A few decades ago, after years of an internal conflict that tore apart Peru, not even Peruvians wanted to eat Peruvian food. If they went out to a restaurant it would probably be a chifa, the no-frills Cantonese restaurants found all over the country. If they wanted something nice, it would be French or Italian. On weekends, they might have gone to a cevichería with their family, but the notion that Peruvian food could propel the South American nation forward economically would have been laughable. Fast forward to today, Peruvian food has become a global powerhouse that has helped unite the country socially, lift hundreds of thousands out of poverty, expand the economy, and lure millions of visitors to the country each year. Here’s how it happened.
A recent history of Peruvian cuisine
Since the arrival of the Spanish in 1528, Peruvian cuisine has absorbed a wide array of ingredients and cooking styles from the waves of migrants who entered the country. After the abolition of slavery in 1856, the then amalgamation of indigenous, European, and African cuisines went through another major adaptation with the arrival of migrant laborers from Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers, and later Japanese, arrived to work in coastal plantations over the course of the next century. Over time, the art of the saltado, or stir-fry, and Japanese treatment of fish – most notably the cut and balancing acidity in ceviche – wove its way into the fabric of Peruvian cuisine.
Around the turn of the millennium, Peruvian cuisine took another major turn. As the country was climbing out of the shadows of a two-decade civil war that left an estimated 70,000 dead and displaced millions, there was little in the country to be proud of. The economy was in bad shape, inflation was high, and corruption was widespread. It was around this time that the publisher Bernardo Roca Rey and chef Cucho La Rosa began exploring ancestral ingredients from the Andes and Amazon, cut off from the capital for years, and adapting them to modern cuisine. Seeing the potential, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef named Gaston Acurio latched on to their work and pushed it further, inspiring the rest of the country to follow his lead and catching the world’s attention.
“Outside of Peru a lot of people believe that the status Peruvian food and the Peruvian food industry has reached was mainly state or government driven. That is not the case,” said Diego Salazar, a journalist and the South America (North) Academy Chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “The government support arrived later, after chefs and the private sector achieved a huge success transforming the local industry and promoting Peruvian food abroad.”
Acurio’s contemporary Peruvian restaurant Astrid y Gaston soon expanded to Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. Eventually he opened a cevicheria, La Mar, that would bring Peru’s emblematic dish to Mexico, the United States, and Spain. Over the years, he has created other Peruvian restaurant concepts like Madam Tusan (Chinese-Peruvian), Bachiche (Italian-Peruvian), Papacho’s (Peruvian-style burgers), Chicha (regional), El Bodegon (Peruvian tavern), and Barra Chalaca (seafood from the port of Callao), while promoting regional Peruvian food and cooks through a TV show and books.
“He [Acurio] was clever enough to recognize the huge potential of our gastronomy and the huge pride Peruvians feel for their food,” Salazar explained. “That pride and the powerful identification people in Peru feel with its food heritage have been a crucial tool.”
Recent years have seen Peruvian fine dining establish itself on the international stage. In 2017, Lima restaurants Central and Maido were ranked in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a feat no other city in the world can claim. Top chefs such as Virgilio Martinez and Jaime Pesaque have created empires of Peruvian restaurants that scatter the globe.
Peruvians now take pride in their cuisine like never before, and the culinary community has grown a collective voice that rallies against Monsanto and GMOs entering the country, called out restaurants using certain seafood products during seasonal bans, and encouraged the use of regional ingredients in the hopes of preserving them. Food has become the one thing that unites the Peruvian population.
An engine for social change and economic development
As the popularity of Peruvian cuisine has grown, both within the country and abroad, so have the opportunities surrounding it.
While a decade ago Cusco and Machu Picchu were the primary targets for nearly all international visitors, Peru’s cuisine is increasingly attracting the country’s growing number of tourists. For a sixth consecutive year, Peru was named the best culinary destination at the World Travel Awards, while a 2016 study released by the UN World Tourism Organization found that for 42% of the 3.5m international visitors in 2015 food was one of their main reasons for visiting the country. A cottage industry has developed surrounding culinary tourism in Peru, with dozens of operators offering food tours, from multi-week immersion trips with cooking classes to day tours of Lima’s markets and street food stalls.
Then there is Mistura, Lima’s annual culinary festival, which celebrated its 10th year in 2017 and attracted more than 300,000 attendees over a 10-day period. The event includes a grand market with artisanal food products from every part of the country, food stalls tended to by famed regional restaurants, and entire areas dedicated to chocolate, pisco, coffee, and grilled meats. Over the years, it has turned humble anticucho (skewered beef heart) vendors into national celebrities and helped increase demand for native produce.
As Peruvian restaurants pop up around the globe, from Michelin-starred Nikkei restaurant Pakta in Barcelona to Brooklyn’s funky Llama Inn, and home cooks increasingly seek out ingredients for their favorite dishes, the demand for native chile peppers, tubers, pseudo grains like quinoa, and packaged sauces is rising steadily.
Peruvian agro-exports have been rising year on year, with $5.49bn exported between January and November 2017, and unusual culinary products are finding a niche in international markets. Farm-raised paiche, an Amazonian fish weighing up to 250 kg, has been sold in Whole Foods locations throughout the US since 2013, while value-added variations such as smoked paiche are now entering the market.
As Peruvians further embrace the potential of their cuisine, rural communities are finding new life for long-ignored ancestral products. The harvest of ingredients that once had little economic value, such as cushuro, a cyanobacteria found in high-altitude lakes, and pejesapo, an unattractive fish with a gelatinous flesh, are creating jobs for isolated foraging and fishing communities.
“Macambo was a symbol of poverty,” said Mitsuharu Tsumura, the chef of Lima restaurant Maido. The super fruit, a relative of cacao, grew wild in many of the same places as cacao, but had no economic value. Indigenous people ate it, but no one else. A chef in Tarapoto, Elia Garcia de Reategui of La Patarashca, began working with an indigenous community to develop it and soon it appeared in Lima’s top restaurants, consequently creating a demand for it. Tsumura uses macambo’s toasted seeds in stir-frys, the mucilage in sorbets, and the membrane of the fruit for marmalades. Prices have gone from essentially nothing to $20 per kg for just the seeds. “It’s still wild, but now there is talk of starting to plant macambo just to keep up with demand.”
In the remote Bora village of Pucaurquillo in the northern Amazon, chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino discovered a fermented yuca extract called aji negro, which he now buys about $3,000 of each year from a co-operative of 14 families to use at his three restaurants in Lima. The infusion of money has allowed Pucaurquillo to change its economy and resist pressure from more destructive activities in the region, such as logging and oil exploration.
As recently as 2012, few were interested in the native tubers of the highland Ayacucho region. Edilberto Soto, who represents a co-operative of farmers from the region under the name Potatoes Peru has been making inroads at top Lima restaurants and grocery stores, such as Wong, and interest has exploded. The marketing of the product has allowed prices to increase to around PEN6 ($1.8) per kilo, more than double what they were a decade ago, helping eradicate poverty among the rural farmers.
While threats to the country’s resources – from illegal gold mining to the depletion of the world’s largest single stock fishery (anchoveta) – have never been greater, the push for sustainable food production has provided some balance. The culinary community has strived to work with the country’s immense biodiversity rather than exploiting it, while still expanding the economy. It’s a notion that has begun inspiring efforts in neighboring countries too.
Empowerment across Latin America
In 2013, Danish culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer’s The Melting Pot Foundation launched Gustu, a fine dining restaurant in La Paz that uses 100% Bolivian ingredients, including wines and spirits, to help jumpstart a culinary movement in Bolivia. Seeing how Peru had been transformed by its cuisine, Meyer thought South America’s most impoverished nation could follow a similar path.
“The biggest value that Peru has isn’t just its product and culture, but it’s the level of pride and empowerment that every Peruvian, from a taxi driver to government minister, has with their own culture. We tried to replicate that in Bolivia,” said Michelangelo Cestari, one of the founders of Gustu and part of the Board of Directors of Melting Pot Bolivia
Following Peru’s lead, The Melting Pot Foundation has grown into an engine for sustainable culinary development in Bolivia, helping open a dozen small cafeterias and cooking schools in impoverished neighborhoods and creating a logistics network to connect artisanal producers with chefs and consumers. It has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to bring food products, such as a sustainably hunted caiman meat, from remote indigenous groups into Bolivia’s largest cities. In 2017, the foundation expanded into Colombia and hopes to do the same there.
“Peruvian food was built by pride. Every time we speak we try to put the people first and that their strength should be the force driving the movement. It can be transmitted to cooks, investors, clientele, and even politicians,” said Cestari.
Throughout Latin America, countries are recognizing the power their cuisine can have in terms of tourism revenue and economic development. Countries such as Panama, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina have all invested in major culinary events, flying in journalists and internationally renowned chefs to attend.
After Peru hosted the first two editions of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, bringing fresh attention to its ingredients, chefs, and restaurants, other countries in the region have shelled out substantial funds in the hopes the awards will position them as world-class culinary destinations that can attract the growing numbers of Instagram-hungry culinary travelers. Mexico hosted the awards for two years after Peru, followed by Colombia; and while official figures have never been released, the countries are rumored to have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to do so. Will it pay off?
Nicholas Gill is a writer and photographer specializing in Latin America. He tweets at @nicholasgill.