Bites of History: Tracking Down The Roots of Peruvian Cuisine

Peruvian cuisine
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Peruvian cuisine is one of the richest and most acclaimed cuisines in the world. Lima, the capital of Peru, has been awarded as the World’s Leading Culinary Destination by the World Traveler Awards no less than seven years in a row, ever since 2019. But what makes it so unique and diverse? Find out the answer in this article, in which we’ll take you on a gastronomic trip to discover the secrets of this cuisine.

Even though Peru has a diverse number of microclimates and soil conditions that allow the growth of various vegetables, fruits, and other crops valuable for extensive gastronomy, it’s not the main reason for its enlarged cuisine. It is, actually, the result of many years of experiments and remarkable history of ethnic fusion. 

Movements, conquests, freedom fights, and migrations had to take place to create what we know now as the Peruvian Cuisine. And, with such an exciting history, how could its cooking be bland? Let’s try to travel along the way and start with the first dish we can track down.

Pre-Columbian and Incan origins

It all started with pre-Columbian ethnic groups, who knew exactly how to exploit all the good gifts their soil gave them. They grew more than five-thousand types of potatoes and tomatoes, beans, quinoa, and many other crops.

But the very first big fusion came with the creation and extension of the Incan Empire. Quechuas were big fans of gastronomy and were not afraid of mixing up all the ingredients they had, even including crops found outside their territory. They started to incorporate fish and seafood in general into their diets. Moches (Andean civilization from the Moche river’s valleys in Peru) are believed to be Ceviche’s first inventors.

Traditional Ceviche Source: Pirata Studio Firm/Unsplash 

Ceviche is one of the most iconic dishes from Peruvian cuisine. It consists of marinating raw, fresh fish (cut into small cubes) in lemon juice. The sour flavor of lemon makes ceviche a whole experience in our mouth, as the citric bathes our tongue.

Since lemons were only used after the Spanish Empire’s arrival, Moches had a different version of it. They marinated the fish in curuba, known in English as passion fruit. Can you imagine such an exotic dish? 

It is also believed that the most ancient traditional dish of Peruvian food, Carapulcra, was born around this time.  Aymara tribes were the ones who have the credits for it. Their version consisted of alpaca or llama meat, accompanied by potatoes. It had the consistency of a thick soup.

Nowadays, Carapulcra is prepared with pork or beef and served with rice and potatoes. Seasoning may vary, but it mainly consists of onion, garlic, and sometimes cinnamon.

Carapulcra dish. Source: EDP Photography

Their cooking was done through clay pots and natural ovens (called pachamanca), and they enjoyed experimenting with all kinds of ingredients. It continued until a significant impact on their gastronomy and culture came: the Spanish Empire.

Spanish Empire and its contributions

The Spaniards’ arrival brought a lot of new ingredients to throw into the pot: they introduced Quechua people to pork, beef, and chicken, along with milk, dairy products, and other crops such as onions and garlic. 

The natives would also welcome fruits such as limes, and later lemons would also come to the stage. At that time, an important fruit made its appearance: grapes. Ever since they became famous, wines became a possibility and resulted in Pisco’s creation, Peru’s national beverage. 

This alcoholic beverage owes its existence to the Catholic Church. As the conquerors implemented catholicism, churches needed to be opened, and churches required wine. That’s why grapes started to arrive in Peru so people could turn them into wine.

The wine was the only reason why grapes were coming to Peru. It became so popular that it was being exported to other Spanish territories, and it made the way to the present. It is now part of the Peruvian heritage, and you can find an entire Museum dedicated to Pisco in Lima, called Museo del Pisco.

Another huge contribution of the Spaniards is the sugarcane, which opened the door to the creation of many desserts and sweet dishes, only affordable for the highest classes. During these times, many Peruvian desserts were born, such as Arroz con Leche (rice cooked with milk and sugar instead of water, also sweetened with cinnamon), alfajores (which had a crucial Spanish influence, it is a type of dough filled with a creamy caramel sauce) or picarones (rings made with wheat flour and bathed in honey.

Arroz con Leche

Alfajores

Peruvian cuisine also owes its success to African influences. In the early 16th century, Spanish conquerors started to bring African slaves to Peru. Thousands of African men and women would arrive, adding their creativity to the gastronomic mix. African slaves would have the challenge of making whole meals out of the leftovers. They would take the tender parts of these meaty leftovers and come up with whole new dishes. 

That is, exactly, how dishes such as tacu tacu (made with beans and rice) and a version of anticuchos (made with beef heart, replacing the Quechuas version with llama meat) were born. It was the African creative minds the ones who would come up with a fantastic idea for Carapulcra: they added peanuts to the recipe and made an even better version of the dish.

Peruvian Anticuchos. Source: Joao Kanashiro

By the beginning of the XIX century, freedom Movements started to appear, and, incredibly enough, they also influenced Peruvian cuisine.
There’s a dish that could tell the story of a freedom movement: Causa a la Limeña. This tasty dish with a potato base is also known as Causa (cause in English), and it holds within its preparation a piece of Peruvian history. 

Many theories try to explain its name. Even though it already existed during the viceroyalty, its popularity and reputation were born when libertarians started their freedom movements. Tales tell that Causas were being sold in each corner of Lima to collect funds for the Independence Movement. It was “for a good cause” – that’s how it got its name.

Causas are made with a potato base. They also have lemons, avocado, boiled eggs, and yellow peppers. They can be filled with tuna, chicken, or trout. Lovely flavors that will free all kinds of positive feelings.

Causa a la Limeña. Source: Joao Kanashiro

Post-independence Influences

Many other factors were necessary for Peruvian food to become what it is today. After Peru’s Independence in 1850, immigrants started to come to the recently freed country to gain economic stability and prosperity.

Chinese immigration

First of all, Chinese workers would arrive in Peru to build the central railway and work in newly founded factories.

Chinese influences had a considerable impact on Peruvian cuisine. Asian immigrants were responsible for iconic dishes such as the Lomo saltado and introduced many condiments and new ingredients never tested before. Ginger, sesame oil, and sillao (soy sauce) could work as great examples.
Chinese influence also brought a whole new culinary path for Peru: chifa. Chifas are both a culinary method (that holds the fusion between Peruvian and Chinese cuisine) and places to eat this kind of dish. 

Chifas, the places started as small businesses made by Chinese immigrants. Their menus would promise all the mouth-watering Chinese delights with a Peruvian touch. These establishments would gain increasing popularity, and nowadays, the Barrio Chino (Chinatown) is one of the many gastronomic destinies in Lima. 

A Chinese arch built in celebration of the first centenary of the Cantonese arrival in Peru welcomes tourists into this exotic experience. Here, visitants love to buy exotic condiments and ingredients, but also would surely stop to eat Arroz Chaufa (Chaufa rice), the most popular result of the Chinese-Peruvian mix.

 Chaufa rice. Source: Diego Antonio Tsay Liu

Chaufa rice consists of fried rice mixed with soy sauce, some seeds, and proteins like pork, beef, or even shrimp. The Chinese working class first introduced it in Peru. Immigrants would combine all leftovers with the rice and sell it to earn some extra income. It is clear that creativity in moments of necessity has always been an ally for the Peruvian cuisine’s gastronomic development. 

Italian Influence

Italian immigrants were also pretty common along Peruvian piers. By 1880, approximately ten-thousand Italians were living in Peru. They were quick to open cafeterias, restaurants, and other establishments that would make Peruvians fall in love with their cooking ways.

Peruvian cuisine owes its first legumes to the Italian immigrants. Those would be the ones to start growing legumes such as broccoli, zucchini, chard, cauliflower, and eggplants. They also showed Peruvians one of their greatest gifts: pasta. Many traditional dishes are actually inspired by Italian food. Tallarines Verdes (green noodles), for example, is a Peruvian version of Italian pasta with pesto.

tallarines verdes peruvian dish

Tallarines verdes

Tallarines Verdes consist of pasta with pesto sauce, commonly accompanied by a steak, but it is also possible to combine it with pork or chicken. Some people would also add roasted potatoes to this dish. Just as a fun fact, ice cream was actually brought to Peru by Italian immigrants. 

We are sure that Peruvians were incredibly glad to fight the hot summers with cold, tasty ice cream. Other contributions were the introduction of carrots and eggplants to the daily cuisine, Panettone as a traditional Christmas dish, and the Chard Cake – a Peruvian version of Pasqualinas.

Japanese and their impact on seafood

In 1897, the Peruvian government agreed to receive Japanese farmers into the country. A crisis was hitting Japan at that moment (The Meiji era brought an agricultural decline in Japan), and Peru seemed like a good place to start over. Hundreds of Japanese arrived in Peru, ready to expand their knowledge about food and plants.

As the years went by, a concept was being born. Nikkei cuisine was the name given to the fusion between Peruvian and Japanese cooking ways. Its impact was especially big on seafood, a Japanese specialty.

A perfect example of Nikkei cuisine could be Tiradito. Let us describe the dish to you and see if you can guess the original version: raw fish cut in small stripes with a bittersweet sauce. That’s right, Sashimi was the main inspiration for Tiradito. Peruvian ingredients gave Sashimi a sweeter taste, which will surely melt you down.

Japanese fishers gave another direction to the Peruvian cuisine, adding strong condiments and cutting techniques and other options to eat: octopus, shrimp, and raw presentation.

Nikkei cuisine. Source: Toshim

In conclusion, the influences and factors that contributed to the creation of the Peruvian cuisine were many. We could talk about them for days! It is the living proof of how spectacular it is to fuse cultures and how rich its results could be.

For sure, Peruvian cuisine and its influences are indeed a fascinating topic. What’s your favorite Peruvian dish so far? Let us know in the comments section!

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