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The Gastro-Political Turn in Peru

El giro gastro-político en el Perú
Raúl Matta and María Elena García

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They are Peruvians, but they don’t know what that means. ‘Peru, Nebraska’ Video

1In 2011, PromPerú, the Peruvian state export and tourism agency, launched a promotional video to mark the international launch of Marca Perú (brand name Peru).

2In the video, a bus with the symbol of Marca Perú and the red and white of the Peruvian flag on its side drives down the open Nebraska plains. The camera pans out across fields and a seemingly remote town as the bus enters the main street of Peru, Nebraska. As it does, the video’s narrator tells us that “every Peruvian, by the mere fact of being Peruvian, has the right to enjoy how marvelous it is to be Peruvian.” We are then introduced to this small town (population 569), as the narrator sets the stage. “Peru, Nebraska has a problem,” he says. “They are Peruvians, but they don’t know what that means.”

  • 1 These opening paragraphs draw from García’s book manuscript, Culinary Spectacles: Gastro-politics a (...)

3The bus stops, the doors open, and the driver—none other than Gastón Acurio, a leading chef and public figure in Peru today—announces their arrival. As Peruvian chefs, actors, musicians, surfers, and tourism promoters exit the bus, the narrator explains that their mission is “to be ambassadors of our country, and read them their rights as Peruvians.” One of the chefs then picks up a megaphone and in Spanish, tells the town that they are Peruvians, and accordingly, they have “the right to eat well.” The video—which went viral almost overnight—goes on to document the power of Peruvian food and culture. Educating North American Peruvians about their rights as Peruvians, these cultural ambassadors perform Peru for their North American compatriots in multiple ways. Most importantly, this was a powerful performance of national sovereignty and a reflection of the sentiment expressed in Peru today: Peru is not only in a different place economically, socially and politically. Inverting the common North-South hierarchy, Peru is now the one bringing civilization to the world.1

Image 2: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska

Image 2: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska


Image 3: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska

Image 3: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska


  • 2 A recent advertisement in the New York Times (paid for by PromPerú, the Peruvian state export and t (...)

4This is striking when we consider that less than twenty years ago, Peru was still reeling from the political violence and economic precariousness that engulfed the country in the 1980s and 90s. Today, it is considered one of the world’s leading culinary destinations. Food has been central to this national reconfiguration. As we detail below, dominant narratives in Peru emphasize the significance of culinary success (globally and locally), and the power of food as a social weapon that can heal the wounds inflicted by long histories of colonial violence, exclusion, and inequality.2 The contributors to this special issue, however, offer a more critical reading of this so-called “gastronomic revolution” and its impact. Together, they represent an emerging counter-narrative of gastro-politics in Peru, one that builds on previous critiques while offering more complex and nuanced analyses of its contemporary manifestations. In this brief introduction, we offer some context for understanding Peruvian gastro-politics before commenting on the significance of the essays included in this volume.

Food, Politics, Power

5As many scholars have pointed out, cuisine, identity and politics converge in complex and compelling ways across the globe. More specifically, food figures in tense and asymmetrical relationships, from the familial to the colonial and hegemonic. Food has historically played a role in maintaining the social boundaries between ethnic groups (Douglas 1984, Goody 1982), social classes (Bourdieu 1979) and castes (Appadurai 1988). In addition to reflecting forms of social organization and social structure, food has played a role in shaping both national and regional identity ideals and projects.

6France has provided perhaps the most striking example of a “culinary country,” one where cuisine and nation are seen to coincide (Ferguson 2010). Cookbooks and recipes may be read as part of national archives and technologies of knowledge-production and identity-formation, as their role in 19th and 20th century’s nation building have clearly shown (Ayora-Díaz 2012, Bak-Geller 2008, Cusack 2000, Ferguson 2010, Zapata 2008). However, the geographic and political boundaries that sustain culinary singularity are not fixed and static but rather dynamic and malleable. As nations and communities carve out their economic and political locations in a global system, the particularization of food cultures involves local and global processes of negotiation, contestation, continuity, and change with the aim of obtaining an identifiable status (communal, regional, national, or global). Richard Wilk’s (1999) exploration of the birth of Belizean cuisine is exemplary of this, as it shows the capacity of food to relate the local to the global in distinct ways. He demonstrates that while an outside observer, a tourist for example, perceives Belize’s national cuisine as a token of authentic local culture, in reality, historical transnational flows of people, culture, goods, and capital converged to create these dishes.

7Governments are perhaps the most engaged actors in the shaping of the cultural and political meanings of food. Initiatives undertaken by local, national and international administrations show how food cultures are called on to establish ideological frameworks to enhance both cultural particularities and economic competitiveness. Daphne Karaosmanoğlu (2007) demonstrates that the “modernization” of Turkish cuisine draws on a multicultural and cosmopolitan project supported by governmental and private institutions with the aim of bringing Turkey closer to Europe. The West, she argues, “is a reference point in the attempts to stabilize the character of Turkish cuisine […] Rather than representing itself as the very “other” of the West, Turkey wants to be different—to have a unique identity within the West” (429). In the same vein, Takeda Hiroko (2008) describes how the Japanese government and civil organizations spread discourses that emphasize Japanese food as the core of “Japaneseness.” Drawing on Foucault’s idea of governmentality, she contends that food discourse in Japan functions as a biopolitical device mobilized to propagate a normatively healthy eating practice that will create a “delicious” image of a “healthy” Japan.

8Exploring the European Union’s integration efforts, Michaela DeSoucey (2010) coined the term “gastronationalism” to refer to “the use of food production, distribution, and consumption to demarcate and sustain the emotive power of national attachment, as well as the use of nationalist sentiments to produce and market food” (443). Drawing on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and on the EU-sponsored labels for “traditional” products, she presents gastronationalism as an intervention of national states in the fields of identity and cultural heritage to counter the homogenizing effects of economic, political, and ideological multi-country governance. Moreover, it is worth mentioning the increasing use of food as a power resource in the framework of international relations. Gastrodiplomacy, a dimension of cultural diplomacy that connects historical narratives with current gastronomic practices, displays up-to-date food “traditions” with the aim of improving countries’ reputations and fostering global cultural and business relationships (Rockower 2012).

9Multiple scenarios involving ever more numerous, heterogeneous actors at different levels of power bear even greater testimony of the role of food in the production of counter-intuitive dialectics that subvert geopolitical and symbolic orders. Using the case of sausages, Klumbyté (2010) shows how in Lithuania’s food market the “Soviet” and “Euro” brands reproduce and contest the symbolic regimes of the Cold War. Formerly invoking oppression and colonization, the “Soviet” brand is now connected to values of safety, progress, and success, much as the “Euro” brand. Moreover, “Soviet” sausages are even held in higher esteem as they are supported by marketing strategies that associate them with natural food and Lithuanian taste traditions, while “Euro” sausages are culturally perceived as alien. More recently, Gisela Welz (2015) describes how the promotion of certification labels and designations of origin, encouraged by the European Union, has generated competing claims from Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot cheese producers, contesting cultural ownership of halloumi through arguments about its origins and genealogy, and the authenticity of their respective methods of preparation. Another example is the “hummus war” between Israel and Lebanon, studied by Nir Avieli (2016). Between 2006 and 2009, this disagreement saw agribusiness groups and lobbies, restaurant owners and ministers make spectacular efforts to outdo each other, as each country took turns beating the Guinness world record for the largest dish of hummus in the world, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating ownership of the dish. Finally, the rise of chefs as embodiments of national foods is significant in this context: not only do they wear the flags of the countries they represent on the collars of their uniforms, but they are also considered fully-fledged members of the diplomatic corps, as in Mexico.3 At times, they may even be considered prominent political figures, or even seen as presidential material, as is the case of chef Gastón Acurio in Peru.

10We are thus faced with political configurations around food and culinary cultures, which can be quite contentious and divided, and which are host to numerous participants including international bodies, governments, activists and campaigners, researchers, media organizations, entrepreneurs, local associations, and individuals. In their own way, each of these protagonists participates in the adoption, rejection and selective appropriation of elements of food cultures by implicitly or explicitly deploying notions of identity, ownership, and control. Here, the concept of gastro-politics is useful.

Gastro-Politics in Peru

11Gastro-politics was introduced in 1981 by Arjun Appadurai in a study on the role of food in social organization in Southern India. It refers to “conflict or competition over specific cultural or economic resources as it emerges in social transactions around food” (495). Appadurai was attempting to identify what certain actions involving food were “saying”: to whom, in what context, and with what immediate consequences. At a macro level, and considering the increase in the flow and circulation of objects (including food), ideas and individuals that characterize our time, we propose to extend the concept of gastro-politics to cover the deployment and assemblage of power relations linking food and cuisines to markets, political institutions, cultural and social identities, and gendered and racialized bodies. Gastro-politics can be the cause, the expression or the solution of episodes of conflict and contestation around food and culinary practices located in a particular time and space, thus leading to different results depending on the context. As such, gastro-politics permeates the spaces, the rhetoric, the movements or trends, and the institutions (formal or informal) involved in such controversies (see DeSoucey 2016). Although they are often involved in commercial or legal frameworks (particularly in cases related to identification and labeling –see Parasecoli 2017), these conflicts more broadly reflect cultural and ideological differences as a function of the way in which groups and individuals consider food as part of their identity and relate to others.

12Arguably, no country in the world is more “gastro-political” than contemporary Peru, where hundreds of culinary schools are training over 80,000 Peruvian chefs, and where one celebrity chef is considered a strong candidate for president. Peru is re-constituting itself as a “country of cooks” and a gastronomic mecca not only for commercial and aesthetic reasons but also in pursuit of a political, economic, and cultural project in which Peruvian cuisine is the engine for inclusive development, racial reconciliation, and national unification. Many Peruvians have embraced this moment of culinary success in the country with fervor; they embrace this moment as a way to consume, perform, and celebrate sovereignty in the wake of decades of political violence that threatened the very idea of a national project and community. The political conflict between revolutionary forces and the state (1980-2000) left at least 70,000 dead, and countless unjustly detained, tortured, disappeared, and displaced. Most of those impacted were indigenous peoples (CVR 2004). This is crucial background to contemporary stories of economic, culinary, and cultural success. Indeed, it is because of this recent violent history that dominant narratives of Peruvian resilience and resurgence also include discourses of inclusion and tolerance. An essential part of the push toward culinary greatness, for instance, is the explicit link made between the aesthetics of urban chefs (mostly male elites) and the ethics of collaboration with rural (and primarily indigenous) farmers and producers. As noted above, dominant narratives deploy Peruvian food as a social weapon (Fan 2013, Santos 2012), one that has made possible the move from fractured to unified (and in chef Acurio’s words, “beautifully mixed”) nation (García 2013).

13The move from terror to culinary destination is key to repositioning Peru, and according to Acurio and others, to healing wounds and bringing Peruvians back together. Cuisine, in this dominant narrative, is reconciliation. This is significant as the so-called Peruvian gastronomic revolution also overlapped with the implementation of neoliberal economic policies and the opening of the country to global capital. The visual and media politics that shaped the narrative of post-war Peruvian success has often cast chefs as national heroes and engines of development, citizenship, self-esteem and national pride (Matta 2014). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that public and private sectors have come together in a wide range of gastronomic activities, producing a gastro-political complex made up of state tourism and gastronomic agencies, celebrity chefs, high-end restaurants and their tasting menus, cooking schools, an emerging genre of Peruvian cookbooks, culinary festivals, national branding campaigns, and much more. Gastro-politics makes Peruvian cuisine a “powerful semiotic device” (Appadurai 1981: 494): a simultaneously aesthetic and spatial project that creates new linkages between rich and poor, reflects new opportunities for capital and innovative strategies for managing old anxieties around race, and thus seeks to repair (or at least cover up) the tears in the fabric of national sovereignty caused by decades of internal war and centuries of racialized inequality.

14The essays in this special issue take up many of the distinguishing features of Peruvian gastro-politics, and complicate them. In the opening article, Natalia Consiglieri analyzes the impacts of the gastronomic boom in the lives of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, a low- and middle- income neighborhood in the upmarket and trendy district of Miraflores, in Lima. Consiglieri explores the urban renewal process in Santa Cruz, and specifically the impact of emerging high-end restaurants in the area, that together have led to the displacement of many families. As she notes, gentrification is socially constructed by capital, state policy, media, and consumers’ tastes (Zukin et al. 2017). In this context, Consiglieri describes the burgeoning gastronomic offer and the favorable media coverage it receives as a strategy used by local authorities to evict people when they can no longer pay rent. For instance, local government neglects impoverished areas while issuing construction permits for residential buildings and operating permits for luxury businesses. While she offers a clear critique of this process, Consiglieri also points to the complexity of this story. Drawing on interviews with Santa Cruz’s vecinos (neighbors) and on a nuanced analysis of local media, she identifies surprising correspondences between a nationalistic and neoliberal gastronomic discourse and the expectations, attitudes, and values expressed by her interlocutors. Even as they are critical of gentrification, residents also see opportunities in this culinary boom, and possibilities for securing a better life.

15In her essay on Nikkei food in Peru, Ayumi Takenaka zooms in on the centrality of “fusion” in Peruvian gastronomy and gastro-politics. Chef Acurio has been among the most vocal proponents of fusion (read as racial, cultural, and culinary mixture or mestizaje) as key to the global success of Peruvian cuisine. And immigration is crucial. He writes: “[Ours is] the cuisine of a country to which different peoples, immigrants from Japan, China, Africa, Spain, Italy and the Arab world, migrated over the last 500 years. All brought with them their nostalgia, customs, and products, which were beautifully assimilated… The result is a Peruvian cuisine that infuses a little of each of those peoples into each bite, transforming it into something new, something Peruvian” (2015: 8-9). Takenaka argues that Nikkei food—the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine—is perhaps the most visible of Peruvian fusion cuisine. She explores the global success of Nikkei food as Peruvian food, even as it is also claimed by the Japanese-Peruvian community in a way that points to the distinctiveness of histories of immigration from Japan. Focusing particularly on the power relations and politics of culinary diffusion, definition, and promotion, Takenaka complicates claims of Peruvian food as catalyst for social change and inclusive development. She also explores the politics of memory in the making of a national cuisine; in the case of Nikkei food, the centering of Japan, of Japanese culinary and cultural traditions, and memories of what grandparents and great grandparents would eat. These are histories of marginalization of Japanese immigrants in Peru after WWII, but also histories of resistance and resilience, given the global success of Nikkei food.

16This concern with memory is also evident in Amy Cox Hall’s essay on nostalgia. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on food and memory in Peru, and a detailed and nuanced analysis of the restaurant La Casa de Don Cucho, Cox Hall argues that the politics of memory, and nostalgia in particular, are crucial to understanding culinary nationalism. Gastro-politics, in her view, has involved the active construction of a “collective sensuous memory of Peru as a food nation from time immemorial”. Importantly, though, she argues that there are two kinds of nostalgia at play in Peru’s culinary boom, one foregrounding the past as profitable commodity, and another that invokes Lima’s glorious past as a space from which to critique modernity, including environmental crisis and devastation. In other words, Cox Hall sees nostalgia as possibly offering a path toward a more critical food politics, one that challenges contemporary celebratory discourses about Peruvian cuisine as reflective of harmony with nature and histories of “tolerant” racial fusion.

17Also pushing against this notion of Peruvian cuisine as indicative of Peru’s history of “beautiful and tolerant fusion,” two of the essays in this volume take up what we might call, following Anibal Quijano, the coloniality of gastro-political power (Quijano 2000). Emma McDonell and Jorge Lopez-Canales both critically explore the centering of local or “traditional” ingredients in Peruvian gastronomy through analyses of the work and discourses of celebrity chefs. In her article on the making of culinary frontiers, McDonell offers a counter-narrative to celebratory accounts of the role of celebrity chefs in rescuing or discovering “unknown” or “lost” foods as one key component of Peru’s culinary success. Drawing in part from her experiences working with quinoa farmers in Puno, McDonell links the stories contemporary Peruvian chefs share about their work and Peru’s culinary potential to much older accounts by colonial-era travelers and scientists. She highlights how familiar tropes of discovery, adventure, and the unknown pervade their tales of unearthing ingredients and dishes, and ultimately underscores the neocolonial dimensions of these chefs’ work. McDonell’s critique of the ways chefs reproduce colonial hierarchies of power despite claims to the contrary resonates with Lopez-Canales’ essay on the coloniality of gastro-politics in Peru, and what he calls the challenges of an “epistemic divide dating back to colonial times” that hinders the desire of elite male chefs to “connect” with indigenous ingredients, traditions, and peoples. Lopez-Canales deepens this discussion by exploring fascinating connections between Virgilio Martínez, Peru’s leading chef best known for “cooking ecosystems,” to the work of the Slow Food and New Nordic Cuisine movements.

18Importantly, Lopez-Canales ends his essay by opening up a space for a generous reading of Martínez’ culinary work, particularly through an analysis of Mater Iniciativa, the research arm connected to Martínez’ restaurants, and MIL Centro, the chef’s new restaurant situated in Moray, an archaeological site near the city of Cusco. At MIL, there is a resident anthropologist who works closely with the two neighboring indigenous communities, and promotes a collaborative approach to the culinary work taking place at that restaurant. While reminding us that coloniality is still very much at work in this space despite “good intentions” from the chef and his team, Lopez-Canales is right to point to the complexity of such an analysis as some indigenous producers and their families can in fact benefit from relations with celebrity chefs. Moreover, the celebration of indigenous knowledge as knowledge can be a powerful antidote to the racism and marginalization Native peoples in Peru continue to face. Along these lines, Heidi Kollenda’s essay on the much-touted alliances between chefs and producers in Peru focuses on the possibilities of Peruvian gastro-politics, in particular the provision of new sources of employment and the revaluation of the role of indigenous farmers and producers. Taking the celebration of alliances between celebrity chefs and previously marginalized producers as a point of departure, Kollenda analyzes sourcing practices at restaurants and culinary festivals in Lima in order to explore the material promise of narratives of social inclusion and environmental justice, which are very much a part of the Peruvian gastro-political project. While she finds that there is still work to be done in order to achieve the full promise of these alliances, her call for additional research on the day-to-day workings of productive alliances, culinary festivals, and farm to table schemes is significant.

19In addition to these compelling essays, we include interviews with two important public figures in Peru, both of whom have played significant roles in Peru’s gastronomic boom: chef and sociologist Isabel Alvarez, and public intellectual and author Mirko Lauer. Alvarez and Lauer offer important thoughts on the limits and possibilities of the gastronomic boom. They also provide insights into the significance of region, tradition, and memory in culinary projects, and the implications of the past fifteen years on nation making in Peru. Alvarez offers important critiques of the uneven role of the state in promoting culinary tradition across regions, and foregrounds the salience of history in any gastronomic movement. Similarly, Lauer laments the uneven impact of the boom. He goes so far as to suggest that while the initial moments of the gastronomic revolution did indeed focus on social inclusion, the contemporary moment might even be described as one of exclusion (“des-inclusión”). Nevertheless, he is more optimistic than Alvarez is, and he makes clear connections between the gastronomic boom, national unity, and the fight against poverty. 

20Taken as a whole, the texts included in this volume say much about the political, economic, and cultural importance of Peruvian culinary and cultural politics. Theoretically, they also reveal the utility of a gastro-political framing that allows scholars to think about the production, consumption, and narration of food as always already about the (re)production of and struggles over race, nation, and colonial orders. The gastro-political turn is an invitation for us to understand how the assemblages of nature, culture, and political economy can be studied in kitchens, restaurants, scholarly works, and promotional videos. These essays also reveal the many registers in which we must look for the impact of food in our lives as it shapes our affects, economic aspirations, and socio-political structures of power. These essays allow us to turn the old cliché “we are what we eat” into a research agenda.

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1 These opening paragraphs draw from García’s book manuscript, Culinary Spectacles: Gastro-politics and Other Tales of Race and Species in Peru, under contract with the University of California Press.

2 A recent advertisement in the New York Times (paid for by PromPerú, the Peruvian state export and tourism agency) shows this clearly. Citing a new generation of Peruvian chefs, the ad makes the point that Peru has moved from a time when “Peru was terrorism,” to a country reimagined as a place of culinary possibility, a leading culinary destination. You can see the advertisement here:


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List of illustrations

Title Image 1. Marca Perú.
Credits Source:​es-pe/​marca-peru
File image/png, 20k
Title Image 2: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska
Credits source:​watch?v=8joXlwKMkrk
File image/png, 320k
Title Image 3: Capture from the promotional video Peru-Nebraska
Credits source:​watch?v=8joXlwKMkrk
File image/png, 382k
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Electronic reference

Raúl Matta and María Elena García, The Gastro-Political Turn in PeruAnthropology of food [Online], 14 | 2019, Online since 17 June 2019, connection on 02 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Raúl Matta

Taylor’s University, Malaysia,

By this author

María Elena García

University of Washington,

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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