The roots of Peruvian cuisine

07/Junio/2012 | 10:57

By Lance Brashear

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Peruvian gastronomy has gained such international fame in the past 15 years that it is now prepared around the world.  As Peru’s closest neighbor, Ecuador has seen the influences creep northward where local, celebrity chefs at some of the most prominent restaurants in Quito have popularized Peru’s traditional cuisine.

Though the popularity of Peruvian food can be attributed more to a brilliant, marketing campaign and financing by the Peruvian government, there is real substance, and flavor, behind the promotion. 

Peru offers a regionalized cuisine with diverse products and cooking techniques that developed over centuries.  But it is the integration of one foreign culture after another, over the past 500 years, which is responsible for what we know as Peruvian food today.

The Incas

(and native inhabitants)

The native inhabitants of what is now Peru left a culinary legacy involving three principal crops: the potato, corn, and aji, or chili pepper.   Though you find many references to Incan food and traditions, in truth, the Incas often absorbed traditions from other cultures that preceded their conquest.

Peru is perhaps the birthplace of the potato.  More than 4,000 edible varieties have been discovered, many of them in Peru. It was from here that the potato was exported to the rest of the world following the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.  And it was here that many more traditions and products were also imported by the Spaniards.  Before they arrived, though, the potato was one of the main ingredients in soups and preparations that included other native vegetables, tubers, and local meats - fowl and ancestral protein sources like guinea pig and llama. 

Corn, another traditional Andean product, was often prepared and consumed in liquid form as “chicha,” or what we know as Andean beer – fermented and used often for ceremonial purposes.

And the ajis, or chili peppers, really help to define the flavor of much of Peruvian cuisine.  Julio Ponce, a local Peruvian chef at La Gloria Restaurant, says “Three types of dressing make up the base of Peruvian cuisine: red, yellow, and green.”   The green is derived from the use of cilantro (imported after the conquest), but the red sauce is often made from “aji panca,” while the yellow comes from the “aji amarillo.”  Other frequently utilized chili peppers include the limo, mono, cereza, lemon drop, and the northern aji.  

The Spanish

(and their influences)

The Spanish brought all manner of new products (beef, milk, wheat, rice, barley, fruits, and vegetables) as well as techniques to the New World to produce a culinary fusion that still defines much of Peru’s cuisine today.  The influence really extends far beyond the Spanish because they were heavily influenced by a 700-year occupation by the Arabs, or Moors.  And we would be remiss not to mention the influence of African slaves, brought by the Spanish.  They, too, left a culinary legacy with plates of their own, like tacu tacu.

The French

(and Italians)

The French influence in Andean cuisine cannot be underestimated.  With independence from Spain in the early 19th century came a desire to seek non-Spanish traditions, particularly those from France, whose revolution allowed the newly freed colonies to identify with Spain’s European neighbor.

Tony Custer, in his book, “El Arte de la Cocina Peruana,” offers mousse as one of the legacies of the French.   Though the influence began in the 17th century he says, “For six or seven generations the Peruvians have thought that the great variety of mousses that were served as desserts or at tea were their own recipes.”

The French influence that began in the Republican era was accompanied simultaneously by an Italian presence.  Immigrants from Italy migrated to Peru throughout the 19th century bringing their greatest culinary tradition: pasta.

The Chinese

Just as great as the post-colonial European influences, were those from the other side of the world.  The flavors brought by the Chinese when they came as workers to help construct railroads would contribute to a more complex and sophisticated gastronomy. 

Once the Chinese population was established in Peru, many Criollos, or the Spanish descendants born in the New World, hired the Chinese to cook in their homes.  Their dishes, ingredients, and flavors would evolve as part of what we know today as Peruvian food. The Chinese brought vegetables seeds from their country and introduced soy sauce, a product that, combined with the ajis of Peru, forever changed the definition of Peruvian gastronomy.

The Japanese

Only 50 years after the first Chinese immigrants established themselves in Peru, the Japanese began to arrive at the turn of the 20th century.  They came as workers for the large haciendas.  Their biggest influence is undoubtedly in the introduction of fish to the Peruvian diet, which gave way to the birth of Peru’s famous ceviches, pulpos, and tiraditos. 

The mixing of their food traditions with Peruvian products created “Nikkei,” a fusion that originated in the homes of Japanese immigrants of Peru and emerged during the 1970s and 80s as a part of Peruvian gastronomic culture.   Today, hundreds of restaurants throughout Peru offer Nikkei cuisine.






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