Chef José Luis proudly proclaimed in a candle lit corner of his Uchu Restaurant, over an incredibly beautiful dish of ceviche, “In Peru we do not eat. We taste.” Sitting at a small table, tucked away in a corner, getting to know Chef José, I looked down into the bowl of ceviche that had just been placed before me. It was stunning. What a way to begin our evening!
But it was not just that the bowl of ceviche was visually beautiful; its tastes were remarkable as well. Each bite was different. The flavours danced and played in our mouths while the ideas that he shared with us about the development of Peruvian fusion cuisine swirled in our minds. It was a tremendous way to start an evening, an evening of exploring Peruvian cuisine during a culinary tour of the city’s restaurants and street food stands.
The Peruvian food that we tried in Cusco amazed us! It was flavourful. It was creative. It was beautiful. We experienced it in restaurants and on the street. We experienced it at the local farmers’ market, on this culinary tour and in a cooking class. The more we learned about its origins and about how it developed, the more fascinated with it we became!
Peru’s unique geography, and a series of interesting historical influences, had a lot to do with it becoming interesting, exceptionally tasty, fusion cuisine. [This blog post is part 2 of a 4 part series that started HERE….]
Geographically, Peru is very diverse: it has a coastal region that spans from sea level to 500m; it has high altitude rainforests that exist around 2000m; it has highlands that are situated above 2200m; and it has interior lowland jungle areas on the east side of those incredible Andes Mountains that feed into the mighty Amazon River basin. Different altitudes create different microclimates that result in a tremendous variety of plants and produce that can be grown.
Peru also has a long coastline filled with fish and seafood, thanks to the El Niño and Humbold currents off its coast. Thanks to these ocean currents, the seas hold a bounty of plankton, and as a result, a wealth of over 1200 species of fish feeding off that plankton.
We saw many of the fruits and vegetables being grown in small jungle farms on steep rainforest slopes as we walked past on our Salkantay Trek. Pictured below are plantains, papayas, avocados and passion fruit.
Peru lies close to the equator so it has tropical areas but it also, due in part to its high elevation, has cold temperatures, allowing for a lot of diversity in growing conditions. Our cooking school instructor, Elvira, explained to us that the strong and intense equatorial sun makes the fruits have much more intense flavours. And it is true. We did a fruit tasting and the flavour of, say, a mango, was far more sweet than it would taste if grown elsewhere, and a lime would be far more tart if grown in Peru.
According to Chef José, ninety five percent of today’s Peruvian food is not truly Peruvian: it is made up of fusion blends from other cultures. It is made up of regional cuisines that reflect the different ecosystems of its unique geography.
Traditionally, Peru was made up of hundreds of small, Pre-Incan cultures. When the Incas took over, they built roads connecting these independent cultures, but more importantly, they domesticated the land.
Put very simply, the Incas were farmers. Very, very good farmers.
This is their most lasting effect on the development of Peruvian cuisine. Coastal deserts, vast and empty highlands and overgrown jungles were tamed and worked with the addition of gigantic expanses of agricultural terraces, experiments in crop rotation and the application of advanced irrigation techniques.
In the highlands, where six months of rain a year leached the soil, draining to of its valuable nutrients, the Incas built terraces and worked to improve the soil by growing a cover crop, leaving plots fallow for a year to rest, and developing ways for water to move through the soil without draining it of nutrients. On the coasts, they learned to irrigate the deserts with the building of giant cisterns.
These growing techniques and this domestication of the land was the first factor that had a major impact on the development of Peruvian cuisine and on what you see offered for sale in the San Pedro market, and offered up in its restaurants today.
According to Elvira, thanks to the Incas and their experiments with crop development, there are now 100 kinds of quinoa grown in Peru. Containing 16/20 amino acids (proteins) that we need to live, it has become the basis of a plant-based health food craze in the western world, causing its demand to skyrocket.
In Peru, quinoa used to be relatively inexpensive (3 soles per kilo; about 9 cents, US). Now it costs 21 soles a kilo. This has pushed it out of the kitchens of poverty stricken Peruvians. It used to be that people who could not afford to eat meat, ate quinoa. Now they eat kiwicha, a grain that is ground into a powder and added to flour and juice that has even more protein in it than quinoa. Cañihuaco, used by NASA to feed its astronauts, and tarwi (with 18/20 amino acid proteins) have also become popular quinoa grain substitutes.
Under the Inca’s domestication of the land, corn became quite popular. It is eaten cooked off the cob, it is dried and popped like popcorn, it is dried and salted and used as a topping on dishes like ceviche, and in its purple form, it is made into chicha morada (a dark purple, sweet and cinnamon flavoured non-alcoholic drink) or chicha d’hora (the alcoholic beer of the Incas).
In fact, chicha d’hora was so prevalent amongst the Incas that it was practically the only thing they drank. Apparently, the Incas gave beer to their small children and never drank water! Under the Incas, many forms of chicha were created, including fermented drinks made from sprouted quinoa and peanuts, but it is the corn-based chicha that has remained popular today.
In our cooking class, we prepared ceviche (pictured to the left) with dried and salted corn kernels on one side in a small dish, and soft boiled sweet potatoes in a dish, on the other.
The idea, it was explained to us, was that each bite was to have a different texture, and each mouthful was to be a different taste experience. The use of corn figures heavily in the creation of this key element of texture in Peruvian cuisine, thanks in large part to the domestication of the land and the agricultural experimentation of the Incas.
Ceviche has been made in Peru for 3,000 years. It was historically made by the pre-Incan Mochichas people with a very sour jungle fruit, called tumbo, similar to a passion fruit, and marinated over night. That all changed with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1530s, the second important historical factor that had a dramatic impact on the cuisine of Peru.
Chef José Luis explained to us that in Peru, ceviche is not a dish: it is a concept. You can prepare a mushroom, zucchini and even a mango ceviche. The key lies in the ingredients and the technique used: lime juice, hot peppers, cilantro and a marinating time of 6 minutes, after which the “cooking” is halted with the addition of a mild fish stock. As he says with a glint in his eye, “In Peru, we do not eat. We taste.”
The arrival of the Spanish saw a dramatic shift happen in the availability of cooking ingredients in Peru that “made food far more enjoyable,” as Elvira put it. The Spaniards brought with them pork, chicken, lamb, limes and lemons from Europe. From their trades with Asian cultures along the silk road, they brought rice. From their contact with slaves, they brought dried beans and kebab style grilling techniques, producing meat-on-a-stick dishes called anticuchos.
When the Spanish came, much like modern day North Americans, they used only the best cuts of meat for themselves. The poor cuts, along with things like the organs and the heads, the hoofs and the tails, were thrown away or given to their slaves. The sad reality was that the slaves had to learn to feed themselves with what the Spaniards threw away.
Out of this came a very interesting contribution to Peruvian cuisine. The black slaves, many of whom had Caribbean origins, brought their kebab style of cooking and their tradition of marinating to those thrown away cuts of meat. There are many stalls at the market that specialize in those throw away cuts… the heads, the hooves, the tails and the organs and intestines.
A number of foods that the slaves ate out of desperation and the conditions of depravity imposed on them by the Spaniards ironically remain popular to this day, one of which is skewered, grilled beef heart kebabs. Called anticuchos, many vendors sell these in the evenings on the streets of Cusco and the kebabs are anchored by a boiled potato for a delightfully Peruvian touch! Of course today, often the good cuts of meat are used and you can even find anticuchos made from cuts of alpaca.