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Getting to know Peru

Peru is a land of contrast, a country that defines the meaning of biodiversity—from coastal deserts that receive almost no rainfall, to the rugged snow-capped Andes and the lush Amazonian rainforest. Once the cradle of advanced pre-Hispanic civilizations, today’s Peru is a multi-ethnic composite of diverse peoples and cultures. The cuisine is the result of hundreds of years of fusion among indigenous European, African and Asian cultures. From Lima to the Amazon and down through the Andes, Peru offers new and unique ingredients, exotic flavors and healthy food preparation techniques.

The Peruvian pantry

Think of the ingredients that make up the Peruvian pantry as a tree with four branches. The first branch would consist of potatoes, “the” central component of Peruvian cuisine since about 6000 BC. According to the International Center for the Potato, over 4000 varieties of potatoes exist in the Andean region. While the exact number consumed today is not known, hundreds of varieties of potatoes are available in Peru’s markets and new varieties are constantly being discovered in rural areas. Plus, Peru is not the only country in South America where potatoes play a key role—they are an essential part of the cuisines of the entire Andean region, Bolivia and Chile.

The second important branch consists of ancient grains and cereals like quinoa, kiwicha and maize. These grains were grown in different climates and helped to provide a balanced pre-Colombian diet. Quinoa, the “mother-grain” of the Inca, was responsible for much of the rise of Inca and pre-Inca civilization in the high altitude Andean altiplano. Its rich protein content and nutritional value made the harvesting and planting of quinoa a sacred event, so much so that golden hoes were used to ceremonially break the ground for the first planting. Of course, maize also played an important role in the development of Peru and the taming of its harsh coastal deserts. Advanced irrigation systems captured runoff and rain water from the Andes, transforming lifeless sand dunes into fertile farmlands. Peru has over 35 varieties of maize, ranging from the inedible maize morado, used for making chichi, to the crispy toasted cancha and plump fresh choclo.

The third branch includes other edible plants, primarily fruits, legumes and squashes. The first and most important fruit is the ají, or hot pepper. Ajís grow in every climate throughout Peru, from dry deserts, cold mountainous terrain, to wet and humid jungles. Technically berries, ajis have been central to the cuisine of Peru since practically the beginning of civilization. Plants like lima beans (pallares) and squashes (zapallo) also have a long history. And Peru is home to hundreds of varieties of tropical and Amazonian fruits. Over two hundred types of yuca exist in the Amazon, contributing an important part of the Amazonian diet. One of the country’s most sacred plants is coca—used for thousands of years as a medicine to cure every imaginable illness and ailment.

Lastly, the fourth branch consists of animals and seafood. These include wild game (duck, rabbit and deer) and  domesticated animals, such as the llama, cuy and Andean guinea pig. Also abundant are fresh fish and shellfish from Andean rivers, like the pejerrey or Peruvian freshwater crayfish, called camaron; black clams from the brackish mangroves of the north; and hundreds of species of saltwater fish and shellfish from the Pacific coast. These principal ingredients and branches have changed little over time and continue to form the backbone of Peru’s regional and ethnic cuisines. 

Colonial ingredients

The Spanish brought many European staples to Peru in the mid 1500s, forever changing its cuisine with the addition of ingredients like olives, grapes, limes, beef, chicken and pork. They also brought human cargo—African slaves—to farm the country’s sugar plantations. The Africans adapted their cooking techniques and flavor profiles to local materials, laying the foundation for Afro-Peruvian culinary traditions. Dishes like beef heart anticuchos exemplify the efficiency and frugality of the slaves’ transformation of “scrap” ingredients into national delicacies. After Peru received its independence from Spain, a large influx of French immigrants arrived, further shaping the cooking styles and techniques of Peru’s upper classes.

Asian ingredients

Once African slaves were emancipated, Peru brought Chinese laborers in the 1850’s to work on the plantations and in the booming guano industry. Subjugated to the bottom rungs of society, it took time for the Chinese to establish themselves in Peru. It wasn’t until the 1910s that “Chifas” began to rise in Peruvian society. Many Chinese immigrants landed jobs cooking in the kitchens of Peru’s upper classes, introducing Asian ingredients like ginger, tamarind, soy sauce and sesame oil into the local Criolla cuisine. Perhaps it was in these kitchens that stir-fried dishes like lomo saltado and arroz chaufa rose to the level of national comfort food, as Chinese cooks adapted their techniques to local ingredients and flavor profiles.

At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants came in droves to Peru, seeking work on coastal plantations and replacing the Chinese as the latter climbed the social ladder. Their skill  with seafood, both cooked and raw, influenced the way Peruvians prepared ceviche and consume raw fish. Popular foods like tiradito—sashimi-sliced fish marinated with leche de tigre—represent a fusion between Japanese and Peruvian culture. Today, Peru is one of the largest consumers of rice per capita in the world.

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