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Valuing Native Eating: The Modern Roots of Peruvian Food Heritage

Les racines modernes du patrimoine alimentaire péruvien
Raúl Matta


In different regional contexts, heritage politics are encouraging the revitalization and promotion of particular and “traditional” food products to increase cultural recognition and market potential. Accordingly, Peruvian cuisine recently burst into the political arena. This article focuses on the preliminary stage of the construction of Peruvian food heritage, that of awareness of the new values that food cultures could embrace. I argue that paying close attention to social and economic contexts helps to further understanding of the value-adding processes that foster this sort of heritage. The methodology combines bibliographical data, qualitative fieldwork in Lima consisting of interviews with chefs, food studies scholars and restaurant owners, and ethnographic observations in gastronomic restaurants.

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1On October 26 2007, the Peruvian government raised the country’s gastronomy to the rank of National Heritage. This recognition triggered widespread interest, particularly in urban areas. Not until then did people talk so much about food. Now, they take pride in Peruvian cuisine, think about its international potential, and consider chefs as artists. Peruvian cuisine has become a means of identity in a society shaped by historical socio-economic and cultural inequalities.

2The “Peruvian gastronomic revolution” (Lauer and Lauer 2006) led to an initiative aiming to consolidate the visibility of Peruvian cuisine abroad. A year after the listing of the “gastronomic meal of the French”, the “traditional Mexican cuisine”, and the Mediterranean Diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) by UNESCO in November 2010, government representatives submitted an application for obtaining the same recognition. Once formulated as heritage, advocates of Peruvian cuisine tried to increase cultural preservation strategies, acknowledging local particularities by including them in political frameworks.

3Heritage-making deals with updating, adapting and re-interpreting elements from the past of a given group (its knowledge, skills and values); that is, “combining conservation and innovation, stability and dynamism, reproduction and creation, and consequently giving a new social meaning” (Bessière 1998: 27). We define food heritage as the set of material and immaterial elements of food cultures that are considered a shared legacy or a common good. This food heritage includes agricultural products, ingredients, dishes, techniques, recipes and food traditions. It also includes the table manners, the symbolic dimension of food and, in its more material aspects, cooking artifacts and the table setting: utensils, dishware, etc. (Bessière and Tibère 2010).

4Considered both as a global asset and as a local resource (Alvarez 2008), food heritage includes projects ranging from initiatives in the tourism sector, such as “gastronomic routes” in rural and urban areas, to more significant, engaging national development policies, such as exporting organic products or restructuring agricultural production systems.

5As we shall see, the growing visibility of Peruvian cuisine abroad, stimulated by a few local celebrity chefs, prompted a process of fabricating heritage, fostered by political and economic leaders who saw its economic potential.

  • 1 Over its history as an independent republic, Peru has dealt with fragile democratic institutions ru (...)

6Food burst into the political arena at the core of an ambitious discourse about development (Matta 2011). The idea was that Peruvian culinary culture, if based on a balance between cultural preservation and adaptation to the international markets, could bring positive economic impacts to the country and, since it represents a vehicle of national identity, lead to social reconciliation.1 Constructing food heritage involves dealing with intrinsic tensions and contradictions about what it is to include and promote. It also puts to the test the heritage project’s assumptions. Peruvian cuisine is presented as a product of consensus, social inclusion and harmony.

7Thus it is first necessary to deepen understanding of this project. This article focuses on the preliminary stage of the construction of Peruvian food heritage, in which the awareness of new values that food cultures could embrace took shape. Drawing in bibliographical data, ethnographic observations in restaurants, and interviews conducted in Lima between 2007 and 2011 among chefs, restaurant owners and scholars, I argue that paying close attention to social and economic contexts informs understanding of the value-adding processes that foster food heritage, avoiding vague and premature appraisals.

8The article is divided into three sections. The first shows that, as in any early-stage heritage-making process, the formulation of Peruvian cuisine as heritage depended on the willingness of some actors or social groups to transfer certain food features from the private to the public sphere. This was made possible by identifying how these actors could benefit from placing them in a broader context. These endeavors are seldom consensual because they impose a point of view [supposedly] grounded on shared interests which, when expressed, appears to be economic and political. The valorization of Peruvian food was promoted by members of the urban upper class: cooks of privileged social origins, gourmets, restaurant owners and educated elites. Their early concerns were to combine, select, and convey knowledge to achieve social distinction and economic success. Once achieved, food heritage issues progressively appeared in the public debate.

9The second section deals with one of the main gastronomic trends over the last two decades: ethnic revival. This may be seen as a celebration of the cuisine of the Other, either as a source of entertainment or as a source of cultural capital. I will discuss this through the prism of transfer and adoption processes (including mechanisms of translation and re-appropriation), allowing us to understand the rise of global features in Peruvian cuisine as a response to local specific needs, using the concept of the circulation of knowledge.

10The third and final section shows how two Peruvian-flagged products – Pisco, a spirit made from grapes, and Inca Kola, a soda drink– were affected by the globalization of food. Both cases help think about the intersection of identity and the economic dimensions of food heritage. Finally, a short outline of the range of possibilities of Peruvian food heritage is presented, as well as some research perspectives.

A gastronomic discourse in the making (1980’s – 1990’s)

11In Peru, the public recognition of gastronomy as an art regulated by codes and norms is recent, linked to the growing impact of food literature and the rise of celebrity chefs. These were necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for the construction of a Peruvian food heritage.

Professionals Associations and Gastronomic Critics: the Birth of a National Gourmet Food

12Connoisseur experience was essential for building a discourse about Peruvian cuisine. Gastronomic critics play a key role as custodians of heritage: they must not only be in tune with l’esprit du temps (Zeitgeist), which is expressed in a cook’s trials and errors, but also be able to anticipate the social and cultural significance of the culinary trends promoted by cooks (Poulain and Neirinck 2004). Thus, critics contribute to create and maintain a perpetually renewed field in which they are the main commentators.

13Gastronomic reviews conducted in the 1980’s by Bernardo Roca Rey, Raúl Vargas (both journalists) and Rodolfo Hinostroza (poet), and published in leading newspapers of the country (El Comercio, La República, Caretas), established a tool for analyzing and evaluating changes in gourmet food practices. Through these writings, the incipient clientele frequenting Lima’s gastronomic restaurants found a social space of self-identification and a discussion in which they could participate. However, as an analysis of Roca-Rey’s columns shows, gourmet culture at this period was devoted to French and international cuisine.

14The second step in the institutionalization of Peruvian cuisine was also taken in the 1980’s through the creation of the Peruvian Association of Gastronomy (AGAPE), which permitted local culinary experts to define distinctive characteristics of Peruvian cuisine so that it could be exported. During these years, members of AGAPE participated in many gastronomic festivals and summits in the Americas. At these meetings, Peruvian cuisine attracted the attention of foreign critics, especially North Americans, who expected that high-class tourism would be associated with a so-called exotic cuisine (Lauer and Lauer 2006). The first North American articles highlighting the potential of Peruvian cuisine were written in the second half of the 1980’s, when the economic and political situation precluded visits of foreign gourmets in search of new experiences. Between 1980 and 1992, Peru had been overwhelmed by a devastating economic crisis and experienced extreme levels of political violence (actions of the triad Shining Path, MRTA and the Peruvian Army), isolating the country from international trade and the investment community. Only in the second half of the 1990’s, when political violence abated and the economy began to grow again, could foreign interest in Peruvian cuisine be realized and its internationalization begin (Rivas and Mayorga 2011). Indeed, changes in Peruvian fine-dining offer cannot be dissociated from a socio-economic macro-context which, on the one hand, increased purchasing power in urban areas and, on the other hand, marked the entry of Peru as an actor in the global economy. From that moment on, and through institutional support from PromPerú (governmental commission for the promotion of Peru) and, more recently, the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA) – which replaced AGAPE – both Peruvians and foreigners perceived the country’s cuisine (and the country itself) with different eyes.

The Cook’s Conquest of Status

15Today in Peru becoming restaurant cook is no longer perceived as a risky career with difficult hours and lack of social life, but as a serious vocational choice for large segments of Peruvian youth. A few decades ago, cooking in the public sphere was long associated with subordinated, even servile tasks. In the private sphere cooking was a hobby or, even better, a marker of social distinction. The difficulties encountered by two of the most prominent Peruvian chefs at the start of their respective careers reflect the negative stereotype they had to overcome.

16Gastón Acurio, owner of international restaurant franchises all over the world, was encouraged during his youth to enter politics, like his father, a former prime minister. The chef explained at length to the media that his passion for cooking caused trouble with his family and his social circle, both of them rather conservative. In the late 1980’s, his parents sent him to Spain to study law. Unbeknownst to his family, he dropped out of university after the first year to enroll in the hospitality school of Madrid, where he trained for two years. Acurio then completed his training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris2.

  • 3 See the portrait of Osterling by journalist J. M. Robles published in the literary magazine Etiquet (...)

17Rafael Osterling, also a renowned chef, had a similar experience. Son of a former senator, he obtained a law degree and was expected to have a career in diplomacy. But after President Fujimori closed down the Congress and the Diplomatic School in 1992, he decided to put to the test his family’s culinary knowledge. Despite family worries about his choice, Osterling received financial support for training at Le Cordon Bleu, first at London and then in Paris3.

18Therefore, the legitimacy of cooking as a profession was a necessary preliminary to overcome parental resistance.

19The rising interest in gastronomy as a profession was linked to a rise in the social recognition of chefs and cooks during the 1970’s in Europe and the United States when leaders of French nouvelle cuisine gained autonomy and became head of their own restaurants (Drouard 2004). From then on, the gastronomic business grew in importance as a key component of the cultural industry, while cooking gained respect. Always aware of trends in conspicuous consumption, Lima’s elite (primarly of European descent and cultivating European middle and upper-class patterns of socialization) understood that in the modern world status and prestige could be more easily reached by becoming media personalities – regardless of the field of activity – rather than by sticking to the traditional imperatives of distinction. Consequently, culinary skills were acknowledged as accomplishing important social and economic functions.

  • 4 Cf. David Parker’s account (1998, 2012) on the strategies implemented by Peruvian upper-class to re (...)

20Like Acurio and Osterling, the chefs who led the Peruvian gastronomic revolution are members of privileged social groups. This shows the diversification of sources of social prestige among a population known to be resistant to change and even hostile to atypical career paths.4 However, as indicated earlier, class habits remained in one area: education and training. During the 1990’s, and because of lack of training opportunities in Lima, these young apprentice cooks have enrolled in European and North American culinary institutes, and had their first work experiences in fine restaurants in those regions (Matta 2010).

21The return of these elite migrants to Peru catalyzed important changes in Lima’s gastronomic scene over the last ten years, especially regarding the role of chefs as cultural intermediaries and earners of respectable income: fashionable and at ease in speaking, these new cultural icons display certain refinement in their media appearances. The image of the cook as a subordinated and invisible worker had to change.

  • 5 See the report about culinary training of in Peru established by APEGA (Sociedad Peruana de Gastron (...)

22This new status was accompanied by more gastronomic vocations, including jobs in restaurants as well as in catering services. An increasing number of young people from all social origins perceive the figure of chef as a source of inspiration, if not a model to imitate. If some of them consider gastronomy as a new – and legitimate – career option, for the vast majority it has become an opportunity to improve their social situation. In this context, several entrepreneurs have had the idea of ​​opening culinary schools. These are now very numerous in Lima – the accredited ones are estimated around fifty (for a population of approximately 9 million people) – and available for almost every budget5.

23As a result, Lima’s refined cuisine is a highly competitive market, especially if we consider that there are still few people who can afford fine dining. But more than a market, Peruvian cuisine embraced gastronomy as a specific and competitive cultural field formed by food practices, writings, discourses, institutions, codes and conventions – often expressed in artistic terms (Bourdieu 1969, Ferguson 1998).

24Through a discourse describing cuisine as an art, chefs trained abroad have quickly distinguished themselves from entrepreneurs and from the many young graduates by arguing that although the latter could be very competent, their understanding of gastronomy is predominantly profit driven and largely ignorant of the artistic requirements of haute cuisine (see Lauer and Lauer 2006, chapter 5). In this framework, culture – referring to the knowledge acquired by an individual –, passion for the art of cooking, and openness to the world – as a result of traveling – are stressed as assets that only the most established and better trained chefs can incorporate in their work. Thus, it seems clear that the competition for recognition brings into play not only individual skills but also the cooks’ social origins and starting-chances. Hence, gastronomy in Lima was at first elitist, consciously distanced from those who plainly sought profit or mere survival, since this was considered an affront to artistry.

25This early context of competition has however launched essential debates for considering the construction of Peruvian food heritage. Among the questions that emerged are: what are the foundations of Peruvian national cuisine? How can it reach international visibility as Japanese or Mexican food have done?

The Emergence of a New Gastronomic Literature

26Twenty years ago, the literature on Peruvian cuisine was sketchy. According to Hinostroza (2006), about a hundred cookbooks had been published in the century preceding 1990. Scholarly books on food were almost non-existent. Since then, this production has grown exponentially, enabling those concerned with gastronomy to both analyze and update the field.

27These publications can be categorized as follows.

28a) Academic books. These are basically historical studies dedicated to understanding the origin of dishes, techniques and foodways, such as the works of Olivas Weston (1996, 2001) and Hinostroza (2000). Also in this category, are books highlighting the rediscovery of Peruvian food diversity, such as Guardia’s essay on native potatoes (2004). The press of the University of San Martín de Porres (USMP) has played a key role in the diffusion of this research. However, and in spite of being produced in academia, most of these publications are addressed to non-specialized audiences as their sometimes celebratory tone, and Gourmand Awards indicate. Indeed, disciplinary research on food and cuisine in Peru is in an embryonic stage, with very little discussion of the historical, social and cultural circumstances that contributed to the development of Peruvian cuisine.

29b) Coffee-table books. These are hardcover, oversized books to be placed on a coffee-table or a similar surface, usually in a room where guests are received. Conceived for light reading, they are visually-oriented. Their contents combine short historical documentation about food and cuisine, photographs, artwork, and in some cases recipes, such as Gastón Acurio’s Perú: Una Aventura Culinaria (2002), a celebration of the country’s culinary diversity. Coffee-table books are often expensive, used not only to decorate a room, but also as proof of the host’s cultural capital. In this line we can mention Mirko Lauer’s Bodegón de bodegones (2010), an attempt to match Peruvian visual arts and gastronomy.

Painting: Bernardo de Rivero (oil on canvas, 49 x 70 cm, from the collection of Rafael Belaúnde, Lima).

Photo credit: Eduardo Hirose. From Mirko Lauer’s “Bodegón de bodegones” (2010).

Roll out: Moche banquet, by Donna Mc Clelland.

From the book “Los Mochicas” by Rafael Larco Hoyle. From Mirko Lauer’s “Bodegón de bodegones” (2010).

30c) Recipe books written by chefs and connoisseurs. Their formats are varied, although the more recent publications tend to be conceived with great care and be visually-oriented like coffee-table books. Indeed some of them are best sellers outside Peru or purchased by tourists before leaving the country, confirming the recent recognition of the country’s attraction for gourmet tourism. One of the most successful cases of recipe books is The Art of Peruvian Cuisine (Custer 2003), the first bilingual volume drawing the link between art and gastronomy. In this volume the dishes are portrayed in minimalist settings, and showcased as if they were mere paintings. Similar to publications on the fine arts which indicate museums and collections where pieces are displayed, Custer’s book indicates the name of the restaurants where each recipe originates.

31There has also been a multiplication of culinary television shows, websites and blogs, as well as a growing number of gastronomic articles in all kind of newspapers and magazines, from the most prestigious to the most modest. In sum, recent food writing and media coverage has boosted among large sectors of society an awareness of Peruvian cuisine, mainly in order to exploit it commercially.

  • 6Peru and its delicacies: a cultural melting pot”

32An opposite movement characterizes the diffusion of culinary/cultural knowledge to socially differentiated groups. As Appadurai (1988) observed in India and Bak-Geller in Mexico (2008), publications considered as the most relevant to the development of Peruvian cuisine draw their sources from and circulate among representatives of the upper classes. Members of this group were cultural intermediaries, gathering techniques and ingredients “from below”, translating them according to their own cultural settings, and finally returning them to the culinary field within new frameworks. For instance, one of the most reputed (and also rare and expensive) Peruvian cookbooks, El Perú y sus manjares: Un crisol de culturas6 (Sison Porras de la Guerra 1994), makes explicit the relationship between aristocratic families – presented as guardians of almost secret specialties – and a colonial-grounded food heritage. This effort of tracking the origin of “traditional” Peruvian recipes would certainly not have been possible without considering inputs from indigenous and other non-white Peruvian people (of African and North African descent, for instance) during colonial times, as they were always well represented in the kitchens of Lima’s wealthy households.

33Custer’s book provides an example in the same vein, although more contemporary. On page 39 a large picture of the book’s contributors, all in chefs’ whites, shows them standing in three rows as if they were posing for a sports team photograph. The group is clearly composed to highlight the multi-ethnic nature of Peruvian cuisine, which in addition to its colonial origins, has incorporated culinary influences from late nineteenth-century Italian and Asian migrants. Thus, this image not only reflects an up-to-date state-of-the art of Peruvian cuisine in terms of cultural diversity, but also sheds light on the role of elites in conveying identity signs in order to establish (a fictional) cultural harmony: in this case, between Custer, of European descent, and Peruvian non-European people.

Cooks picture

From “El arte de la cocina peruana”, by Tony Custer, p. 39.

  • 7 “Academia in the pot”

34The role of the social elite in shaping the culinary and gastronomic fields is equally present in works aiming at formalizing knowledge from multiple perspectives, such as in La Academia en la olla7 (Spaey and Alcorta 1998). Unlike many authors of highly regarded and influential recipe books, the contributors of this publication do not claim themselves as members of an anachronistic, aristocratic elite, but come from an educated upper-class formed by scholars, businessmen, hotel managers, restaurant owners and journalists.

35As we have seen, food heritage awareness in Peru was occasioned by social and cultural factors that elevated the status of food in urban centers. From the early nineties on, Peruvian cuisine transcended the domestic sphere by undergoing a rhetorical and technical shift. This was possible by the professionalization of cooking in Lima, both through the creation of occupational associations and the enrolment of young cooks from upper-classes in European gastronomic training. The latter was crucial for these cooks to become elite chefs, since it allowed them to speak with authority about a renewal of Peruvian cuisine in the public sphere, and in terms that were respected by clients used to European fine-dining contexts. Thus, by identifying local food particularities likely to be included in upscale culinary standards, Peruvian cuisine fostered its entry into a broader dimension, nourished international expectations, and encouraged vocations. The multiplication of diverse publications and media coverage also concurred to increase the visibility of Peruvian cuisine as a cultural practice as well as a profitable economic activity.

Ethnic Updating: Circulation of Knowledge and Peruvian Gourmet Food Dynamics

36The growing prestige of Peruvian cuisine at local and international levels is indebted to an opening to Otherness. Much the same happened with Mexican cuisine, which elevated its status worldwide during the 1980’s in spite of deeply rooted ambivalent feelings about indigenous heritage within Mexico. Pilcher (2008) argues that this was due to the gentrification of lower-class dishes. In Peru, although culinary gentrification also occurs, more important in the valorization of the country’s cuisine is the use of certain formerly disregarded Andean and Amazonian products and ingredients in global gastronomic settings. As we shall see, this “globalization of the local” within the framework of Peruvian cuisine involves the interplay of several factors, ranging from contemporary aspects of cultural economy, such as the rampant commodification of identities, to more established ones, such as the ability of traditional elites to reconstitute their privileges in changing contexts.

Circulation of Knowledge and Globalization of Peruvian Cuisine

37To better understand the ethnic revival in Peruvian gastronomy, a process which is paradoxically less local than the term ethnic would suggest, I borrow the concept of circulation of knowledge from history of science. Kapil Raj (2007) and Yves Cohen (2010) have criticized the assumption that scientific and other forms of knowledge spread beyond national boundaries through simple processes of diffusion from nodes of idea production towards other latitudes that simply received them. They argued that knowledge transfer involved the interplay of variables which led to mutations within existing knowledge. Thus, the process of circulation becomes itself a site of knowledge-making, as it introduces changes not only in ideas and social practices moving through time and space, but also in localities intersected by flows of knowledge. In accordance to Solomon (2008:13), the role of circulation in knowledge-making “puts in question not only traditional notions of scientific ‘centers’ and ‘peripheries’ but the notion of the ‘local’ as a fixed unchanging site”. Similarly Appadurai’s work emphasizes the role of imagination in world-making. The author sees the new global cultural economy as “a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot be longer understood in terms of existing center-periphery models” (Appadurai 1996:32), models at the core of diffusionist perspectives. Accordingly, media and migration, considered as sources of knowledge, have introduced a positive instability in the creation of selves and identities.

38The concept of circulation of knowledge lends itself well to the analysis of the constant adaptations and translations of disseminated culinary knowledge within localities. By underlining the importance of slowly evolving dynamics and the diversity of resources that such processes engage, the concept calls for the adoption of a long-term perspective in which circulating and changing objects need to be constantly observed in their more immediate context.

39Since the actors shaping the new direction of Peruvian gastronomy apply European-based knowledge to local or allegedly native food items, it would be misleading to refer to the emergence of Peruvian gourmet food in terms of “disjunctive order”, or as a decolonial move encouraging local traditions to compete with fine-dining mainstream. Nevertheless, contextualizing the circulation of culinary knowledge allows the appraisal of elite chefs’ work as the first stage of a long-term process of subversion of cultural hierarchies (highbrow/lowbrow), which starts with the identification of valuable cosmopolitan characteristics in indigenous foodstuffs. Furthermore, the adaptation of native forms to the elite’s desired standards should be seen as the cornerstone for new, invented gastronomic traditions expected to achieve the apparently contradictory aims of current global discourses on food: attracting tourists and preserving local cultural features at the same time.

Peruvian Applications

40Peruvian food began entering a cosmopolitan-global context in the middle 1980’s, with the advent of Novo-Andean cuisine. This trend was initiated by Bernardo Roca-Rey, member of the elite Miró-Quesada family, who owns, among several media companies, the most influent Peruvian newspaper (El Comercio). Roca-Rey spent his youth in Switzerland, where he was trained in science at the University of Lausanne. During his European stay, he became interested in gastronomy and learned cooking techniques. Back in Peru in the 1980’s, he immediately worked as a journalist and food critic. Shortly thereafter, Roca-Rey was credited with the creation of a local cuisine based on techniques and knowledge disseminated from the top of the social ladder. Novo-Andean cuisine’s main objective was to renew the image of “traditional” Peruvian cuisine served in restaurants, certainly tasty and varied, but too heavy and too clumsily presented to meet the expectations of local gourmets and international critics.

  • 8 Amaranthus caudatus L., high protein content grain.
  • 9 Physalis peruviana L., small bittersweet flavored fruit (Solanaceae family).

41By applying techniques in vogue in major gastronomic capitals to Andean products such as kiwicha8, quinoa or alpaca meat, he and his followers tried to produce a more exportable version of Peruvian food. This was the origin of many dishes nowadays considered as “classics” of modern Peruvian cuisine, such as quinotto – a variant of risotto in which rice is replaced by quinoa – or grilled alpaca in aguaymanto9 sauce. Although bringing visibility to foods associated with rurality and poverty, Novo-Andean cuisine never meant to transcend social barriers, since it largely ignored – or even hid – the cultural aspects and values embedded in Andean food and foodways. It was an elite movement of gastronomic exploration, consisting in selecting a set of indigenous food and ingredients to make a new ethnic offering in the global gastronomic market.

42Novo-Andean cuisine contributed to the development, a decade later, of a new gastronomic discourse in the capital, as young chefs also began incorporating Amazonian ingredients, resulting in the emergence of a Peruvian-based “fusion cuisine”. Chefs used this generic designation to define their work first, in order to distinguish it from Novo-Andean cuisine, still heavily linked to the name of Roca-Rey, and second to allow them to express their skills individually in competition (Lauer and Lauer 2006).

43Peruvian fusion developed by young elite chefs took advantage of the Novo-Andean experience. But although they made more use of Peruvian food diversity, their primary goal was to conform to international standards, and not necessarily renew Peruvian cuisine:

44“And that is all about… to put in scene what you do in such a way that you may be the first who did it and the only one who does it. Five forks restaurants can be similar, they may all have similar things, but they are all different. Then you have to find things that make you different.” (Jaime Pesaque, Mayta restaurant, on the presence of guinea pig in the menu, interview from August 8 2011)

“- What I intend to present here, is how Peruvian tubers, which are being increasingly used in restaurants, can become more global, because this is a tataki you can find anywhere.

-Was it easy to accomplish that step, bringing those tubers from popular food to high cuisine? Was it easy to reach those customers?

-Yes, because in recent years there is an immense sentiment of pride for our products growing up. Before that, you could ask yourself: how can I accompany this [the tataki]? Let’s do a risotto. Or let’s put a sort of rice I have seen in Spain. Not anymore. Now it is easier to use what we find in local markets. So, all this cool vibe about “local” brings more creativity among us [cooks]; and you know you’re helping local producers. And, in itself, it [the work] becomes easier, cheaper, funnier, and there are more stories to tell, more flavors.” (Virgilio Martinez, Central restaurant, on his “Tuna Tataki and Tasting of Andean Tubers”, interview from August 18 2011)

45“There is a central question in my life. I don´t wanna be Gastón Acurio, that was more than clear. I mean, more clear than water, do you understand?” (Rafael Osterling, Rafael restaurant, on Peru’s gastronomic boom. Cf. Etiqueta Negra, 42 (2007), pp. 14-28).

  • 10 Solanum sessiliflorum Dunal, small fruit with a taste between a lemon and a tomato.
  • 11 Fermented corn beverage consumed in the Andes.
  • 12 Arracacia xanthorrhiza Bancrof, tuber which whose taste is reminiscent of both celery and roasted c (...)

46Chefs re-appropriated and re-signified food items within global discourses which lent value to marginalized indigenous ingredients – but in doing so they displaced indigenous knowledge. Their first successes depended not only on their individual skills, but also on their privileged social positions. Indeed, they encountered few social barriers when they addressed novel and highly aesthetic discourses to – and generate trust among – clients who were their social peers. So aguaymanto, chonta (heart of palm), cocona10, chicha de Jora11 or arracacha12, elements outside elite Peruvian gastronomy since colonial times, obtained new status.

47Thus, the formerly devalued culinary Other was upgraded symbolically and economically through discourses that pointed out assets that nobody had previously detected. This re-appropriation of local elements was achieved first, by removing the ingredients from any prior context – thus neutralizing their unworthiness, their “Indianness” and their lower-class characteristics –, then by identifying some of their desirable or positive attributes and, finally, by linking them with elements from other culinary cultures.

  • 13 Video available from:
  • 14 Mauritia flexuosa L., slightly sweet-tasted fruit from a palm tree (Arecaceae family), used in juic (...)
  • 15 Colossoma macroporum Cuv., herbivorous river fish often reaching over one meter long.
  • 16 Myrciaria dubia Kunth (Myrtacea).

48The triumph of Pedro Schiaffino’s restaurant, Malabar, is evidence of the effectiveness of this re-appropriation. In the gastronomic festival Madrid Fusión 2009, Schiaffino showed an eleven-minute video in which he was seen visiting markets, exploring lands around the city of Iquitos, and explaining how Amazonian biodiversity could be used in sophisticated cuisine13. To stress the qualities of local food and ingredients, he focused on their nutritional properties not on the way in which they were consumed. Certainly, explaining that in their places of origin the fruit called aguaje14 might be eaten several times a day, at any moment and in different preparations, or that gamitana fish15 was edible despite its resemblance to piranhas would probably not have been enough to captivate an international audience. For all the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the event, Amazonian flora and fauna still remain too remote for most of the attendants. So adding value to these elements consists in adjusting their characteristics to a more familiar discursive register so that the audience can compare or assimilate them to other ingredients in international gastronomy. For instance, Schiaffino argued that aguaje contains between twenty and thirty times more beta-Carotene than carrots, that camu camu16 has anti-oxidant properties and that it is also the fruit with the highest vitamin C content in the world. Furthermore, he explained that gamitana – if presented in a stylized manner on a dish – looks remarkably like a “rack of lamb” because of its large fish bones.

49Recent guinea pig recipes provide another example. Although it is widely consumed in Andean areas, guinea pig has only reached Lima’s renowned tables after undergoing a new presentation. In the Andes, the whole animal is cooked and often served in one piece, extremities splayed, with claws and head. Quite often, tourists ask for this specialty simply to take pictures. In upscale restaurants, however, guinea pig is served completely dismembered and presented. Jaime Pesaque, chef and owner of Mayta restaurant, performs what he calls an “overturn of tradition” (“un vuelco a la tradición”) with his cuy crocante y tamalitos cremosos de garbanzos (crunchy guinea pig with creamy chickpea tamales). As he explained during an interview, this is possible by applying sous vide technique, cooking vacuum sealed food in a low and tightly controlled temperature water bath, making the meat of guinea pig meltingly tender, while all its juice is kept in the vacuum sealed bag. This allows the chef to take every single bone out of the piece of meat simply by using his fingers. Once the portion reaches uniformity – looking like an onglet cut of beef – it is lightly fried in olive oil to ensure a texture just crunchy enough to invoke improved reminiscences of the traditional preparation of cuy frito (fried guinea pig), in which the fatty skin of the animal is often more chewy than crunchy. Once on the plate, meat is covered by its own juice and accompanied by two small chickpea tamales and salsa criolla (red onion juliennes, sliced hot pepper and lime juice) covered by tamarind vinaigrette. Pesaque explains that substituting corn and lime juice for chickpea and tamarind gives his dish a distinctive touch.

Jaime Pesaque’s « Cuy Crocante », Mayta Restaurant, Lima

Photo by the author.

50In sum, we have observed two different patterns of re-appropriation of native food items within the framework of Peruvian Fusion. While Amazon fruits are highlighted due to their nutritional qualities, and not their cultural significance, as elements of Amazonian cuisine, gamitana and guinea pig have been aestheticized by cooks’ technical and imaginative skills. Actually, if these items were presented in other eating contexts, they would probably raise suspicions among clients or guests. As a consequence, the chefs who pioneered this novel gastronomic style intended, first, to neutralize a “negative exoticism” with the aim to propose, afterwards, a “positive exoticism”.

51The early recognition of the indigenous food diversity served the interests of a privileged minority. We should not expect in Peruvian Fusion any trace of a regional or national identity. Peruvian Fusion would be better defined as a symbol of the hegemony, in Lima, of a market-oriented ideology that was able to reverse the historical perception of native culinary forms by accommodating them to the taste of the urban elite. However, the importation of culinary knowledge and their subsequent local translations did not confine the impact of gastronomic innovations to the cultural settings of privileged groups. As we shall see, gastronomy in Peru became progressively a top-down phenomenon. The visibility of updated native foods and the economic opportunities provided by the increasingly commodification of ethnicity allowed both public and private actors to begin defining what is now considered a common good to all Peruvians.

Peruvian Food Heritage: Opportunities and Perspectives

Safeguarding for Resisting

52When addressing issues about the construction of Peruvian food heritage, it is necessary to refer to two controversies that motivated initial debates about the need to safeguard local food items from threats of economic and cultural globalization. Even though they do not concern indigenous food or “Other” culinary influences, these polemics illustrate, respectively, the attachment that people have to food products conveying national imaginaries, and how attempts to legitimize some of these products for national interests can go wrong.

  • 17 “Inca Kola combines with everything” and “The drink of national flavor”.

53The first controversy involved Inca Kola, the most popular soft drink in Peru. This extremely sweet and brightly-colored yellow soda is at the core of many food contexts, hence the slogans: Inca Kola con todo combina and La bebida de sabor nacional17. It is also one of the few sodas in the world that has sold more than Coca Cola in a national market. This stimulated the acquisition by The Coca Cola Company of 51% of the shares of Inka Kola from Corporación Lindley.

54The media spread the news. Leaders of opinion as well as ordinary people protested that the Lindley family, creator and producer of Inca Kola, had betrayed national interests. Rumors about changes in the soda’s formula, and its expected removal from strategic points of sale in order for Coca Cola to reach top-of-market position also circulated. At least until 2009, based on the Corporación Lindley’s report18, we may state that these rumors were unfounded: that year, Inca Kola maintained its first place with 25.3% of market share, closely followed by Coca-Cola (24.6%). In 2007, the announcement that the main ingredients of Inca Kola’s formula would no longer be produced in Peru but in Chile, a country with particularly delicate bilateral relations, caused further concern.

55Relations between Peru and Chile were not at their best during la guerra del pisco (Pisco War), a couple of years after the purchase of Inca Kola. In July 2005, Peruvian diplomats requested from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) a “geographical indication” acknowledging the Peruvian origins of Pisco. This petition was intended to counter the multiple trade agreements concluded by Chile, allowing for producing and exporting the spirit under the appellation Pisco Chileno. WIPO’ State parties refused the Peruvian initiative since Chilean commercial interests were already legally guaranteed19.

56Since then, both nations have established more decrees, regulations, and treaties to promote their respective piscos. However, if these efforts seem similar, their methods differ dramatically. Chile has focused on market regulations aiming to validate a generic definition for this liquor. Any grape-made spirits in line with the pre-established attributes of pisco are included, regardless their region of origin. Peruvian representatives still claim pisco, insisting on traditionally crafted modes of production and on alleged geographical origins. Following this reasoning, only Peruvian pisco should be called pisco, while the Chilean produce should be considered as another kind of spirit. However, and in spite of Peru’s culturally-based strategies, the appellation Pisco Chileno has not been invalidated (Mitchell and Terry 2011).

57Failure to recognize the uniqueness of Peruvian pisco has been seen as a defeat among wide sectors of Peruvian society. This has motivated some unconventional initiatives in promoting pisco. For instance, in August 2007, during the debris-removal following the earthquake that devastated Pisco city, Minister Rafael Rey offered boxes containing bottles labeled Pisco 7.9 (the number referring to the Richter scale magnitude of the disaster) to the representatives of the countries coming in aid. If the Minister’s intention was to showcase the qualities of Peruvian pisco using unexpected diplomatic channels, his means were highly criticized: the 7.9 label was considered as a lack of respect towards the victims and their families. In sum, the “Pisco 7.9 incident” illustrates how non-consensual and hasty initiatives hinder public heritage awareness.

Peruvian Food Heritage and Local Development (Research Perspectives)

  • 20 The brands he has developed (Astrid y Gastón, La Mar, T’anta, among others) were very well received (...)
  • 21 See the speech of Gastón Acurio for the ceremony of the opening of the academic year 2006 at the Un (...)

58The ideological dimension in the construction of Peruvian food heritage is, as was mentioned above, expressed in terms of economic and social opportunities. Consequently some have seen Peruvian cuisine as a motor of development. Chef Gastón Acurio stands out. Since the mid-2000s, he has articulated and diffused a development-oriented discourse based on the potentialities of the agro-biodiversity existing in Peru, which he considers still insufficiently present in global markets. Drawing on his international success as a celebrity chef, Acurio is promoting a vision of Peru that “goes beyond the familiar representations portraying it as mystical, indigenous and exotic” (García 2010: 24). By stressing the importance of building cosmopolitan-casually elegant brands and restaurant franchises rooted in recognizable Peruvian recipes20, the cook claims to reproduce (in the most refined version as possible) the dynamics of diffusion of Mexican and Japanese cuisines in the 1980’s, when they became part of the most widespread national cuisines in the world. At that time, for instance, Mexicans disseminated some of their typical dishes, such as tacos and enchiladas, but also products such as tequila or Corona beer21. However, Acurio’s goal is not limited to placing “typical Peruvian” products on the plate of the wealthiest urban foodies. Through a socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurial discourse relying heavily on his media appearances, Acurio tries to “consolidate the place of Peruvian food in an economic vision which will instill pride in local traditions and resources while simultaneously attracting the attention and money of the world” (García 2010: 25). The direct positive consequences should be the creation of employment in the services sector, in Peru as well as abroad, the consolidation of a local agricultural production chain, and the improvement of living conditions of peasants and farmers producing native food items.

59In this large-scale gastro-politics project, standardization becomes a central issue, since it is intended to ensure “consistency” among identifiable characteristics that may grant lasting economic value to Peruvian food’s cultural particularities. Consequently, Peruvian cuisine as a global heritage object began then to take shape, since its main promoters were progressively decentering from Lima to the entire world.

60Brands, franchises, and geographical indications are just a few examples of the possible outcomes highlighted through the globalization of Peruvian cuisine. But in order to delineate these transnational instruments, standardization has first to be applied to local culinary practices. Thus how dishes are prepared moves to the center of debates. The aim is to identify which characteristics are rewarding and which are not. To this end, the use of fundamental products of Peruvian cuisine such as spices, tubers, hot peppers or cilantro have undergone continuous evaluation, thus challenging people trying to adjust Peruvian food to the international clientele.

61Food standardization also involves agricultural production. Although it is true that Peruvian agrarian landscapes contain an outstanding biodiversity, the economic failure of the agrarian reform of 1969 has resulted in an uneven production in terms of quality (Eguren 2006).
Political and economic actors have become aware of that fact and, in order to reverse this pattern and be competitive in niche markets, they are formulating a definition of food heritage based on cultural food particularities with increasing demand from wealthy countries. As a result, politicians, scholars, journalists, farmer associations and technicians have joined the debate, stressing the link between Peruvian biological diversity and market, fostering debates about the impacts of GMO agriculture.

62Since food heritage awareness in Peru has been most often expressed in terms of socio-economic benefits, it is possible to question how these objectives tie in with goals of cultural preservation, and how “value-adding politics” are understood in the framework of food heritage. In the case of Peruvian cuisine, such an analysis implies focusing on processes of selection and legitimation of food diversity and native food knowledge intended to accomplish purposes of global economic and cultural representation (as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, for instance). As in any selection, only a certain number of elements will integrate the heritage system, while others will be left out. As in any process of legitimation, a certain number of individuals or groups acting as stakeholders will have real impact on the formulation of a convincing and unifying discourse on heritage, while others will not. In this sense, central questions for further research are: which food practices and knowledge will be preserved, and why? Who are the main actors of heritage-making? What power relations are at play in this process? How is the entry of indigenous elements into global circuits negotiated? To what extent are local communities involved in heritage-making? And, perhaps the most important question, who benefits from heritage?

The author would like to thank Rachel Laudan, Ken Albala, Lisa Heldke, Mirko Lauer and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments to improve the article. An earlier version of this article will be published under the title “La valorisation de la gastronomie péruvienne. Analyse de l'émergence d'un objet patrimonial” in the forthcoming book Effervescence patrimoniale au Sud, Editions de l’IRD, 2013.

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1 Over its history as an independent republic, Peru has dealt with fragile democratic institutions ruled by descendants of the conquistadores. The coastal areas of the country established their political and economic domination of the Andean and jungle regions. Indigenous and peasant communities continue to suffer political marginalisation and social/racial discrimination. Insufficient consultation with such groups over developmental decisions has fostered feelings of subordination and led to elevated levels of social conflict.

2 See, for instance: and

3 See the portrait of Osterling by journalist J. M. Robles published in the literary magazine Etiqueta Negra, 42 (2007), pp. 14-28.

4 Cf. David Parker’s account (1998, 2012) on the strategies implemented by Peruvian upper-class to retain its presumed intrinsic value, treathened by “new money”, social climbers individuals.

5 See the report about culinary training of in Peru established by APEGA (Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomía),

6Peru and its delicacies: a cultural melting pot”

7 “Academia in the pot”

8 Amaranthus caudatus L., high protein content grain.

9 Physalis peruviana L., small bittersweet flavored fruit (Solanaceae family).

10 Solanum sessiliflorum Dunal, small fruit with a taste between a lemon and a tomato.

11 Fermented corn beverage consumed in the Andes.

12 Arracacia xanthorrhiza Bancrof, tuber which whose taste is reminiscent of both celery and roasted chestnuts.

13 Video available from:

14 Mauritia flexuosa L., slightly sweet-tasted fruit from a palm tree (Arecaceae family), used in juices, jams and ice creams.

15 Colossoma macroporum Cuv., herbivorous river fish often reaching over one meter long.

16 Myrciaria dubia Kunth (Myrtacea).

17 “Inca Kola combines with everything” and “The drink of national flavor”.


19 See, for instance, verdicts stated by France and Italy available from: and

20 The brands he has developed (Astrid y Gastón, La Mar, T’anta, among others) were very well received in Latin America, the United States and more recently in Europe.

21 See the speech of Gastón Acurio for the ceremony of the opening of the academic year 2006 at the Universidad del Pacífico, in Lauer and Lauer (2006: 245-253).

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List of illustrations

Caption Painting: Bernardo de Rivero (oil on canvas, 49 x 70 cm, from the collection of Rafael Belaúnde, Lima).
Credits Photo credit: Eduardo Hirose. From Mirko Lauer’s “Bodegón de bodegones” (2010).
File image/jpeg, 284k
Caption Roll out: Moche banquet, by Donna Mc Clelland.
Credits From the book “Los Mochicas” by Rafael Larco Hoyle. From Mirko Lauer’s “Bodegón de bodegones” (2010).
File image/jpeg, 208k
Caption Cooks picture
Credits From “El arte de la cocina peruana”, by Tony Custer, p. 39.
File image/jpeg, 400k
Caption Jaime Pesaque’s « Cuy Crocante », Mayta Restaurant, Lima
Credits Photo by the author.
File image/jpeg, 78k
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Electronic reference

Raúl Matta, Valuing Native Eating: The Modern Roots of Peruvian Food HeritageAnthropology of food [Online], S8 | 2013, Online since 28 August 2013, connection on 25 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Raúl Matta

Freie Universität Berlin

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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