Peruvian Cuisine: Food, Fusion and Fission in the ‘Land of Abundance’

“The wonders of each region view, from frozen Lapland to Peru” – Soame Jenyns, An Epistle, 1735

Let’s first remember that Peru’s capital, Lima, has a bean named after it. And geographically, Peru is certainly not small potatoes either: Peru’s Pacific costa stretches almost 2,500 km, from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south. It’s here where the cold Humboldt and the infamous El Niño currents do battle, rendering Peru’s long and narrow band of low-lying western land a patchwork of northward tropical savanna and mangrove-clogged waterways, the southern reaches a swathe of rocky, subtropical desert.

Amounting to far more than a hill of beans as we move inland, the Peruvian landmass rises sharply to the snow-capped spine of the Andes, a fearsome sierra that would appear uninhabitable if it weren’t for the evidence of millennia-long occupation – and substantial cultivation – furnished by majestic, high-altitude Incan settlements like Machu Picchu and the former Incan capital of Cusco. To an early European explorer heading further east, perhaps in pursuit of dubious fortune among the rubber plantations of the Madre de Dios, it’s likely that any sense of achievement felt after cresting a mountain range that boasts no less than 37 peaks rising above 6,000 m would be tempered somewhat by the sight of yet another obstacle – the vast Amazon Basin, the selva baja that comprises a full 60% of Peru’s territory.

It’s in the midst of this landscape that German film director Werner Herzog made his masterpieces Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, a landscape that the magisterial misanthrope declaimed as “an unfinished country… a land that god, if he exists, has created in anger. It’s the only land where creation is unfinished…” These words, however, come from the mouth of a man who literally ate his own shoe – and filmed the feast – to pay his debt to a lost bet. Unlike Fellini and Welles, this is one director who isn’t known for his gourmet predilections. Alongside his withering remarks about the lush Amazonian biome, his erstwhile eating habits mark him out as the wurst possible ambassador for Peruvian cuisine.

Klaus Kinski ponders the wonders of Peru in Fitzcarraldo (dir. Werner Herzog, 1982). Source: frame enlargement. \[…\]

 A land of overwhelming abundance

Peru’s incredible geographic and climatic variation has the effect, in fact, of granting this corner of South America an equally incredible biological diversity in terms of both flora and fauna. Herzog was right to note the jungle’s “overwhelming growth”, maybe even that the teetering natural harmony here is one of “overwhelming and collective murder” – Peru’s history is marked by violent conquest and colonisation and, yes, the landscape is harsh and home to many hungry and hostile creatures.

In spite of what he wanted his messianic utterances to mean, Herzog is onto something significant when he remarks that Peru is a land of unfinished creation. Let’s pull focus onto the edible denizens of Peru (not including mankind – apologies, Werner), a nation whose name means, in the indigenous Quechuan language, “the land of abundance”. Not only is Peru blessed with a fantastic array of natural resources, not least a cornucopia of exotic (and now common) foodstuffs; it is also a nation whose culinary culture has been caught, and very pleasurably remains, in a process of constant creation: food here is all about fusion and fission, the convergence of traditions and the dissemination of delicacies and dishes all over the world.

Let’s not allow the “overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth, and overwhelming lack of order” that ostensibly dominates the infernal fragment of the earth’s surface that we call Peru overwhelm, Herr Herzog, the fact that Peru’s verdant slice of the Amazon, its tithe of the towering Andes, and its handsome portion of the blue Pacific has given birth to, for one, several incredibly ordered cultures and civilisations.

These pre-Columbian Peruvians, rather than moaning about the antagonistic wilds about them – Peru’s land area is only about 3% arable – instead embarked upon a terraforming enterprise that was to have worldwide implications. Chief among Peru’s gastronomic innovations was the development of an agricultural industry whose most important contribution to the global food supply was perhaps our most taken-for-granted staple vegetable, the humble potato.

Peru is the birthplace of the humble potato, one hot mamacita with at least 3,000 progeny. Source: Shutterstock. \[…\]

“Soy mas Peruano que la papa” / “I am more Peruvian than the potato”

First domesticated in Peru about 10,000 years ago, there are now over 3,000 cultivars of Solanum tuberosum scattered about the planet (although almost 5,000 types are archived by Lima’s International Potato Center), and locals prove how Peruvian they are by stating “Soy mas Peruano que la papa” or “I am more Peruvian than the potato”. Thanks to the tendency of colonial powers to pillage the best of their host countries, potatoes have cropped up on every inhabited continent on Earth. Indeed, the potato is the world’s fourth-largest food crop after, in ascending order, rice, wheat, and maize.

This last, the amazing corn and its kernels, can’t rightly be claimed by Peru as an indigenous invention – it was first domesticated up the road by Mesoamerican civilisations like the Olmecs and Mayans and made its way south along trade routes established some 2,500 years ago – but Peru can boast at least 55 types, available in a multitude of colours. In Peru, roasted kernels of a kind of maize called chulpe are a popular snack, and corn is the basis for chicha (the alcoholic corn beer chicha de jora or the ubiquitous canned soft drink chicha morada).

There are at least 55 colourful kinds of Peruvian corn. Source: Shutterstock. \[…\]

Over a thousand years ago, the pre-Incan Wari people pumped out thousands of litres of alcoholic chicha at a time from a mountaintop brewery surrounded by a complex of libatory temples and several of what may very well be the South American answer to the German Hofbräuhaus. Combined with the dizzying altitude, what fun they must have had (we should remember that chicha is also Lima-slang for playful or cheeky).

Today, regional varieties of chicha abound, with Cuzco adding strawberries to make frutillada and the town of Ayacucho not stopping at maize to add wheat, barley, and chickpeas for a rich and thick brew. Against all advice, the sorry souls of Huanto forgo corn entirely, opting instead for the seeds of the Peruvian pepper tree to produce a rare beverage, chicha de molle, whose delicate flavour is as legendary as the Andean-sized hangovers suffered by those who imbibe it. Stick to maize, Huanto, or mix a pisco sour, for Viracocha’s sake.

Piskos: ancient ceramic amphorae for storing pisco. Source: Shutterstock. \[…\]

Get chicha with chicha & pucker up for a pisco sour

Yes, it’s not all corn beer here. Whether or not you’re in Peru, it’s not hard these days to encounter Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour, on cocktail bar menus around the world. Pisco itself is a kind of aguardiente, a spirit made from grapes imported by European settlers and not, we should point out, peculiar to Peru – neighbouring Chileans love to poo-poo Peruvian pisco and claim the liquor for itself, in a similar contest as that between Scotland and Ireland over whisk(e)y

. But, pisco does take its name from the Peruvian port of the same name and the Quechuan (again, an Andean rather than Peruvian people) word for bird. Plus, Peruvian pisco was named the best liquor in the world by a panel of judges in a decidedly chicha kind of mood in Brussels in 2011 – Peru exports three times more of the stuff than Chile. As for the cocktail that made Peruvian booze famous, the pisco sour was invented – according to the much-disputed legend (cocktail history reads as a litany of disputed legend) – by the American proprietor of an upper-crust bar in Lima and perfected by a Peruvian bartender in his employ towards the end of the 1920s.

Point is, here’s the most nationalist of Peruvian drinks, given an indigenous name but modelled on the North American whisky sour by a collaborative North American-Peruvian mixologist duo; it’s made from introduced Spanish grapes and key limes mixed with sugar syrup, egg white, and a dash of Venezuelan-via-Trinidad-and-Tobago Angostura bitters; it’s a drink now available in any international cocktail bar worth its salt-rimmed margarita glasses… this drink is a perfect example of the way the food and drink we associate with a state, or consider purely native, is often a form of fusion cuisine – something very much evident in Peru.

By the same token, just as we no longer consider the potato essentially Peruvian, the worldwide popularity of the pisco sour demonstrates just as ably how cuisines – cocktails included – are capable of undergoing fission and, as it were, spilling over and out beyond the boundaries of their nominal home turf. Setting drinks down for a second, when it comes to the fusion and fission of Peruvian cuisine, there’s probably no better example than another culinary emblem, ceviche, which is – no coincidence – best washed down with a pisco sour.

Peruvian ceviche: a famous food as simple as sashimi. Source: Shutterstock. \[…\]

Ceviche, seviche, cebiche: Spanish-Arabic-Andean-Pacific fusion

Along with an accompanying round of mouth-puckering pisco sours and the essential ingredient of Peruvian aji or chillies – of which there are a mere 300 kinds – corn is typically served as a side dish, or is used as an ingredient in, what many would see as Peru’s national dish. At base, ceviche is simply raw fish marinated in citrus along with onions, chillies, salt and pepper, though as we’ll see it can get far more complex. Peruvians traditionally serve ceviche alongside pieces of our friend corn-on-the-cob and the sweeter types of potato, while some regional variations throw toasted corn in from the start.

The origin of the name of the dish itself gives some insight into how ceviche stands not just as Peru’s most famous culinary export in contemporary times, but how it is exemplary of Peruvian cuisine as a whole, a cuisine that is always already fusion cuisine. The tweedy philological jury is out on the etymology of ceviche, variously spelled seviche and cebiche, but the most plausible accounts trace the term to the indigenous Quechan name for the dish, siwichi, or the Spanish-Arabic derivation of the word sakbāj, meaning meat cooked in vinegar.

The latter upholds the theory that the genesis of ceviche lies in the hands of Spanish colonists bringing North African and Moorish cuisine and, most importantly, citrus fruits like key lime and bitter orange to the New World. The former, more intriguing attribution gives traction to the theory that several kinds of primordial ceviche were being enjoyed in Peru (or even the Polynesian islands) far earlier, with the Moche using fermented banana passionfruit to cure fish and the Incas using chicha – this time for something other than divine intoxication – in the same way.

Ceviche and other ambassadors for “the original fusion food”

If we’re to claim ceviche for Peruvian cuisine, we can just as easily claim it for historico-cultural fusion cuisine – it’s a blend, beyond the provenance of its name, of Spanish and European, Arabic and African, ancient Andean, Pacific, and even Japanese and Far Eastern influences. The marinade, leche de tigre or leche de pantera, tiger’s or panther’s milk, is made from lime and onions, neither of which are indigenous to Peru (incidentally, restaurants serving ceviche often serve this marinade on its own as a drink). The fish usually used for ceviche is corvina or cebo (sea bass), hauled in from the abundant fisheries off the Pacific coast, and when prepared according to the contemporary fashion appears nothing less than a close cousin of Japanese sashimi. In fact, the Japanese community is well established in Peru, and has so influenced Peruvian cuisine that Japanese-Peruvian fusion has its own label, nikkei, with seafood at its centre, made famous by internationally-renowned fusion chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa and elBulli’s Ferran Adrià. Inching the two intertwined cultures closer, _tiradito_is a kind of cross between ceviche and sashimi, with the raw fish only minimally cured and served fanned out on the plate, as is common with sashimi in Japan.

Besides the historic introduction of European produce – beef, pork, goat, cabbage, peaches, apples, garlic – and the often overlooked export of potatoes, corn, chillies and more to far-flung corners of the globe, other waves of immigration have amplified this dialogue. Chinese soy sauce, rice, and stir-frying has fused with Peruvian traditions to form a sub-cuisine called chifa, while Peruvians enjoy pasta, peanuts and yams courtesy of their Italian and African friends. Peruvian cuisine is, according to New York Times food critic Eric Asimov, “the original fusion food”.

Traditional Peruvian fabric with a ‘chicha’, fishing, flora & fauna motif. Source: Shutterstock. \[…\]

Fusing in the land of abundance, Peruvian cuisine has now fissioned and flung itself out into the international restaurant scene, and it’s in this brave new world, especially back in the Old World, where ceviche has become a term on the tips of the tongues of curious foodies.

The process of fusion and fission that characterises Peruvian cuisine means that ultra-hip clusters of restaurants like Martin Morales’ two Ceviche restaurants (in London’s Soho and Old Street) and their sister restaurant Andina offer up varieties of that most Peruvian (and yet most international) of dishes, ceviche, that run the gamut when it comes to global ingredients. After five centuries absorbing influences from all over the world,  Peruvian cuisine is more popular than ever before. Raise your pisco sour or your glass of chicha or your snifter of panther’s milk and let us propose a toast, “salud”, to peerlessly cosmopolitan Peruvian cuisine.