Foreign coverage of Latin America tends to focus on Mexico and Brazil, the region’s two heavyweights and realistically its most promising countries. Argentina, a fading glory, or the eccentricities of Cuba or Venezuela are also common topics. Yet in the narrow realm of cuisine, at least, a different country is making a name for itself and is a contender for standard-bearer of South America or Latin America as a whole — the country known in Latin as Peruvia.
Peru is shaped primarily by the Andes, South America’s long, long mountain chain, and the Inca Empire was basically a mountain realm. But the modern country is actually very geographically diverse: there’s a desert along the north coast, a long coastline, and the eastern half is mostly Amazonian jungle. The climate is also diverse, from steamy tropical heat to cool alpine breezes and everything in between. This means there’s a variety of plant and animal life to eat, some of it obscure abroad (like the massive arapaima fish, or the sweet, creamy cherimoya fruit), and it’s this cornucopia that forms the basis for Peruvian flavors.
Cultural diversity is another important factor in shaping Peru’s cuisine. Compared to other Latino countries, Peru still has a wide range of culturally influential indigenous peoples, and they are the ones who first grew the potato, ate guinea pigs, and brewed chicha de jora (corn beer). Spain provides the other major influence, with its love of citrus, rice, cuts of meat, and Western desserts like puddings and cakes. But Peru also has a substantial black population, which means animal parts traditionally thought of as “leftovers” (which is all they used to get) are eaten, and African crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes and plantains were thrown into Peru’s culinary pot. More recently, immigrants from China and Japan (one of whom became dictator in the 1990s) have brought Asian flavors, resulting in dishes like lomo saltado (a beef stir-fry) and a special focus on raw fish.
Ceviche is the closest thing Peru has to a national dish: raw seafood marinated in lime juice. It reflects the prominence of the sea in Peru’s gastronomy; in fact, the waters off Peru have one of the world’s biggest remaining fish stocks. Pollo a la brasa, a lip-smacking variety of grilled chicken, is popular too, and is quickly competing with ceviche as the most recognizable Peruvian food abroad, probably because you don’t have to convince people very hard to try grilled chicken. Peruvian food is also distinguished by its massive maize: the kernels are so big you can pull them off and eat them one by one as a sort of snack. It is a common accompaniment to Peruvian dishes.
For the most part, Peru’s extraordinary food was a well-kept secret (aside from ceviche; Pisco Sour, the local cocktail, gained some popularity too). Now that’s changing, and Peru is more and more considered one of the world’s culinary destinations. That’s mostly the work of one guy, Gastón Acurio, a local chef who went to France to train and found himself bored by the snooty climate there. He went back home, started a restaurant, and began experimenting with Peru’s unique flavors and ingredients. Now he’s built up a veritable empire, with international awards, 37 restaurants and branches in other South American countries, Europe and the US. Acurio has also inspired other chefs to follow in his example, with the result that Lima, Peru’s main city, now has 3 of Latin America’s Top 10 restaurants (with one of them, Central, taking the top spot). Meanwhile Acurio has become aware that Lima’s restaurant scene is getting more and more stuffy and pricey, and has qualms about its food becoming the preserve of the elite. But working in a restaurant can also be a path out of poverty; his cooking school is in Lima’s northern slums.
Food is now set to become one of Peru’s defining features internationally. Anthony Bourdain, a celebrity chef turned TV travel show host, recently paid a visit and ordained it as “the next big thing.” Quinoa, a once obscure nutty-tasting grain cultivated in the Andes since ancient times, is a burgeoning fad crop in the health food scene. It’s packed with all kinds of nutrients and is versatile enough to be used as a side or a base with a variety of other foods. Poor mountain farmers in Peru and its smaller neighbor, Bolivia, are now farming it for export and moving up the income ladder. Peruvian chicken restaurants have become common in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, London and New York.
This is pretty obviously all a Good Thing. Latin America in general (with the possible exception of Mexico) has not yet emerged as a major gastronomic region internationally speaking, although there’s plenty of good stuff there. Peru is a historically marginalized country, with the stigma of Communist terrorism in the 1980s lingering. It is now a trendy tourist destination, thanks to its soaring scenery and majestic Incan ruins, both epitomized by the national landmark, Machu Picchu. As Peru’s culinary profile climbs, more and more tourists are lingering in Lima — home to a third of the country — and stimulating the capital’s economy. It is giving Peruvians something to be proud of.
This might all just be a fad, and multi-course meals in fancy restaurants don’t really mean anything to ordinary Peruvians, but hopefully Peru’s impressive diversity and natural cornucopia will make it one of the world’s great cuisines.