How many kinds of potatoes can you find at your local supermarket? A handful, probably, likely labelled by their ideal use—mashing, baking, boiling—instead of their variety. But in Peru there are literally thousands of varieties of potatoes available, amazingly mostly tracing back to a single origin, Solanum tuberosum, that comes from the south of the country.
Peru’s wealth of produce doesn’t end with potatoes. There are so-called superfoods like quinoa, kaniwa, camu camu, and maca, along with about 20 different fruits native to the country. And of course, there are chilis (or aji) to add some heat.
The variety of produce available in Peru mirrors the many influences that combined over the country’s long history to make its food culture what it is today. But while the cuisines of influencing countries like Spain and Japan receive global acclaim, and ceviche and the pisco sour are celebrated, the cuisine itself hasn’t quite received an international audience.
But the tide is starting to turn. That’s due in part to the rising profile of Peruvian-focused chefs like Ricardo Zarate in Los Angeles, Victor Albisu in DC, and Gaston Acurio of Lima. Chef Martin Morales of Ceviche in London released Ceviche in 2013, and Phaidon just released the latest in their series of food bibles, Peru: The Cookbook, written by Acurio. Chefs voted Peruvian as the top trend for ethnic and cuisines flavors in the 2014 What’s Hot survey for the National Restaurant Association. And last year was declared the year of Peruvian cuisine by the Culinary Institute of America.
“In Peru, we have a strong food culture and a heritage of thousands of years of culinary creativity that stems from our multicultural society and great biodiversity,” said Acurio. “My generation understood that we had this treasure hidden for such a long time, and we realized that it was time to make a strong effort to communicate and share our food culture with the world.”
A food culture that’s been evolving within its own country for centuries, bubbling within a stew of ethnic diversity and agricultural variety, is finally getting its global due.
Outlining the history of Peru’s cuisine isn’t a simple task—you could fill a book with it, from ancient grains like quinoa to modern interpretations of ceviche, without even beginning to touch on the recipes.
Prior to conquest by the Spaniards, the Inca empire spread across the countries that are today known as Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia. The people indigenous to Peru already made good use of its status as one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, and peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and beans were important staples.
The local cuisines also varied by region as necessary for food production, soil, climate, elevation, and other factors. There was a well-developed farming system in the Andes mountains, where corn was a staple crop. Hundreds of different kinds of tubers like potatoes grew in the same area, along with ancient grains like amaranth and quinoa. Meats like cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca were eaten in limited quantities. In the Amazon basin, tropical fruits like limes and guava not available elsewhere in the country could be found, alongside fresh fish and game meat. And along the coast, the availability of several varieties of fish and seafood lead to the development of regional specialities in ceviche, considered by many to be Peru’s national dish.
Those staples and indigenous ingredients mixed with the Moorish and European culinary traditions of the Spaniards who conquered the Incans, which otherwise resulted in the loss of much of their indigenous culture and traditions. The Spanish influence brought livestock cultivation, fruit trees, and ingredients like onions, cumin, and garlic into the Peruvian culinary mix, along with crops like sugar cane, rice, and wheat.
Immigration, voluntary or otherwise, also influenced Peru’s culinary evolution and continues today. The Spanish brought Africans to Peru as slaves, many from the Congo and Angola, and with them came culinary techniques that originated from their homes, and sometimes were used to make the best of the poorer-quality ingredients they had to use. Even after slavery ended, as Morales wrote in Ceviche, Peruvians of African descent were often impoverished—but their culinary ingenuity led to now-popular dishes like skewered, grilled anticuchos featuring ingredients like ox heart (anticuchos de corazón).
In 1872, about 50 years after declaring independence from Spain, Peru established the Sociedad de Immigracion Europea to encourage Europeans to emigrate to the country. This resulted in an influx of immigrants from Italy, Germany, and France, and they contributed French culinary techniques and Italian ingredients to the Peruvian culinary landscape.
And from the other side of the world, Chinese citizens came to Peru to work on its railroad construction. One result of that was Chifa, the Chinese-Peruvian cuisine that blends Peruvian ingredients and traditional Chinese cooking. Dishes like saltados (which utilize stir-frying techniques), easily found in Lima, are part of that culinary legacy. Japanese immigration to Peru also began when the countries established diplomatic relations in the late 1800s, and the influence of Japan’s storied cuisine can be found in dishes like ceviche and sashimi-like tiradito.