en buen número, en la capital del virreinato del Perú. Igualmente trascendental es la influencia de los chinos-cantoneses, japoneses, italianos desde el siglo XIX y otros europeos (emigrados al Perú entre los siglos XIX y XX).

La inmensa variedad de ingredientes que existe en tierras peruanas (tanto nativas como las que llegaron de otras latitudes) permitió la evolución de una culinaria diversa, donde coexisten sin oponerse fuertes tradiciones regionales y una permanente reinvención de platos. La comida peruana es considerada una de las cocinas más variadas del mundo. En este país se cuentan alrededor de 3.000 platos diferentes. Sólo en la costa peruana, hay más de dos mil sopas y 250 postres tradicionales originales.

In Peruvian food, there is at least 5,000 years of pre-Incan, Incan, colonial and republican history. There is also influence from at least three centuries of Spanish contribution (strongly influenced by the fusion of eight centuries of Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula), the gastronomic customs brought by slaves from the African Atlantic coast and the strong influence from French chefs that fled the revolution to settle in the Peruvian capital. There is also strong influence from Cantonese-Chinese, Japanese, Italians since the 19th century and from other Europeans that settled in Peru during the 19th and 20th centuries. The immense variety of ingredients that exist in Peruvian territory (native, as well as those that arrived from different parts of the world) allowed for the evolution of a diverse cuisine, where the ingredients can co-exist without being against those from traditional regions. There is a reinvention of dishes. Peruvian food is considered to be one of the most varied in the entire world. There are more than 3,000 different dishes and only on the Peruvian coast, there are more than 2,000 soups and 250 traditional desserts.

Gastón Acurio is a Peruvian chef that personifies a large part of the international success of Peruvian cuisine. The following is a selection of a speech made by Acurio at the beginning of the Academic Year at Pacific University and posted by Billy from Lo único constante es el cambio [ES].

…nuestra gastronomía no es afortunadamente sólo un gran recurso sino una suma de cocinas y conceptos que en muchos casos aun esconden un gran potencial que, una vez desempolvado, creado el marco conceptual y puesto en valor, podrían ser exportados por todo el mundo.

Así es, detrás de nuestra entrañable cocina criolla, de nuestras pollerias, de los chifitas de barrio, de la cocina novo andina, de las picanterías arequipeñas, de los anticuchos, de los sanguches, de la cocina nikkei o de las cebicherias, existen oportunidades inmensas de crear conceptos que trasciendan su ámbito local para convertirse en productos, productos peruanos de exportación que no sólo aspiren a codearse con conceptos ya instalados globalmente como pizzerías, hamburgueserías, sushi bares o taquerias mejicanas, sino que además generen al Perú enormes beneficios tanto económicos como de marca país.

Our gastronomy is not fortunately only a grand resource, but the sum of cooking and concepts that in many cases still hides a grand potential, that once, uncovered, created conceptually and valued, can be exported to the entire world. Behind our native and intimate cuisine, our chicken restaurants, the neighborhood Chinese restaurants, the neo-Andean cuisine, the spicy Arequipean restaurants, the anticuchos (beef hearts), sandwich places, the Japanese cuisine or cevicherias, there are immense opportunities to create concepts that transcend its local environment in order to convert themselves in products, Peruvian products for export that can be globally located like pizza places, hamburger places, sushi bars, or Mexican taquerias, but it also can generate enormous economic benefits for Peru, but also creates a mark for the country.

There are some that do not agree with Acurio, but one cannot deny its importance in this “boom.” To follow the answers to the questions raised and to have a better idea of the level of acceptance of Peruvian food, Waldo of El Mundo de los Pendrejos [ES] writes about an article that appeared in the La Nación, a Chilean newspaper called: Lima, Journey to Culinary Glory [ES], in which the origin of some of this cuisine is discussed.

Primero, fueron un imperio, donde mucha riqueza concentrada, como en todo imperio, fue utilizada -en pagos y aprovisionamiento- para la creación, mantenimiento y desarrollo de una culinaria dedicada a los monarcas y castas dominantes. Hubo en el Perú cocineros con espacio, tiempo y recursos empleados en hacer las cosas bien, con tiempo y mimo, hasta crear una cocina de excepción. Ocio creativo. Tiempo para el arte de la cocina pagado por los monarcas para su deleite, cuyos vestigios perduran.

First, it was an empire where a lot of the wealth was concentrated, and as in any empire it was utilized – in payments and supplies – for the creation, maintenance and development of a cuisine for the monarchs and dominant classes. There were chefs with a lot of space, time, and human resources to make the things well, with time and a lot of detail in order to create a top cuisine. Creative leisure and time for the art of cooking paid by the monarchs for their own delight, whose vestiges endure.

The blogger of ZooFiesta [ES] writes about some exceptions in the middle of these generalized celebrations [ES]:

No somos el único país formado por etnias de otras latitudes, eso es mas común de lo que pensamos. Lo que ocurrió aquí, y ahí esta el secreto, es que el intercambio gastronómico con otras étnias produjo nuevas corrientes con personalidad propia y no híbridos estacionales. Por eso es tan importante la diversidad que se vive y se siente en el Perú, además… es deliciosa.

…Lo que nos debe importar es la gran posibilidad que tenemos y no debe de ser desperdiciada, hay que sacarle el máximo provecho. Y hablo por el agricultor modesto al cual le pagan 20 centavos/kilo de papa amarilla, mientras que una sola de esas papas llega a costar hasta 5 dólares en Europa; también hablo por el deshonesto dumping (subsidios excesivos de países desarrollados para proteger sus productos contra los honestos precios de países productores). Aun hay mucho por hacer antes de cantar victoria.

…el boom se vive tanto desde adentro como desde afuera… gracias a peruanos exiliados que empezaron cocinando comida peruana para otros exiliados y todo con un solo objetivo, hacer que la nostalgia por el terruño sea mas llevadera.

We are not the only country created by other ethnicities from other parts, it is much more common than we think. What happened here and there is the secret, is that the gastronomic exchange with other ethnicities produced new currents with their own personality and not seasonal hybrids. For that reason, the diversity that is felt and lived is so important, and besides that…it is delicious. What should be important to us is the grand possibility that we have and should not be wasted. It should be taken advantage of. I talk about the modest farmer, who gets paid 20 cents/kilo for yellow potatoes, while one of those potatoes can cost up to 5 dollars in Europe. I also talk about the dishonest dumping (excessive subsidies in developed countries to protect its products against honest prices of producing countries). There is a lot to do before declaring victory. The boom is experienced inside and out of Peru. Thanks to exiled Peruvians that started to cook Peruvian food for other exiled and with one sole objective, to create nostalgia for their own land.

El Morsa [ES] also reflects on two articles titled Social Sciences: Peruvian Cuisine Part 1 and Part 2.

en los últimos años hemos visto un renacimiento de la comida peruana desde muchos lados. no solamente la comida como alta cocina, sino, sobre todo como comida tradicional. se publican anualmente decenas de libros recogiendo recetas “populares”, “tradicionales”. programas de televisión, donde se asiste a huariques y lugares escondidos, generalmente conocidos por pocos. blogs. se habla incluso de un efecto gastón (por gastón acurio), donde cocineras populares han saltado al éxito económico y reconocimiento social al aparecer en el programa que conduce dicho chef (el caso más emblemático es el de isabel quispe aquino, la mejor preparadora de parihuelas del mundo: puede leerlo aquí, aquí o aquí).

lo interesante es que no existan políticas desde el estado por promover su desarrollo y cuidarla. ¿cuántas escuelas de cocina peruana existen en el perú? ¿qué estamos haciendo para promover y transmitir las recetas tradicionales peruanas? ¿hay algún registro o base de datos pública de restaurantes? ¿un observatorio en lima, que diga cuánta plata generan, cuántas personas trabajan? ¿es posible promover como marca la comida peruana? ¿posicionarla en el mundo?

We have seen a rebirth of Peruvian food from many parts, not only the high class cuisine, but also traditional cuisine. Dozens of books about “popular” and “traditional” recipes are published each year. There are television programs, where they visit local and hidden places, generally known by few. In blogs, they also write about the Gastón effect (for Gastón Acurio), where local chefs have struck it big economically and have become well known after appearing on those shows. (The most well known is Isabel Quispe Aquino, one of the best preparers of parihuelas, you can read it here [ES], here [ES] or here [ES]). What is interesting is that there are no policies from the state to promote its development or protection. How many Peruvian cooking schools are there in Peru? What are we doing to promote and distribute traditional Peruvian recipes? Is there a registry or public database of restaurants? Is there an agency in Lima that says how much money is generated or how many people work? Is it possible to promote Peruvian food as a brand? Position it worldwide?

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Causa rellena, photo by Arellano

As it was mentioned in the beginning of the article, there are many foreigners that like and know about Peruvian food. Not long ago, in the Washington Post there was an article about this cuisine, that was mentioned in various blogs. Here is a quote from the original article Lima Cuisine: You Don't Know What You're Missing:

In recent years, Jorge Chavez International Airport has been so spectacularly rejuvenated that it inadvertently reinforces an old cliche about the city it serves: Lima — the City of Kings, the capital of Peru, home to 9 million people — is merely a way station for travelers en route to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Iquitos, Lake Titicaca and Peru's other celebrated attractions. As to what they're missing, they haven't a clue. Not merely is old Lima rich in history, but new Lima is so rich gastronomically as to put just about all the world's other cities to shame. Today it is not merely advisable but mandatory to come to Lima para la cocina: for the food.

South America has long known about Peruvian food, but only in recent years has the rest of the world begun to catch on. In large measure this is due to the efforts of Gastón Acurio, now in his late 30s, who with his wife, Astrid, a decade and a half ago founded the most famous restaurant in Miraflores, Astrid y Gastón, but whose influence reaches far beyond that. He is a passionate goodwill ambassador for Peruvian food; he has a popular television show that regularly draws attention to other restaurants both great and small, he has published popular and influential cookbooks, he's opened many other restaurants of his own, and he's far better known in Peru than any celebrity chef in the United States.

Gastón's food (in Peru everyone refers to him as Gastón) is an artful blend of traditional Peruvian with contemporary nouvelle techniques. For generations, Peru's has been a fusion of all the cuisines developed there or brought from elsewhere: native (or criollo), Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Caribbean, Italian, African. Peru gave the world the potato — it grows thousands of varieties in more colors than you can count — and the potato remains essential to its cuisine, most nobly in causa, a concoction of potato mashed in lime juice and the fiery indigenous pepper aji, and filled or topped with everything from crab (my favorite) to avocado to boiled egg to shrimp to octopus.

Finally and before my mouth begins to water, Alejandro from Peru Food writes in one of his first entries:

What can I say? I love Peruvian food. I admit, I just like the way it tastes, the complexities of flavors, and the diversity of the cuisine. I don't come to love Peruvian food from an intellectual appreciation, but one much more visceral, much more a part of who I am. Often, when I recommend Peru as a vacation destination, one of the first questions is, “What's the food like?” I always struggle to answer even though I know that while it may be hard to describe, visitors will be in for a very pleasant surprise. This blog is my way of having an easier time answering that question. Once you have experienced the best of Peruvian food, you will understand why so many people feel so passionately about it. Welcome to Peru Food.

I hope that I answered a least some of the questions that I raised at the beginning of this entry. This is only an appetizer and soon, we'll leave the theory in order to take a look at some of the most well known dishes from Peruvian cuisine and comments from blogs.

Translation by Eduardo Avila

1 comment

  • Michelle Pastor

    Peruvian food is spectacular. I think it’s the best in the world. It has a nice mix of Chinese, Italian, Spanish, all with an improved local twist. The seafood is amazing and I love the great local spices like the aji amarillo.

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