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.
“What makes Peruvian cuisine so unique is the products,” said Victor Albisu of Del Campo in Washington, D.C. “For example, lemons and limes from Peru have kind of a robust fruity flavor—it’s very unique.” That’s just one example of the many types of produce that are difficult—or even impossible—to find outside of Peru, adding a special flavour to food eaten within the country. It’s always special to enjoy a cuisine’s signature dish in the place from which it originated, but that’s even more true in Peru.
Some of the country’s unique produce is difficult to replicate, Albisu admits—something as straightforward as a lime becomes complicated quickly when you’re outside Peru. “A Peruvian lime looks like a key lime, but it tastes very different,” he explained. “In order to replicate the flavor of a Peruvian lime in the U.S. you have to use multiple fruits, lemon, lime and maybe a little orange to get the right balance.”
Then there are those potatoes. “Peru grows thousands of varieties of potatoes,” Albisu said, “but we don’t have access to any of them in the U.S.” The colors available might come as your first surprise, running the gamut from yellow to red and blue. Other starchy vegetables are also staples, including cassava, maca, plantain, and sweet potato—there are 150 types of these alone in Peru.
Peruvian cuisine is about a balance of colors, spiciness, and acidity, Acurio said, and limes and aji chilies are key ingredients. “Aji amarillo chile is the most important ingredient for Peruvian food in terms of color and flavor,” he said. It’s described by Morales in Ceviche as like a milder scotch bonnet with a fruity flavor. Limo, panca, and rocoto chiles are others commonly used in Peruvian dishes—they’re not easy to find fresh in North America, but there are online sources for dried chilis and their pastes.
And don’t think you can’t enjoy home-cooked Peruvian food if you can’t get those ingredients where you live. “Home cooks can always find a local lime and a local chile,” Acurio said. “These won’t be exactly the same as Peruvian aji chiles, but everyone can create their own delicious version of our recipes with local ingredients.”
At the same time, authentic Peruvian ingredients are increasingly available outside the country. Quinoa is the ultimate example—the pseudo-grain comes from the Andes region, which includes Peru, and was cultivated for human consumption for thousands of years before North Americans and Europeans took notice. The result was a tripling of prices for quinoa crop, and a mixed result in countries that grow quinoa, including Peru: higher crop prices and increased demand in other parts of the world makes it harder for Peruvians to purchase quinoa for their own consumption, but quinoa farmers also have more income to purchase food (and other essentials) in general.
In the meantime, in 2013 Mother Jones reported on the work being done in Peru and other quinoa-growing countries, like Bolivia, to ensure that the grain remains a part of the food culture and is not lost to foreign influence, as it nearly was when Spanish colonialists suppressed the cultivation of quinoa because of its spiritual importance to the Incas. It’s provided to pregnant and nursing women who need its nutrition, and 2013 was declared the Year of Quinoa by the United Nations General Assembly, with Peru sharing the vice presidency of the international year, in parts to promote quinoa’s importance as a nutrient-rich food and in reducing poverty and increasing food security.
All those ingredients combine in endless ways, but there are standouts. Ceviche is the obvious one—as global as the dish is now, it’s had a presence in Peru for centuries, beginning with the catch of the day served with amarillo chili and an indigenous fruit called tumbo. As Morales describes in his book of the same name, ceviche evolved thanks to the inclusion of ingredients brought over by the Spaniards—lime and onions, in particular. It was also affected by the Japanese influence, where slicing techniques similar to those used for sashimi lead to tiradito, with its lighter taste and Asian-influenced marinades.
Regardless of the variety, ceviche needs two things: fresh, quality seafood and a citrus-based marinade called tiger’s milk. Morales divides the type of fish one can use for ceviche by texture: firm, medium, and soft. The texture influences the amount of time you’ll have to “cook” the fish in the tiger’s milk—longer for monkfish and cod, less time for mackerel, something in between for tilapia and halibut.
Like ceviche, the pisco sour has its own national holiday in Peru. Pisco, the spirit, is distilled from grapes—and, like wine, it can vary based on where the grape is grown, what type of grape it is, and how different grapes are blended. The cocktail itself was invented by Victor V. Morris, an American who came to Lima in 1903 and opened an eponymous bar, Morris. The pisco sour was meant as a twist on the whisky sour, and the drink spread outside Lima thanks to the largely English-speaking customers at Morris. The bar closed in the late ‘20s, and the bartenders spread the cocktail with them to other establishments.
“The pisco sour fits easily into a large number of food cultures since Peru’s food itself is the quintessential example of fusion food at its best,” said Lizzie Asher, president of Macchu Pisco. “Our gastronomy has been informed by the Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Italians, Spaniards—all for over a hundred years, long before the word fusion was even applied to food.”
The drink’s versatility is informed by Peru’s cuisine, and makes it a suitable import to other countries and food cultures. “It goes beautifully with fish, with spicy foods and with hearty foods,” Asher explained. “It has a range for food pairings unlike other cocktails as it allows itself to easily morph in various incarnations depending on the style of pisco used.”
Then there are the dishes that might not find their way into the wider imagination. Alpaca are easier to raise than cattle in the more mountainous parts of the country, which means they have found their way into the Peruvian culinary landscape. Cuy is better known to us in North America as guinea pig, and it’s a staple protein in Peru. Think of it like rabbit, an animal that we keep as pets but also consume—and according to a friend who’s had both, the comparison is fairly apt.
In The Tastemakers, released last year, David Sax wrote about L.A. chef Ricardo Zarate’s quest to make Peruvian food part of the wider American culinary landscape. “Peruvian cuisine has been kind of the ‘next big thing’ for so much of the past decade,” Sax said of the trend, fuelled in large part by Acurio’s growing stable of restaurants.
So why hasn’t Peruvian food made the jump from next to now? Sax thinks that a general misunderstanding of South America’s various cuisines is part of the issue—it’s not just Mexican food from further south, not only empanadas and Brazilian steakhouses, not just a twist on tacos. Peru’s food might be able to make the leap beyond that misunderstanding because of its appealing unique elements: ceviche, seafood, a Japanese influence that plays into the larger appetite for that cuisine. And the simplicity of some of those elements—the citrus and seafood of ceviche, the pisco, egg whites, and sour mix of pisco sour—allows for their variation and adaptation to different ingredients and flavors. “It’s a much broader brush that you can paint with,” Sax said. “When you see food trends take off, it tends to be things that are easily relatable and easily replicated.”
It’s also sometimes a matter of timing, Sax said. His book focused on Zarate, who was ousted from three of his restaurants late last year—probably not great for Peruvian food’s ascent. But Acurio’s book for Phaidon, after several released in Spanish, might do the trick. “With this book,” he said, “I hope that people fall in love with Peruvian cuisine and incorporate it as a food experience into their everyday lives.”
Peru: The Cookbook by Gaston Acurio
Ceviche: Peruvian Kitchen by Martin Morales
Picca (Los Angeles, CA)
La Mar (Miami, FL and New York, NY)
Tanta (Chicago, IL)
Cholo Soy (San Francisco, CA)
Del Campo (Washington, D.C.)
Andina (Portland, OR)
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.