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Peruvian restaurants in Buenos Aires (1999-2009)

From discrimination to adoption
Les restaurants péruviens à Buenos Aires (1999-2009) ; de la discrimination à l'adoption
Gloria Sammartino


In Buenos Aires the “otherness” of Peruvian immigrants is structured around manifestations of discrimination that come from the host society. Our purpose is to analyze immigrant foods and the representations they evoke, as well as to investigate the way in which their cooking acquires new meanings in new contexts, showing a tendency to become a mark of specificity and a way to resist the hostility of the host society. In order to do this, we focus on Peruvian restaurants and specifically ‘exocuisine’ or eating out, as opposed to ‘endocuisine’ or eating in. By starting with an analysis of meals and commensality practices in the ‘eating-out’ context, we aim to account for the processes of construction-reconstruction of relationships among Peruvians as well as between Peruvians and Argentines when eating in restaurants. Our objective we is to highlight the role that restaurants have been performing among immigrants, exploring the expansion of the Peruvian culinary vocabulary and identifying the changes in the social and cultural functions of food. In addition, following the rise of Peruvian cuisine at international level in recent years, we return to the field after nearly nine years in order to register the new meanings it acquires in the local context and how this influences the dialogue between immigrants and the host society.

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Peruvian restaurants in Buenos Aires

  • 1 This negative valuation is not without its consolidation in the historical context from which the " (...)

1Most immigrants from countries bordering Argentina face uncertain living conditions, reflected in difficulties regarding job insecurity, housing, health, and as the targets of xenophobia and racism. This characterization applies to the Peruvian population movement in Buenos Aires city as well. In the new context, the “otherness” of Peruvian immigrants is structured around manifestations of exclusion, discrimination and rejection by the host society1. The majority of immigrants left Lima in the early 90s, chiefly headed for Buenos Aires where they settled in the hope of finding find better-paid employment. According to census data -which appears to be in line with global trends- the highest proportion of immigrants are women, mostly unmarried. Regarding education levels, Peruvian immigrants, unlike other immigrant groups such as the Bolivians, Paraguayans, Chileans, Brazilians and Uruguayans, show a tendency to have higher education levels. However, their level of education is not reflected in the jobs they get, because most immigrants find temporary and informal work for which they are overqualified. The women tend to work as housemaids in private homes, the men as temporary site labourers or in parking lots, car washes, and also in textile factories owned by Asian immigrants, often working in unhealthy conditions. The vast majority of immigrants come from urban areas, more than half of them from Lima (Benza 2000, Torales 1993).

2As suggested by Douglas (1971:61) – ‘if food is treated as a code, the message it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed’ – Peruvian food and meals are the outward expressions of the social relations that underlie them. Our purpose therefore is to explore and draw conclusions from the food practices and representations of these immigrant “others” looking at the ways in which cooking acquires new meanings in the immigration context. These meanings tend to become a trademark of cultural specificity, serving as a form of protection against the hostility and xenophobia encountered in the host society. We have chosen to focus on Peruvian restaurants and specifically exocuisine or eating out, as opposed to endocuisine or eating in (Lévi Strauss 1965, Remedi 1997). By starting with an analysis of meals and commensality practices in the ‘eating-out’ context, we aim to account for the processes of construction-reconstruction of relationships with other Peruvians and also Argentinians when eating in restaurants.

  • 2 Our survey reveals the existence of thirteen restaurants located in different parts of these two ne (...)

3This analysis is based on fieldwork conducted between 1999 and 2001 in restaurants in the city of Buenos Aires, specifically but not exclusively in the Once and Abasto2 districts. It is noteworthy that these two neighbourhoods have been transformed into symbols of Peruvian-ness, representing areas where Peruvians feel neither marginalized nor alienated but among "their own people" However, the discriminatory stigma imputed to them in this urban area has been growing. Other immigrants, such as the Bolivians for instance, have occupied territories on the outskirts of downtown Buenos Aires. The Peruvians by contrast have recreated an incipient “little Lima” in a territory that lies at the heart of the city's character, in a way that is increasingly regarded as illegal by locals.

4The aim of this paper is to point out the role that restaurants have been performing among immigrants, along with the culinary vocabularies and also social and cultural functions arising as a result. In addition, following the recent rise of Peruvian cuisine at international level (Lauer and Lauer, 2006), we return to the field after nearly nine years in order to register the new meanings acquired by Peruvian cuisine in the local context and how this influences the dialogue between immigrants and the host society.

Inside restaurants; signs of Peruvian-ness

5The Abasto district and others in Buenos Aires are home to small, typically Peruvian restaurants that can be distinguished from others elsewhere in the city for several reasons. The menu is generally characterized by dishes based on ingredients and combinations of flavours familiar to all Peruvians. More important, however, is the fact that all of these restaurants recreate a setting typical of popular, family-run establishments (“huarques” and “picanterías”) in the suburbs of Lima and other cities: Simple décor, small space with just 15-20 tables and the kitchen area in full view, economical table linen and crockery, basic comfort with not a “fancy tablecloth” in sight and Peruvian music in the background and Peruvian entertainment on the TV (documentaries on Peruvian culture and geography, soap operas, musicals, dance shows, etc). The restaurant owners, too, along with the rest of the staff, are usually Peruvian and actively involved in the running of the restaurant. These are modest places, featuring a small menu of Peruvian home cooking that also appeals to customers from affluent neighbourhoods.

Culinary mainstays on the menus

6Taking the menus as indicators, all of these restaurants serve much the same dishes with the focus firmly on dishes from Lima and other major cities in the coastal region of Peru. Coastal cooking plays a defining role in Peruvian gastronomy, representing the largest influence in the country’s culinary discourse (cf Lauer and Lauer, 2006 23). Note, for instance, that the role of rural food from the sierra and jungle, the other two major ecotypes of Peru, is primarily to provide the ingredients from which dishes are made. In this respect at least, Peruvian cooking does not draw on every ecotype, and the influences at work in Buenos Aires, where the majority of Peruvian immigrants are from Lima and the coastal region, are the same as in the home country. Dishes are divided into starters (“papa a la huancaina”, “ocopa”, “ceviche”, “tamales”, “anticuchos”, etc) and .soups (“de mote”, “criolla”, “caldo de gallina”, etc), followed by main dishes (“ají de gallina”, “lomo saltado”, “arroz con pollo”, “pollo asado”, “parihuela”, “tacu-tacu”, “chicharrón de pescado o pollo”, “pescado sudado”, “carapulcra”, “seco de carne”, etc). Portions are usually generous and prices are reasonable for restaurants of this calibre in Buenos Aires. The menu also includes a range of desserts such as “mazamorra morada”, “arroz con leche”, “suspiro limeño” and sometimes sweets associated with Peruvian celebrations and festivities (eg . “turrón de doña Pepa" and “picarones”). The formula is much the same from one restaurant to another, reflecting customers’ needs for familiar foods that taste of home. Food presentation, too, is painstakingly traditional. For example, “papas a la huancaina” are always garnished with a black olive, a slice of hard-boiled egg and a couple of lettuce leaves. At table, “canchas” – salty roasted corncakes – are served in place of bread (the traditional Argentinian accompaniment to food).

Figure 1: Chicharrón de pescado and papas a la huancaina

Figure 1: Chicharrón de pescado and papas a la huancaina

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  • 3 For Elena Espeitx, the culinary heritage of a particular group is a selection of some of its food c (...)

7Only those establishments also patronized by Argentinians have adopted the custom of offering bread on the table (instead of the “canchas”, which must be requested by the customer), an initiative clearly aimed at making Argentinian patrons feel at home in these restaurants. Another “must” is a small container of hot sauce, made with hot peppers and garlic, one of the bastions of the Peruvian gastronomic heritage3. The soft drinks on offer include “Inka Cola”, as well as Peruvian beers “Pilsen” or “Callao”, or local brands where these they are not available. Alcoholic beverages are sure to include Pisco Sour the Peruvian cocktail par excellence.

8Restaurants in the Abasto and Once areas offer “weekday specials” at relatively affordable prices, catering essentially for at working class customers who are forced to eat out. Note that this is common practice for restaurants in Peru. The menu usually consists of a starter (eg noodle or rice soup with beef or chicken, served with a slice of lemon), main dish (such as ají de gallina, carapulcra, etc. on a large bed of rice) and soft drink. According to Aguirre (2005) such dishes qualify as “rendidores”, meaning they are cheap, filling and tasty at the same time.

Regionalisms and specialties

9In addition to the usual culinary mainstays, restaurants also offer regional specialities that vary depending on the specific origins of the owner – which are obvious from the name of the restaurant: “La Piurana” (from Piura); “Los Trujillanitos” (from Trujillo); or "El Chosicano" (from Chosica). Monday’s special at “Los Trujillanitos”, for example, is “shambar”, a dish typical of Trujillo. This highlights the social and emotional importance of regional recipes, helping to identify individuals as belonging to a defined group within the overall fabric of the Peruvian diaspora. For many immigrants, regional fare represents a recipe for homesickness

10In addition, restaurants owned by people from Lima often feature “chifa” on the menu, or Chinese food made by Peruvians. According to one such owner: “We add a particular touch that gets rid of the Chinese flavour ... it’s more tasty that way” (37-year- old Lima native, 15 years of residence). This explains why chifa food, which is deeply rooted in Lima, is re-territorialized in Buenos Aires. It also reveals the high distinction conferred by Peruvians on their own culture: when it comes to taste, Peruvian subtleties could not be found in Chinese dishes.

Replacing family ties as well as ingredients

  • 4 For this occasion, restaurants advertise themselves with slogans such as: "Peruvian Restaurant… gre (...)
  • 5 This feeling of “privatization” could be perceived at a birthday party, when the birthday girl gree (...)

11All of these restaurants serve as venues for Peruvian celebrations, whether Independence Day (July 28 and 294), Fathers Day and Mothers Day or birthdays. On such occasions, given the absence of the family (the Peruvian “festivities institution” par excellence) restaurants acquire new meaning by fulfilling the role that family ties cannot perform under these circumstances. Therefore, it can be said that the public space characterizing restaurants is in these circumstances “privatised”5

  • 6 Liniers is another neighborhood in Buenos Aires that houses in some of its blocks a large food mark (...)

12Restaurant owners say they stick strictly stick to original recipes, so as to provide meals tasting “exactly like those in Peru”. They claim to use “authentic ingredients”, purchased on a regular basis by one or two vendors engaged exclusively in bringing food from Peru. Sometimes, they also go to the Bolivian market in Liniers6. Another option is to return home at least once a year to purchase particular ingredients, or order them through visitors – family and friends – before they leave Peru. Using locally-sourced alternatives is only an option when the real thing is simply not available in Buenos Aires, as in the case of certain varieties of potatoes, corn, onions and fruits. As previously observed by with Claude Fischler, we found that the unavailability of one or more ingredients favoured a sort of culinary “DIY” aimed at reproducing the taste and appearance of traditional dishes as accurately as possible (Fischler 1995: 157). The result is a hybrid dish based on the original recipe but using a combination of Peruvian and local ingredients that lead to subtle differences in flavour, enriching the Peruvian culinary vocabulary.

Cebiche: a special case

  • 7 At least all the immigrants whom we have consulted agree on this point.

13“Cebiche” is the Peruvian flagship dish, given pride on place on any menu. It has also become the totem dish for the Peruvian diaspora, with powerful connotations of national identity not possessed back in Peru. There, cebiche is recommended as a cure for a hangover7 thanks to a particular combination of ingredients reputed to relieve the discomfort of alcohol abuse. In Buenos Aires, however, this negative association between cebiche and inebriation is lost, possibly deliberately discarded by immigrants settling in the host country. As observed by Rozín (1995), the same food can fall under different categories for the same person in different contexts. Cebiche, in strictly culinary terms, is the dish that represents Peruvian-ness in Argentina, but it has also become the butt of discrimination and xenophobia. Witness the article published in the course of our survey in a popular Argentinian magazine. Headed the “silent invasion”, the article focused on immigrants from neighbouring countries and stated the following:

"You could almost be in Peru: cebiche, sold on the streets (...) in the Abasto area, which is the Peruvian settlement [in Buenos Aires] (...) the pungent smell of food is everywhere after 11 am (...) they build a makeshift table from two fruit crates wrapped in garbage bags, put some rusted pans on them and begin to prepare cebiche: raw fish (...) Since Peruvians eat standing, part of the food falls on the sidewalk" (Revista La Primera, 4 / 4 / 00)

  • 8 Nor circumvents this stigmatization as Arabic cuisine, with its raw Keppe -raw mincemeat mixed with (...)

14What comes across is the crudeness of cebiche, perceived by the civilized “us” as a feature of uncouthness and ignorance. Lévi-Strauss (1965) would see this as a double opposition between processed and unprocessed, between culture and nature, since the act of cooking the food is seen as a “cultural” transformation. Interestingly enough, Japanese “sushi”, though just another variety of raw fish, is considered a symbol of distinction and sophistication8. Based on the Harris assertion (1985) that food transmits messages, cooking reflects social conflict: sushi is acceptable and good because in the Western collective imaginary everything Japanese is clean and eminently civilised; cebiche, on the other hand, is associated with Peru and Latin America, symbolizing the filth and inferiority attributed to Latin American immigrants in Buenos Aires (Sammartino: 2001).

15In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas (1966) takes the concepts of impurity and pollution as her starting points to demonstrate that they contribute to the formation of a symbolic order that operates through inclusion/exclusion. Dirty, impure and infected connote despicable, ignoble and repulsive; purity expresses convenient, suitable and appropriate. Disgust can be considered an emotionally charged aspect of human social relations. Many objects of disgust are human products or involve some human intervention. Food is without a doubt a fundamental means of social expression, as clearly demonstrated here by cebiche.

16Prepared in a way that falls foul of Buenos Aires’ culinary vernacular, cebiche comes to symbolize the “uncivilized”, linking the rawness of the fish with the poverty and filth in which it is prepared. This reinforces an image of Peruvian culture as backward, unstable, uncertain and barbaric – different, wrong and reprehensible. Cebiche, at least for the most sensitive sectors of the host society, becomes a metonym for Peruvians in Buenos Aires.

What Peruvians look for in “their” restaurants?

17According to Calvo (1982), the preservation of their food and culinary style is one of the most deeply rooted features among immigrants – more powerful and durable than other cultural characteristics such as religious practice, use of mother tongue etc. Food habits therefore have unusual staying power, partly because the act of cooking, in our societies, is an integral part of the maternal role and partly because taste sensations, forged during early childhood, act as the privileged expression of self-recognition. According to Rozín (1995), food has sensory properties that give pleasant feelings to those who eat them and, we might add, help to recall past experiences. Having this in mind, we might say that Peruvians go to their restaurants, especially those linked with their region, mainly to “connect with themselves”. According to Contreras (1995) the elements involved in the feeding process are considered as mechanisms of projection, identification, signification, metaphor and emotion. This is plainly expressed in the following: ...“then when you remember things. […] I'm eating and I'm remembering comments, remembering people, remembering scenes with my family”. (female vendor, 29-year-old former Lima native, 10 years of residence).

18There are reported cases of immigrants who deliberately try to change their eating habits in a bid to fit in with the local culture. For most Peruvian immigrants, however, eating Peruvian food brings them a taste of their home country. According to one restaurant owner, his countrymen also go there to “despejarse” [clear their heads] – relieve their homesickness, forget whatever hostility they may be experiencing as immigrants and recreate the atmosphere of their home country. Eating “their food” is a way of asserting their Peruvian identity. According to Bourdieu (1991), the use of taste serves as an indicator of who you are and where you stand in society. A Peruvian immigrant who eats cebiche, for instance, is declaring to himself and others that he is actually who he is supposed to be.

  • 9 Category applied to places such as airports, supermarkets or motorways, which are the emergence of (...)

19Setting aside the symbolic importance of cebiche or any other emblematic Peruvian dish, mealtimes combine various features – the music being played, the CD and souvenir vendors who walk between the tables, the information flow, the atmosphere of celebration – that are related to the socialization and symbolic and material re-production of Peruvian residents. Such features carve strong identity signs on Peruvian restaurants, helping patrons to evoke their homeland. Unlike the “non- places” described by Marc Augé9, there is nothing anonymous about these spaces. On the contrary they promote feelings of identity and belonging, encouraging their Peruvian patrons to “enredarse” [chew the fat, shoot the breeze], and connect with their countrymen through the shared ties, customs and traditions that bind them to their place of origin.

A taste of home: the re-territorialization of culture

20This taste of home combined with the “Peruvian atmosphere” suggests that what we are seeing in these restaurants is a re-territorialization of culture. It is as if the collective memory becomes engraved, serving as a powerful symbol of identity. It is tempting to think that Peruvian culture and identity (despite the differences among Peruvian immigrants) are actually redefined through immigration, not altered or lost. For their Peruvian patrons, what these restaurants provide is a “little piece of Peru”, a home away from home where they can re-build their identity and maintain a bridge with their past.

Figure 2 : Eating in a restaurant in Once neighbourhood

Figure 2 : Eating in a restaurant in Once neighbourhood

author’s picture

Restaurants as ritual spaces

  • 10 Such as the fact that national fare –complete with hot sauce, rice, etc- is always on the menu and (...)

21Given their wealth of meaningful symbols, Peruvian restaurants may be considered as ritual spaces: places invested with the ability to objectify and condense certain social relations that are made manifest through expression, highlighting aspects that remain hidden in daily life (Turner, 1967). It is noteworthy, for instance, that most of these establishments are located in often-crowded urban areas that not very attractive as places of recreation. Moreover, the restaurant threshold functions as a kind of border Peruvian inside, Argentinian (decidedly) outside – a border that allows the restaurant to set the stage for the dramatization of Peruvian identity.10

22If we consider those features that are characteristic of these spaces and at the core of their identity, it becomes possible to speak of the Peruvian cultural identity as a performance, one conjuring a host of ethnic connotations and hinting at a process of Peruvian socialization. These are not invested with the “symbolic ethnicity” that becomes prevalent in the second or third generation, which Gans describes as an ethnicity characterized by “a nostalgic allegiance . . . a love for and pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior”. (Gans, 1979:9). What we are seeing here is precisely the opposite – an ethnic expression that is part of everyday life. Although Peruvians often feel nostalgic for the culture of the country they left behind, the contact they have with Peru is fluid and dynamic. This is by no means a performance structured around distant memories or some alien tradition frozen in time. Peruvian restaurants, in this respect, are quite unlike other foreign restaurants in the city (Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai etc), which are mainly patronized by Argentinian customers eager for exotic tastes and flavours that break with their familiar eating conventions.

23In Peruvian restaurants the process of building cultural tradition within the larger society is dramatized. This recreates a form of ethnicity characterized by feelings of common origin, camaraderie, neighbourliness and familiarity. There is also just a glimpse of an intention to communicate how great it is to be Peruvian in Argentina, that and a search for “homogeny in heterogeneity” based on the fundamentals of national civic identity.

Breakdowns in relations within restaurants

24We find that the performance of Peruvian identity in these spaces goes beyond the myth of simplicity and egalitarianism. Setting aside their feelings of brotherhood – “Peru is in our blood” said one of our respondents – Peruvians are keen to dissociate themselves from their more undesirable brethren. We see this in restaurants that seek to attract Argentinian customers by distinguishing between “desirable” and “undesirable” Peruvians. Witness the following sign, displayed at the entrance to one particular restaurant: “The restaurant reserves the right to refuse admission”. In the firing line here are all those Peruvians who attract opprobrium from the host society and their countrymen alike –allegedly repeat offenders and drunkards, banned from the restaurant as a result. This sign caught our attention because it was the only one of its type and, in our opinion, clearly signalled to the restaurants “more civilized” Argentinian customers that they would not be bothered by “undesirable” Peruvian elements.

25What we see from this is that the dramatic symbolic abstraction displayed in restaurants leaves room for selectivity. Argentinian society, however, fails to perceive these distinctions, discriminating against Peruvians in general irrespective of differences in origin, economic status prior to immigration, gender, etc.

26The metaphor for this process in the field of food could be found in cebiche, since this emblematic dish crystallizes both the shame and pride of being Peruvian (see our earlier comments on cebiche). However in the context of self-ascription, cebiche becomes the dish every Peruvian wants and “needs” to eat when far from home. Cebiche is to Peruvians what “asado” is to Argentinians: a taste of home, the national dish that recharges your mental batteries. In Peru cebiche is most representative of the coast region, (just as asado in Argentina is representative of the Pampas region) but in the new space cebiche acquires new meaning and becomes essential eating, loaded with symbolic goodness.

Features of Argentinisation

27Some restaurants, not in Abasto and Once but in other equally important districts, show signs of Argentinisation. For example, as explained by one owner, Peruvians back home will happily patronize their local eatery irrespective of what the place looks like. Your Argentinian, on the other hand, is much more picky when it comes to décor – hence the owner’s plans to modernize and refurbish as part of a programme of renovations that already included clear, elegant menus with Inca motifs, and the design of a new website. Another restaurant owner hoped to modernize and expand in a bid to promote Peruvian food among the Argentine public and tourists. His new-look restaurant would feature a stone doorway in an architectural style fashioned on Machu Pichu.

  • 11 Native of Buenos Aires. Related to the city.

28The use of hot pepper lends further weight to our “Argentinisation hypothesis”. Peruvian restaurants in the Abasto area, patronized almost exclusively by Peruvians, serve typically spicy food that can be too hot for a Porteño11. Other restaurants understand that in order to attract a wider public and promote Peruvian food, they should restrict the use of spice and hot peppers, settling instead for small bowls of hot sauce to be added as desired by customers. By aiming for a wider attendance than that of their home culture, such restaurants are generating what Fischler describes as ‘a cuisine within a cuisine’; they let their cooking, so to speak, fall into the “melting pot” of the host culture. This adaptation affects not only products and flavours but ultimately alters the very fabric of cooking, including the order in which dishes are prepared and the underlying culinary categories (Fischler 1995:161). We might add that it even affects those aspects to do with commensality, the climate that is generated around the food and the patrons themselves.

29Both of the above owners stressed that in addition to Peruvian and Argentinian patrons their restaurants also appealed to Russians (reputedly attracted by the spicy flavours), Germans, Japanese and French. These nationalities are “well regarded” in the local context and their attendance helps to increase the respect and appreciation for Peruvian culture within the host society, which typically tends to look down on Peruvians. From this point of view, meals and culinary knowledge may serve to show Peruvians in a more positive light, helping to combat discrimination in the host culture.

30What we are seeing here are early signs of an impending hybridisation in the Peruvian identity. Garcia Canclini says in this regard that when the increasingly free and frequent movement of people, capital and messages connects us daily with many cultures, our identities cannot be defined exclusively by membership in a national community. (Canclini1995:109). This means that in the negotiation process with the Argentine culture, these Peruvians, in an attempt to attract the interest and respect of the Argentinians, broaden their framework of identity referents to include certain Argentine markers. Thus, while aiming to meet the needs of their countrymen, helping them to reunite with their food and regain some of the lost familiarity, they are also trying to expand their ethnic enterprise by attracting a new market, with a taste for exotic foods.

Back in the field

31As noted at the start, our fieldwork ended in 2001. This was also a year of national economic crisis and currency depreciation, which forced numbers of Peruvian immigrants to return home and drove several restaurants out of business. But gradually another phenomenon started to emerge. As we kept on attending the restaurants, attracted by the taste of Peruvian food, we could observe how those incipient trends of “Argentinisation” were gaining momentum. In the two restaurants where we first started to notice the differences, big changes took place. For example, our presence at the outset had attracted the attention of Peruvian patrons because our pronunciation and vocabulary marked us out as Argentinians. What we were seeing now, however, was a massive turnout of Porteños- mostly young, college-educated, and with a strong awareness of Latin American issues- and, to our surprise, hardly a Peruvian in sight. Locals would even form long queues outside the doors of the restaurants. We also began to notice that though the flavours remained unchanged, serving sizes decreased, prices increased and restaurants began to expand, adding to the number of tables. With the economy in crisis, imported drinks from Peru priced themselves out of the market and were replaced by local brands. The only exception was Inca Kola, replaced by a soft drink with similar characteristics (there being no locally available alternative) called “La Chola de Oro” (Sainz, 2009), and apparently stocked by all of the restaurants we visited.

  • 12 To understand the changes that are occurring in the Peruvian cuisine, we turn to these authors who (...)

32This newfound popularity of Peruvian restaurants among Porteños, after more than a decade of existence in the host culture, can be understood within the broader context of Peru’s gastronomic boom. Otherwise known as the “Peruvian food revolution”12 (Lauer and Lauer, 2006), this has led to changes in tastes and trends within Peru itself and outside the country and is certainly a major factor behind the rising popularity of Peruvian restaurants in Buenos Aires. Note however that this only applies to restaurants in the more affluent neighbourhoods – elsewhere, such as in the poorer Liniers district, the situation was much the same as a decade ago.

  • 13 In recent years the Once and Abasto neighborhoods have been consolidated as “the tango and Gardel n (...)

33There is yet another kind of restaurant in a category all of its own - an expression of the phenomenon analyzed by Lauer and Lauer. Over the past five years Peruvian restaurants have opened in areas of Buenos Aires recognized as centres of gourmet cuisine. Palermo and San Telmo13 are good examples. The dishes in these restaurants feature evocative, typically gourmet names such “tiradito al olivo”, “causa Nikkei”, “salmón novoandino”, “tallarines mar y tierra”, “lenguado en salsa de seco con tacu tacu”. While they recall traditional Peruvian dishes, they could not be eaten at any other Peruvian restaurant. The chefs are highly specialized and, unlike the owners, always Peruvian. The décor gives virtually no inkling of the Peruvian connection. Prices are steep for a Peruvian restaurant – guaranteed to dent your wallet, unlike the restaurants in the other ‘categories’. There is no trace of the heavy symbolism seen elsewhere. Even Peruvian restaurants clearly intent on “Argentinization”, where the numbers of Peruvian patrons has decreased, remain loaded with symbolism.

Figure 3:  A smart restaurant, in Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood

Figure 3:  A smart restaurant, in Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood

author’s picture

34All of these changes allow us to account for the economic rise of new market sectors specialising in gastronomic activities. This phenomenon is affected by the recent surge in popularity of Peruvian cuisine at the international level. There is little or nothing to indicate that gourmet Peruvian cuisine will become emblematic of Peruvian culture (or cultures) but it has improved the livelihoods of the restaurant owners involved. Gourmet cuisine has allowed them to “turn the corner”, appealing mainly to Porteño patrons with a taste for new sensations in food and an appetite for recreation and leisure. Not included in this category are the owners of those Peruvian restaurants catering exclusively for Peruvian patrons. Though they create employment for themselves and other immigrants working in gastronomy, we do not consider that they benefit from the boom in gastronomy currently enjoyed by Peruvian cuisine.

35Furthermore we do not regard the awareness of Peruvian meals shown by a certain sector of the Buenos Aires population as evidence of a sudden appreciation for the customs and knowledge possessed by Peruvian immigrants, even less as proof of positive changes in the construction of their citizenship. Gourmet Peruvian cuisine flourishes in Argentina, as it does in many other countries, due to the phenomenon described and analyzed by Lauer and Lauer (op cit). Traditional Peruvian cooking is something else altogether, functioning as a marker of national identity and a buffer against the hostility meted out to immigrants but doing nothing to improve their image or prospects in the host society. In short, we could say that what appears to prevail in these gourmet Peruvian restaurants is the culinary experience itself. Stripped of its potential as a source of intercultural dialogue, the relationship between guests is quite unlike that encountered in other establishments, based entirely on anonymity, not on a celebration of all things Peruvian. We sense though that gourmet Peruvian food may no longer have the same negative connotations – arouse the same aversion – as those observed at the outset of our fieldwork, at least for those Porteños with a taste for it. This gives us a new perspective on the situation regarding traditional Peruvian restaurants, suggesting that what is currently perceived by the host society as the “culinary otherness” of immigrants could come to play a part in their integration. Ethnic Peruvian food could create opportunities for social inclusion and employment and the celebration of cultural diversity among individuals and societies.

I would like to thank Silvia Benza, Barbara Tagliaferro and the AoFood copy editor Flo Brutton for their her generous contributions.

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1 This negative valuation is not without its consolidation in the historical context from which the "Latino others" begin to be viewed in Argentina as inferior, uncivilized and barbarian, especially in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, a city which, due to the European origin of some portion of its population, is often viewed as “an European city”, which in the collective imaginary refers to superiority, civilization and progress.

2 Our survey reveals the existence of thirteen restaurants located in different parts of these two neighboring quarters, plus eight more scattered around other areas of the city.

3 For Elena Espeitx, the culinary heritage of a particular group is a selection of some of its food culture, which is considered to be traditional. It involves recipes, food, representations of certain qualities or effects on the body, cooking techniques, commensality rules, etc.. (Espeitx, 2004)

4 For this occasion, restaurants advertise themselves with slogans such as: "Peruvian Restaurant… greets the country on its day and invites the entire community to enjoy the highest level of Peruvian cuisine. 28 and 29 July "Pachamanca a la olla" and "Chicharrón de cuy," “ or “ Touristic Restaurant ... wishes the whole Peruvian community in Buenos Aires a Happy Independence Day ... great feast of seafood and pachamanca a la olla.

5 This feeling of “privatization” could be perceived at a birthday party, when the birthday girl greeted each of the guests by the door, and later they were all standing or roamed freely among the tables, taking up the whole restaurant.

6 Liniers is another neighborhood in Buenos Aires that houses in some of its blocks a large food market, mostly ingredients from Bolivia.

7 At least all the immigrants whom we have consulted agree on this point.

8 Nor circumvents this stigmatization as Arabic cuisine, with its raw Keppe -raw mincemeat mixed with wheat and species (to be found in a community which also has restaurants in Buenos Aires.)

9 Category applied to places such as airports, supermarkets or motorways, which are the emergence of a new way of living, totally different from the anthropological places, which are rich in history and identity signs accumulated in a slow and long process, such as the old town, the neighborhood, the square, the bar.

10 Such as the fact that national fare –complete with hot sauce, rice, etc- is always on the menu and even its Inca origin is exalted. Likewise the table sets speak of Peru, as well as the music, which is seen through the television sets; the flow of information, the presence of vendors of Peruvian products, the “privacy” that immigrants can find in such places.

11 Native of Buenos Aires. Related to the city.

12 To understand the changes that are occurring in the Peruvian cuisine, we turn to these authors who note that it is a social and technological transformation, reaching back to the 1950s, in which migrants from the Andes in Coast cities began to have seafood. This increase in consumption of fish, which was due to the fishing- boom, was joined by those of sugar and processed foods by 1970. These gradual, slow and endogenous transformations are confronted with changes that occurred in the menus of the finest restaurants in Lima and in the lobbies of the best hotels in the Latin American capitals, as a result of global changes that were embodied in Peru when globalization was launched, after the coup d’état in 1992. Similarly, this boom also reflects the impact of the influence of foreign specialists in Peruvian cuisine, which have not hesitated to show it as a treasure to be discovered, globally ranking it third and linking it to history and identity. The above authors do not hesitate to point out that there is a growing rapprochement between the cuisines from within and outside the country, although the idea of cultural export is exclusive to the most dynamic part of the population, which is the minority, while generally speaking Peruvians who remain in Peru do not care much for Peruvian-ness abroad, unless they have relatives living there. (Lauer and Lauer, 2006).

13 In recent years the Once and Abasto neighborhoods have been consolidated as “the tango and Gardel neighborhoods”, which has generated a large turnout of tourists and Argentines, even though the capitalization of these public by the Peruvian restaurants is still incipient.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Chicharrón de pescado and papas a la huancaina
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File image/png, 629k
Title Figure 2 : Eating in a restaurant in Once neighbourhood
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Title Figure 3:  A smart restaurant, in Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood
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File image/jpeg, 32k
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Electronic reference

Gloria Sammartino, « Peruvian restaurants in Buenos Aires (1999-2009)  », Anthropology of food [Online], 7 | December 2010, Online since 22 February 2011, connection on 13 June 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Gloria Sammartino

Universidad de Buenos Aires. Centro de Investigación para Problemáticas Alimentario – Nutricionales (CISPAN) - Escuela de Nutrición. Facultad de Medicina. Doctoral candidate, UBA, Argentina. Email:

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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