What do the US Civil War of the 1860s, cotton picking, Chinese migrants, a Japanese insistence on six minutes, super-aggressive Californian trout and a terrible rain storm have to do with Peru, let alone the development of Peruvian cuisine?
We’ve seen a bit of the hustle and bustle of the San Pedro Farmers’ Market in Cusco’s historic old town, with its incredible stalls and the wide variety of produce and products that is sells there in its quite organized chaos. And we’ve explored the historical and geographical influences that have helped make the Peruvian food of Cusco so incredibly delectable. Now let’s delve a little deeper…
In 1861, the cotton plantations of the Southern United States were caught up in fighting in the civil war, which understandably had a deep impact on their ability to grow and produce cotton at the time. Apparently, the Peruvian government was asked to grow cotton in the interim to meet the world’s appetite for this product. The Peruvian government turned to the Chinese government, asking for workers to meet the incredible demand, and this led to the one of the largest migrations of Chinese people in history. Who knew!?
The Chinese were like slaves, worked to the bone, but unlike slaves, they were on 3-5 year contracts. Once released, many of them opened, as they have throughout the world, small stores and restaurants. They often posted hawkers outside their doors to call and beckon people in to eat meals at their restaurants. Their calls of “chifa” were not understood by the Peruvians, but they meant something like, “eat rice.” To this day, Chinese food in Peru is called chifa, and the resulting fusion cuisine that came about due to the impact of the Chinese, their culture and their restaurant fare, combined with their access to such a wealth of variety in fruits and vegetables, has resulted in some truly excellent food.
As you may have gathered from reading previous posts, ceviche is an important dish to the Peruvian people. Pretty much every Peruvian restaurant worth its salt has it on the menu. There are cevicherias on the side of busy roads: no bigger than the size of closets, these ceviche-only restaurants specialize in just the one dish.
Even the Mercato San Pedro has a number of ceviche stands in its food court area. And what dish do you think we prepared at our cooking class? Why, ceviche, of course! It is that popular.
When the Japanese came to Peru, to escape the impact of World War II on their country and way of life, they LOVED the effect that the El Niño current (appearing in late December off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador) and the Humboldt current had on the ocean off the coast of Peru. Thanks to these ocean currents, the seas held a bounty of plankton, and as a result, a wealth of over 1200 species of fish feeding off that plankton. The Japanese, with their love of all things sushi and sashimi related, loved the Peruvian coastline’s marine bounty of seaweed, plankton, fish and seafood.
According to Chef José Luis, the first ceviche was made in Peru 3,000 years ago, so raw fish had long been turned into a delicious dish by the Pre-Incan cultures. The Pre-Incan cultures used a sour jungle fruit that is similar to a passion fruit, called tambo, to marinate their ceviche. When the Spaniards came, they introduced limes to the dish to replace the tambo, but they still continued the ancient method of marinating the dish overnight. But when the Japanese arrived on Peruvian shores, fleeing the effects of World War II on their country, and saw this, they were horrified and insisted that the dish be marinated for six minutes: no more and no less. And voilà! We have the popular Peruvian ceviche of today.
In the Cusco area, trout is the more popular fish used in ceviche at the cevicherias and restaurants, and at the food stands at the Mercato San Pedro. It is plentiful and local, and far less expensive than sea caught fish like sea bass, mahi-mahi, sole or flounder that are more sought after for high-class ceviche and more readily available in places like Lima.
Even in the Inca’s time, it was possible to get ocean fish in Cusco, the preferred home of the Inca Kings, despite being so far away from the ocean, tucked way up in the mountains as it was.
The Incas developed an incredible network of roads throughout Peru. The amazing thing about this network was its ability to link regions, and move food about the country quickly, safely and effectively. If an Inca King wanted sea bass in his ceviche for dinner, growing tired of the local fresh water fish, he could have it for his dinner. The Inca runners were fast, and that system of roads helped them to move the sea to the mountains in a single day!
There is a funny (if somewhat unfortunate) story about the trout that is used ubiquitously in modern-day Cusco that Chef José shared with us. Believe it or not, trout are recent invaders to Peru, and perhaps just as destructive as the Spaniards of the 16th century!
According to his story, American miners from California were working in Peru in the last century. Many of them were managers with time on their hands, and they wanted to spend that down-time fishing. One year, they brought in some baby trout and tried to stock a local lake to support their hobby. Their first attempt failed miserably, and the entire introduced fish population perished. Their second attempt, the following year, was quite successful, and the trout thrived.
Cue the rainy season: the torrential rains caused the lake that held the trout to overflow its banks, as they often do in Peru’s torrential, rainy season downpours, and the trout spread downstream and into the watershed. Having no natural predators, they thrived, became very aggressive, and decimated indigenous fish stocks, leaving the Cusco area with a very healthy, very well-stocked supply of trout to this day! Who knew that the trout of Cusco’s ceviche dishes are to be blamed on mining, and on the callous acts of non-environmentally friendly Californians in Peru!?
In the past 3 blog posts, we have explored the geographic, historical and ethnic factors that have played important roles in making Peruvian fusion food the delicious fare that it is today. We’ve also seen a few slice-of-life moments and heard a few folk lore stories to make it take on a life of its own. It’s now time to return to the Mercato San Pedro, that wonderfully atmospheric, bustling source of cooking ingredients, and take one last look around…. To be continued…