Peruvian cuisine is particularly rich because it is a gastronomy of mixtures: a mixture of very different ingredients, with three very different ecosystems, at opposite ends of the world, the Pacific, the Andes and the Amazon, which produce very varied ingredients. A mixture of civilisations, too, with pre-Columbian civilisations, Spanish conquistadors, African slaves and Asian immigrants. The perpetual mixing of populations that Peru has experienced is reflected in this renowned cuisine.
Famous? Yes, but mainly in the southern hemisphere. In Europe, it is not very well known! Even though season 13 of TopChef invited Pía León to introduce us to corn, I challenge you to give me five typical Peruvian dishes!
Fruits and vegetables, the land of records
Peru has a peculiarity: the altitude of its territories rises from sea level to 7,000 metres over a relatively short distance. This gives a variety of climates, from tropical to temperate, over a short distance, and therefore the coexistence of a large number of fruits and vegetables on the markets.
This is why in Peru you can eat temperate fruits like strawberries and tropical fruits like lucuma, which taste like maple syrup, in the same season. So it's common to come across fresh fruit juice vendors on the street or to enjoy exotic flavours of ice cream. (In Morocco, we only have juice vendors, ice cream is less of a problem…)
The vegetables are not to be outdone! Indeed, the country has an impressive variety of vegetables, such as corn, sweet potatoes and lima agria (lime), all of which are used in Peruvian cuisine.
And above all, since Peru is the land of origin of the potato, there are more than 2,500 types of potato.
To enhance the taste of its various dishes, Peruvian gastronomy uses and abuses aji amarillo and rocoto, two peppers with strong flavours.
Little known in the West, caigua is a vegetable that is a cross between a cucumber and a pepper. The flesh is crunchy and watery with a fairly neutral taste. It is also grown in East Africa and even in Bhutan! You won't find it outside the countries where it is grown, as it is more of a food crop. But I found a recipe for stuffed caiga that I think can be adapted to peppers, and I've even heard that caigua juice is used to lose weight, a glass every morning… but it is extremely bitter!
In the morning, Peruvians like to start their day with a cup of emoliente, a hot drink made from roasted barley, lemon juice and medicinal herbs. Served by street vendors, it is popular for its medicinal properties and high vitamin C content.
The usual way to avoid hunger pangs is to drink an infusion of coca mate leaves. It has many benefits: it is an appetite suppressant and resists fatigue and altitude sickness. Yerba mate is also the national drink of Argentina!
Less dietetic, chocolate milk, sweet potato and banana chips, or peanuts and toasted corn kernels make Peruvian taste buds happy! And this can be easily reproduced!
At any time of the day, the locals also like to enjoy a drink made from maca, a plant with exceptional properties, or Inca Kola, the essential soda flavoured with lemon verbena.
At the beginning, Inca cuisine
At its peak, the Inca Empire was immense, extremely rich and refined. Sophisticated because of its infinite number of cooking styles, Inca cuisine makes fine use of the products of its natural environment. It is also very well exported, and one can find Inca restaurants even in London!
In Inca times, it was very common to eat game, whereas today, the Andean peoples prefer llama and alpaca meat. More atypical, cuy, a type of guinea pig cooked in a barbecue, is one of the favourite dishes. The meat is mainly accompanied by tubers, avocados or quinoa and then simmered in stews or broths.
On the coast, crustaceans and fish are particularly popular, as Peru has more than 2,000 types of sea and freshwater fish and shellfish.
To spice up their various dishes, the heirs of the Inca civilisation opt for fine spices such as cat's claw or exotic fruits. It is also common to accompany these thousand-year-old recipes with chicha de jora, an alcoholic drink made from corn. Its non-alcoholic counterpart is called chicha morada and takes on the purple colour of the corn used in its preparation as well as its taste.
Bold Novo-Andine cuisine
Of indigenous origin, Novo-Andean cuisine is ambitious in that it draws its inspiration from pre-Columbian dishes and adapts them to new cooking techniques.
Born in the 1980s, this culinary trend was initiated by the chef Bernardo Roca Rey, who set himself the challenge of preparing Western dishes from local raw materials.
For example, he created a risotto based on quinoa in exchange for the traditional round rice. On the other hand, the aromatic Andean herbs and sauces, based on maracuyá, bring new flavours to the dishes. It is this trend that Pía León and her husband Virgilio Martínez have magnified and made known, with the award given to the young chef.
Across the Pacific, the blending of genres
Peru was inspired by the Asian culinary art introduced by Japanese and Chinese migrants.
The Peru-Japan fusion is the result of successive waves of migration from Japan. Indeed, the Nikkei, the name given to Japanese migrants from Peru, chose to revisit their favourite dishes using local products. This culinary contribution is manifested by short steaming sessions and a focus on the natural flavours of the ingredients: corn, coconut, lime, coriander…
The Japanese influence has also democratised the consumption of raw or lightly marinated fish: ceviche.
Nikkei cuisine gained worldwide recognition thanks to its emblematic figure, Gastón Acurio.
Today, the Peruvian chef, who trained at the prestigious French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, is at the head of some thirty restaurants in Latin America and Europe. In France, Gastón Acurio regularly works with the great names of French gastronomy, such as Alain Ducasse. He has opened a restaurant in Paris, Manko.
He has also, with other Peruvian chefs, made a cookbook, soberly entitled "Peru: The Cook Book", a beautiful object published by Phaïdon, which contains 500 recipes!
The Asian contribution to Peruvian gastronomy also draws its creativity from the Chinese dishes imported by a migration that reached its peak in the 1800s. This crossbreeding has created the Chifa cuisine, which is very popular with Peruvians. Chifa restaurants offer hearty dishes to be shared with the family, where you can try lomo saltado, which is a sautéed fillet, or arroz chaufa; similar to Cantonese rice, it comes in several types.
Drinks and cocktails
The Peruvians are at the origin of many alcoholic drinks, including the inevitable Pisco sour, a cocktail made with a brandy of the same name and lime. For the record, Peru and Chile have been fighting over the paternity of Pisco for centuries and the mystery is still unsolved!
Peruvian wine first appeared in the 16th century, at the time of the Spanish conquistadors. To this day, the vineyards are located in the Ica region, where the temperatures are more favourable for growing them. This is a very special place: Peru is a very dry country, where it hardly rains at all… so the vines only grow in oases, with some very famous estates, such as Tacama.
Peruvian wines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Syrah, Malbec and Merlot. Outside France, which tends to ignore all foreign wines, they are appreciated, with fruity flavours.
In fact, the same region is where Pisco is made, as it is a grape spirit. Most farmers mix wine barrels and pisco jars in their cellars!
Why am I telling you all this? Because many of these recipes can be adapted to Morocco. And because I really like the fish and the variety of preparations with corn or sweet potatoes!