While doing some research on Peruvian cuisine, I wondered if it was possible to distill the essence of its fusion into five foods — each representing the Inca, European, African, Chinese, and Japanese cultures that form Peruvian cuisine. At first, I thought it would be impossible. After all, how could I possibly pick just five foods that represented a 500-year culinary evolution?
The potato is one of Peru’s greatest gifts to the world, but if I had to choose something truly unique from Peru, something that adds flavor and spice to all of its dishes like nothing else can, I would choose the Peruvian aji or hot pepper. It’s the base ingredient that connects the present with the past, and with a flavor that has been cultivated since the time of the Incas, I can’t imagine Peruvian food without its aji.
The Spanish brought many foods and spices to Peru, such as rice, limes, cumin, cinnamon, and cloves — all used in countless dishes and desserts. But they also brought the grapes that were used to make wine, and then Pisco, the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas. Without those grapes that came from Jerez, we would not have the Pisco Sour or San Francisco’s Pisco Punch. So for Europe, I choose the grape.
During the time of the Spanish Viceroyalty, Peru was the largest consumer of sugar in the New World, perhaps that’s why so many Peruvian today have such a sweet tooth. But the desserts I have come to love would not exist if it weren’t for the Afro-Peruvians who infused them with spices and syrups, and who also worked in the sugar plantations of Peru and the rest of the Americas. That’s why for Africa, I choose sugar.
The Chinese immigrants that arrived in Peru over 150 years ago brought ingredients and a culinary tradition that gave birth to Chifas. But if I had to choose one ingredient to represent China, it would have to be ginger. In Peru, we even call it kion after the original word in Cantonese. And without ginger, we would not have the Lomo Saltado, which combined ginger with Peruvian hot peppers for the first time.
Thanks to the Humboldt Current, Peru has a tremendous abundance and variety of fish. And after the arrival of the Japanese 100 years ago, Peruvians become even more passionate about seafood dishes. Thanks in large part to their profound appreciation for fish, the Japanese transformed how Peruvians prepared and ate Ceviche, making it one of Peru’s most culturally significant dishes. So for Japan, I choose fish.
One of my goals in 2012 is to continue to do more research about the cultures that have contributed to Peruvian cuisine. That research will undoubtedly involve cooking more dishes, as I explore recipes and their history. In the meantime, the next time you cook a Peruvian dish, take a look at the ingredients, find out about their origins, and perhaps realize that what you are eating has taken 500 years to make it to your table.