Until just a few years ago, all that the world seemed to know of Peru was Machu Picchu. For the hapless Peruvian Diaspora, dinner-table conversations with foreigners started and stopped with the 15th Century Inca ruins. And there was the added frustration of being repeatedly asked to clarify if Peruvians indeed ate only potatoes and barbecued guinea pigs.
But today, in a culinary revenge of sorts, Peru’s rich platter of delicacies has become so rapidly popular that it has evolved into a new global haute cuisine. What’s more, at a time when the demand for Peru’s primary export — metals — is falling, the gastronomic revolution is feeding the country’s economy in a small but significant way.
Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal mentions in an article, the names of exotic Peruvian dishes like Ceviches, or cured-seafood salads that have been hailed as the new Sushi, Aji de Gallina, or chicken stew made with the fruity aji pepper, and Causas, or whipped potatoes with avocado, are easily rolling off the tongues of top chefs these days. Peruvian specialty restaurants have sprung up like mushrooms in great gastronomic cities such as London, New York, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Madrid, and Hong Kong. Even the sales of Peru’s grape brandy, pisco, have doubled in the U.S. since 2006. And if this is not enough evidence of how well Peruvian food has been accepted by gourmands, some of the key ingredients of the cuisine, such as the yellow chilli aji amarillo, are now available in many farmers’ markets across the globe, especially those that are popular among chefs.
In fact, recent economic data suggest the culinary trend has given quite a boost to Peru’s export economy. For instance, the Peruvian fisheries industry — the world’s second largest and the source of 10% of the country’s GDP — reported an export revenue of $1.05 billion last year and at least $412 million of this amount was generated from the sales of frozen giant squid, a Peruvian delicacy. Similarly, The Economist says that in 2011, Peru nearly doubled its export of Quinoa, a protein-packed grain used in Peruvian soups, salads, drinks, and desserts.
It’s not just exports. In the domestic economy too, the benefits of Peru’s gastronomic success are visible. Across the country, nearly 6,000 cooking schools have opened and around 80,000 young Peruvians are currently enrolled there to train as chefs. Further, to cater to the foreign tourist’s craving for a taste of Peru’s explosive flavors, several culinary tour companies have emerged in Lima. Actually, the BBC has reported that according to a study by the Peruvian company Arellano Marketing, the share of food-related businesses contributing to the country’s GDP may already have reached 11%.
Nonetheless, for all the hype around its culinary fare over these past few years, Peru has always had a rich food tradition due to many reasons. Despite their relative poverty, the people of Peru eat well, and neither fast food nor a hastily prepared platter is appreciated in Peruvian households. But more importantly, thanks to the country’s extraordinary ethnic mix, Peruvian cuisine is a centuries-old melting pot of Japanese, Chinese, African, Spanish, and the native Quechua cultures. So it is a cuisine rich in nutrition and varied in its ingredients. Its flavors arise from how acid is mated with spice, using vegetables and fruits unique to the Andes region, where Peru is located. In fact, the Andes is not only the birthplace of the humble potato — of which Peru grows 3,000 varieties — but also a land teeming with wildlife, where a caiman (a type of crocodile) is as readily available for lunch as a peccary (wild pig). And then there’s the extraordinarily bountiful sea to Peru’s west. While the rest of the world has been moaning about dwindling fish in its seas, Peru has been able to create many of its signature dishes from seafood, which naturally makes them a healthy choice for diet-conscious diners. And for those who aren’t, the country offers a choice of 2,500 desserts.
Incidentally, neither the Peruvian approach to food nor its treasure trove of recipes surfaced until as late as 2006 when Lima was declared the Gastronomic Capital of the Americas at the Fourth International Summit of Gastronomy. Publications across the globe reported the event, focusing on the striking blend of influences in Peruvian cuisine. “Peru can lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines,” The Economist had announced then. That prediction has come true in more ways than one. In fact, restaurant consultancy group Baum & Whiteman has declared that Peruvian cuisine will be one of the hot new food trends of 2012.
The Peruvian Diaspora will raise a toast of the fiery pisco brandy to that. For it seems their dinner table conversations might move away from the ancient sights of the past to the new Peruvian plat du jour.
Postcards from Around the World
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