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Fusion of Flavors

Ceviche The Art of Peruvian Cuisine Are you surprised? Surprised to find that eating in Peru is one of the world's exceptional gastronomic experiences? You are not alone ... by Tony Custer

We live in a time when we can buy the ingredients for the cuisine of almost every corner of the world. Our children are used to eating with chopsticks and we pepper our conversation with words like mesclun and dim sum. Yet our next culinary adventure is right in the Western Hemisphere: the discovery of the rich diversity of dishes and ingredients that make up Peruvian cuisine.

When you sit down to a meal in Peru today, you may not know that you are experiencing the result of a fascinating evolution of foods and cultures. Many Peruvians themselves are only vaguely aware of the unique story of development and adaptation behind the bases of their favorite dishes.

In fact, the thread begins long before the Spaniards conquered Peru. The basic foods that are represented on the Inca and pre-Inca ceramics in Lima's museums still appear in dishes served at family tables and in restaurants in Peru today.

The Incas - Quechua cuisine

Potatoes In the 15th century the Inca Empire, building on earlier cultures, already had an ingenious agricultural system using elaborate terracing and irrigation to cultivate food on steep Andean slopes and in coastal river valleys.

What they grew mostly was the potato, the basic element in soups, stews and the pachamanca - a mixture of meats and vegetables cooked with hot stones in a covered pit in the ground. Leftover potatos from the pachamanca were put out to dry and, when the bits were re-hydrated and cooked in a stew, they became carapulcra (from the Quechua kala, 'hot stone'; purka, 'hole in the ground'), eaten throughout the country to this day.

According to the International Potato Center in Lima, the Incas cultivated over 1,000 varieties of potato. While many varieties have disappeared, of the staggering 2,000 varieties of potatoes presently identified, hundreds are still commonly found at market stalls in the Andes there are still wild potatoes and their relatives growing in rural areas.

Pizarro and his Spanish Conquistadores introduced this modern-day staple to the world when they took it back to Europe in the 16th century. The potato was to become such a common element in the diet of the Western world that in only a hundred years people had forgotten where it came from. Even so, as a linguistic reminder, in Finnish supermarkets today you'll find potatoes under the sign that says 'peruna'.

Another native food crucial to life in the pre-hispanic Andes was quinua. Held sacred by the Incas, they called it the 'mother again', and at sowing time the soil of the first furrow was ceremonially broken by a golden implement.

Inca farmers cultivated less frost resistant crops and fruits on the lower mountain slopes and river valleys. The most important of these was maize, the basic ingredient of Andean beer known in urban Peru by the name “chicha”, a Caribbean work brought by the Spanish. You can still see the chichera working her magic today in villages high in the Andes. She continues an ancient tradition of sprouting or macerating the corn, boiling it with water, sometimes adding bits of charcoal to ward off evil spirits and then fermenting the chicha in special large, round-bottomed clay jars, set in reed baskets to keep them upright.

The most significant inheritance from the Incas that continues to give contemporary Peruvian food its underlying signature taste, though, is the flavoring from different kinds of ají and rocoto, or hot peppers, and from herbs such as huacatay, which were, and still are, used by Andean peoples to season their boiled and roasted dishes.

The Moors, the Spaniards and their African slaves

During the first 150 years of the Spanish presence in South America, Lima formed the center of one of only two Viceroyalties in the Americas. The Spanish brought the social niceties of court life to Peru and, with great mining and agricultural wealth plus a large native population to provide labor, the leisure class flourished. The biodiversity of Peru's many ecological zones in close juxtaposition is unrivalled in any part of the globe. This newly created leisure class had the time and the wealth to indulge in the fruits of their new land.

Sillar Theirs was literally the 'best of both worlds'. The Conquistadores brought with them new species of animals and plants, which rapidly flourished and greatly increased the number of ingredients. Unprecedented integration with the indigenous people gave birth to a colorful new Creole or criollo culture and food.

Dishes came to include different types of meat from the goats, chickens, cows and sheep that the Spanish introduced. These were added to the local llama's camelid cousin, the alpalca, and to guinea pig, wild hare and various types of fowl. Dairy products were added to the original ají sauces. Rice, wheat and barley were introduced, along with olives, oils and vinegars, and myriad new vegetables, fruits, notably the grape for winemaking, spices and flavorings. They also brought ovens and introduced new techniques such as pickling and frying.

The new cuisine was an exciting synthesis of ingredients and techniques from the two continents and at all levels of society new dishes began to appear which have evolved into the characteristic motifs of the food that Peruvians love today. For example, Ocopa, the signature sauce from the southern city of Arequipa, is a mixture of ground pre-Columbian peanuts and ají with the addition of dairy products introduced by the Spaniards.

Iberian peninsular cooking was itself the result of an exotic fusion of Mediterranean influences. As the Conquistadores were natives of Andalusia and Extremadura, the most significant influence for Peruvian cuisine came from the seven hundred years of Moorish occupation of southern Spain. From this culinary inheritance, the Spanish brought with them cumin and coriander, as well as cinnamon and cloves, which went into the famous criollo desserts.

The arrival of sugar cane was a delicious surprise to Peruvians and a perfect complement to their herbs and spices. Such a collective sweet tooth evolved that in colonial times the Peruvian Viceroyalty was the largest consumer of sugar in the New World. An angelic touch to desserts and candies came from the many newly established convents in and around Lima. Each convent had its own delicious specialty. Convents developed most of these confections, which assured the continuity of both the convents and the confections from generation to generation. Still today, almost all Peruvian desserts are Eurocentric with African overtones.

A central ingredient in these new ambrosial mixtures was the vibrant color and style brought to criollo dishes by the African slaves who cooked in the kitchens of the Viceroyalty. Peruvians loved and adopted the captivating rhythms of African music and dance, and the aromatic African spices and syrups that they added to the original corn puddings of the Incas resulted in the perfection of a heady mix of blancmanges and custards. African slaves also are credited with the creation of the anticucho.

The French

The criollo legacy is vigorous and spirited in Peruvian cuisine today, but the 19th century brought new developments, which again added a completely new twist to Peruvian eating habits. The wave of revolution that swept through the world eventually forced Madrid's rulers to concede the loss of Spanish America. On July 28th, 1821, Peru declared its independence and in 1824 the last Spanish soldier left Peruvian soil. The umbilical cord had been cut and a newly independent country was left struggling to forge a national identity.

The flame of the Peruvian revolution was fanned energetically by the criollos' fascination with the French Revolution, itself inspired by the American Revolution. It was only natural that, with the Spanish gone, Peruvians looked towards France for inspiration. People felt an emotional link to the new ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity for which that country had overthrown its monarchy.

Soon after the declaration of independence San Martin issued a decree permitting free entry to foreigners. European immigration took off so effectively that by the year 1857 there were an estimated 20,000 non-Spanish Europeans living in Lima. These included French, Scots, English, Germans, Italians, as well as citizens of most of the Scandinavian countries and the rest of the Mediterranean basin. With the arrival of the French, the cooking and eating habits of France changed forever not only what, but even when criollos ate. Mousse is an example of this. For six or seven generations Peruvians have thought of the many mousse desserts at meals and teas as their own. In fact, the mousse's presence in our diet is a direct result of the Libertadores' fascination with all things French, and dates from the early 19th century and independence from Spain

Mystic Asia - China

Nevertheless, no one could have predicted that the most dramatic impact on Peruvian food in the 19th and 20th centuries was to come from the other side of the earth. A whole new world of flavors and spices was about to burst onto the Peruvian palate with the arrival in 1849 of the first Chinese indentured servants who came to work on the railroad, on coastal sugar and cotton plantations and in the booming guano industry.

The Chinese immigrants who survived the grueling and dangerous 120-day trip from Macau often lived and worked under appalling conditions. Life for the 'coolies' didn't improve much after the official abolition of slavery in 1854. But their contracts as indentured servants, though harsh, did include an obligation on the part of the contractor to provide certain foods.

A fixed daily quantity of 1.5 pounds of rice was provided as part of their salary and in their specially constructed living quarters, far from their own land, the Chinese workers maintained their culinary traditions along with their cultural identity.

Chinese immigrants imported seeds for vegetables, from snow peas to ginger, that were essential to the Cantonese diet. They introduced soy sauce. Eventually, as they worked off their indentures and settled in the coastal cities, they set up countless small eating establishments. Once again Peruvian cooking blossomed with the discovery of new flavors.

There was initial distrust of these foreigners who 'cooked anything that moved', but Limeńos soon began to appreciate the new simple and tasty food appearing in the narrow streets near the downtown central market which today are Lima's bustling Chinatown. To this day, lomo saltado is not only a classic Peruvian dish but a typical Sino-Peruvian fusion. The Chinese stir-frying techniques brought over in the last half of the 19th century put Peruvian ají into the same pan with ginger and soy sauce for the first time. Modern Peruvians still know most Chinese dishes and ingredients by either their Cantonese name or a hispanicized version of these that has evolved over 150 years.

It is a testament to the impact of Chinese cooking on Peruvian palates that within fifty years of the first immigrant's arrival in the country nearly every one of Lima's wealthy and fashionable families had a Chinese cook. The culture and culinary traditions of Chinatown evolved and adapted and more sophisticated restaurants or chifas appeared all over the capital.

Japan - The Rising Sun comes to dinner

In 1899 the first shipload of immigrants arrived from Japan and throughout this century Japanese cooking has left its distinctively 'modern', elegant, and essential mark on culinary trends in the kitchens of Peru. In fact, in the hundred years since the Japanese first arrived, they have been quietly responsible for nothing less than a gastronomic revolution.

Like the Chinese, the first Japanese immigrants initially came to work the coastal plantations. In the beginning they, too, suffered hardship but by the 1920's their families had joined them, their numbers had reached 18,000 and they were economically established.

At this time the first Japanese restaurants gently introduced their own subtle touch to traditional Peruvian dishes. Peruvian cuisine incorporated a delicate hint of shoyu and a dash of miso.

At home with their families the Japanese ate something that well-to-do city-dwellers were largely uninterested in - fish! In the first half of the 20th century, eating fish was still seen to be less desirable than meat, but by the end of the 1950's there were a small number of Japanese restaurants that were introducing their clientele to the delights of a whole range of fresh seafood dishes.

Although the Inca ate ceviche marinated in chicha made from corn and several sour or astringent fruit juices, it was the introduction of limes and onions by the Spaniards and a new approach to fish by the Japanese that gave us the ceviches and tiraditos that we know and love today.


So here we are in the 21st century. The descendants of the Quechua people number many millions. The Spaniards' descendants have lived in Peru for nearly 500 years, the Chinese and their children for 150 years and the Japanese nisei for over 100. During all that time food cultures have been colliding in Peru and succeeding generations have had progressively happier palates as a result. Today, bright young chefs are once again re-defining Peruvian cuisine.

The Art of Peruvian Cuisine by Tony Custer