Peruvian gastronomy is one of the best in the world. Have a tour with us in some of its most delicious recipes.
As everyone knows, France has one of the best cuisines in the world followed closely by Italy, China and Japan. This just might not be true any longer.
A few months ago, after moving to Peru I discovered much to my surprise, that Peru has 491 officially registered dishes (Guinness Book of World Records). We, the French, with our 365 cheeses, may have finally been defeated!
As you would expect, a certain amount of national pride accompanies Peruvian gastronomy. Whilst you are still getting used to Peru as an expat, you will inevitably be asked sooner or later, Que tal la comida peruana? (how do you find the Peruvian cuisine?).
I came to the conclusion that investigation was required on my part. The great cuisines of the world and in this case, Peruvian gastronomy start with great ingredients. What makes them exceptional is the culture, the geography, the creativity of its people – in a sense the country itself. More than half of Peru is the Amazon but it also contains the spectacular Andes. The coastal areas, with their desert oasis, and cool seas full of abundant sea (due to the Current of Humboldt) contribute to the incredible biodiversity of the region, allows Peruvians access to some fantastic ingredients. A visit to any market will make it immediately clear the quality and abundance of ingredients readily available.
But great ingredients also need great cooks! Let us delve into the past to see where this started. The Incas were undoubtedly one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen. They were then preceded by the Indians who were responsible, over several thousand years, for building an ingenious system of agricultural terraces and irrigation canals in the Andes where the climate is arid. Lima, the capital, is in fact a harbor in the desert. The main crop cultivated here is the potato, which still stirs a lot of national pride, as the Andes is home to this particular tuber even though Chile, Ecuador and Colombia may also lay claim to the potato’s origin.
The quinoa, as well as tomatoes and corn, are also cultivated. It is fast and easy to cook. The traditional way of cooking quinoa is with meat and vegetables in what is known as Pachamanca. What makes this dish unusual is that it is cooked underground with hot stones, a practice still in use today. However, should you decide to eat a Pachamanca, start on time! It is certainly not the kind of Picard frozen food that is ready in ten minutes !
The Quinoa soup
What denotes Peruvian dishes are the liberal use of chillis, which are used to season and decorate. It would be extremely wise for me to bring to your attention at this point, the rocoto, an innocent looking little chilli similar in looks to those found in supermarkets worldwide. BUT, don’t be fooled! You have been warned! As a lover of seriously spicy food, my husband chose to try one without being given any preliminary caution. What followed was a scene similar to the opening number you would expect to see at a circus! Seriously though, he suffered acute pain and endured its fierceness under some duress. As the saying correctly goes, you only get burnt once! The correct way to eat it is to wet your fingers with a little oil before you even think about touching it, then boil it several times to suit your palate. To this very day, I still ask our maid whether there may be some ingredient in her cooking that will surprise us.
Going back to my investigation on a more serious note however.
The Spaniards arrived in Peru in 1532 and of course brought with them provisions from Europe, some of them not as yet seen or tasted by indigenous Peruvians. In turn, they took back the potato to Europe. What they neglected to do was also provide with this strange brown tuber a recipe and, it wasn’t until 1771 that a certain Mr. Parmentier, decided to cook and eat it. As we all know today, this simple culinary miracle changed the face of cuisine in Europe!
Spain had a very rich social class and when the Spanish discovered Peru, they had with them a viceroy whose descendents, known as Creoles, gave rise to the Criolla kitchen, which had at their beck and call, ingredients from Europe and America. This was the birth of a new type of cuisine characterized by the introduction of meat to a mainly vegetarian Inca diet of dairy based chilli sauces which contained cinnamon, coriander and cumin (Arab influence). Later, the introduction of sugar cane, was used in desserts. Aji de Gallina is a typically Incan dish of chicken strips in a spicy sauce to which the Spaniards added milk and bread and which is absolutely delicious.
Desserts came about as a custom used by monasteries who concocted their own recipes of almond paste or apricot jam with spices and butter, but who inadvertently introduced their parishioners to the sin of gluttony because the puddings were so incredibly delicious.
The Spaniards also bought with them African slaves who quickly learnt to cook the leftovers that the landowners gave them as a matter of survival. Skewers of marinated cow’s heart (anticuchos) are still very popular all over Peru. Being a little unadventurous, my more aggressive French friends tell me they truly are delicious. Several kinds of causa.
The wind of change began to blow in 1821 in the form of independent revolution and the “Cause” was born. This is a secret dish, correctly named as the Causa Independentista and was eaten in secret from Spanish Nationalists. It consists of mashed potato with avocado or other kinds of fillings. I haven’t been able to confirm the origins or the authenticity of this story, which makes it even more appealing because of its mystery. With the departure of the Spanish, the Creoles took on the ideals of the French culture, which became an inspiration to them. Their nationalistic style cuisine also took on more of a French influence and the Peruvians started the fashion of introducing ‘mousse’ in their cuisine. Not wanting to sound too biased, I have to tell you that after independence more Europeans came to settle in Peru bringing with them their own cuisines too. Even today, Lima has excellent Italian restaurants. The British also had their influences but that isn’t quite so evident today.
From the middle of the nineteenth century, Asian immigrants bought in to work in for the railroad or in the sugar cane fields had a major effect on Peruvian cuisine of the time. Thus the Chifa (Chinese restaurant) sprung up and with it the introduction of ginger, soy, sesame and other seeds. I discovered that the word Chi-fa means food and drink in Chinese. A typical example of the fusion of these two cultures is seen in the lomo saltado – beef with vegetables in soy sauce and French fries.
The arrival of the Japanese in the early twentieth century led to the reintroduction of fish into the Peruvian diet. Ceviche (fish marinated in lemon juice) came back into fashion after being popular during the Inca rule when it was known as Chicha, but then it was marinated in alcohol made of corn.
We now talk of New Andean cuisine, or Nova-Andean, which is the reintroduction of native techniques and ingredients. Peruvian cuisine is now a melting pot of gastronomic styles brought about because of the diverse culinary influences from years past. Lima is seen as the gastronomic capital of South America and has many talented chefs inspired by its rich history.
I finish by mentioning just some of the different ingredients and finished dishes of the Peruvian cuisine, with my personal and freely attributed marks!
A to the Chirimoya – the only fruit in the world that tastes like chemical candy but which is also abundantly healthy – amazing!
C to the Lucuma (known as the medlar in America) pasty in texture and has a slight taste of cooked chestnuts but goes very well with chocolate.
Suspiro a la limegna
B to desserts, a bit too sweet for me. Their main ingredients is the Manjar Blanco – a milk jam used in many desserts – that tends to saturate the palate.
A to Ceviche – it’s a healthy fresh tropical delight made of fresh fish and marinated in citrus juice.
A to the yellow potato – This is magic! It melts in your mouth. I really wish they would import this to Europe!
C to the cuy – a big Guinea pig whose presentation can remind of a mouse laid out for dissection in high school (I spare you the picture). Lots of bones but very fine meat.
B to Pisco sour – This sounds more like it! A cocktail (famous in Peru) made with grape brandy (from the vineyards in southern Peru) BUT is 40% alcohol and could be quite addictive!
And to finish, A* to Gaston Acurio – the best till last! It’s not an ingredient or a dish but a national phenomenon in human form. He is a coveted and well-known Peruvian chef – a true national pride who went to Europe to study law but preferred cooking classes in Paris! He is now 41 years of age and has 30 restaurants, some gourmet (Astrid and Gaston) in Lima, Cevicherias fish restaurant very local and only open for lunch and Tanta, which serves sandwiches and pastries, chains of restaurants which you will find all over Latin America and soon to be in the U.S and Europe. He is committed to helping the underprivileged in the poorer neighborhoods by setting up cooking schools for all. All in all, a culinary surprise awaits you in Peru!