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LIMA, Peru – One of the greatest treasures of Peruvians is not found in the country’s gold mines or in the vast Amazon jungle: It’s in their kitchens.
The country’s cuisine is just as much a symbol of Peru’s identity as the Andean Mountains or Machu Picchu – and Peruvian food is finding its way onto plates worldwide. From its zesty ceviche to its succulent roasted chicken and its Chinese-Peruvian fused food (chifa) to its soothing chicken stew with a spicy, cheese-based sauce, Peruvian food also is satisfying appetites of Americans and Europeans.
“The gastronomic boom … has been promoted by some figures and some luck that have made Peruvian food into something remarkable,” said Raúl Vargas, a Peruvian food critic and host of the radio show La Divina Comida (the divine food). “In general, after the globalization of tastes and the gastronomic snobbishness, today more people are open to the pleasure of searching for and finding different food. And that is where our food enters the discussion.”
But what makes Peruvian cuisine stand out?
“Our cuisine at its foundation – at its heart – is the great management of poverty, in addition to being a collective family act,” Vargas said. “And as the richness of the country has increased, so has the sophistication of the food.”
Vargas said Peruvian food has mirrored the country’s evolution as an industrial power.
“Our diversity in potatoes has allowed us to play with dishes where there are 20 varieties of potatoes, and obviously each one must have its condiment that in turn needs a distinct and special cheese – and to top it off, chili sauce,” Vargas says. “Eating for survival made us skillful as cooks. This is the fundamental idea.”
But Peruvian cuisine isn’t limited to its Inca roots. It’s fused Chinese Italian, Japanese and Afro-Peruvian food with its staple ingredients to create scintillating dishes that stand out in the international food market.
“Today, just thinking of fish and seafood, it produces a multicultural explosion because our food has Italian, Japanese, plus a touch of Peru,” Vargas said. “This has given us a unique cuisine.”
Vargas is referring to dishes heavy on rice and seafood and fish, including ceviche, a dish consisting of citrus-marinated seafood – generally sole – that has a splash of chili pepper. And then there’s chifa’s Ti Pa Kay – hen or chicken simmered in spicy tomato sauce and Peruvian spices – and Chi Jau Kay – chicken or pork covered in oyster sauce – and chaufa, a mixture of fried rice, meat, chives and a hint of Peruvian spices. And of course, there’s the ever-popular roasted chicken and French fries, a staple item at many Peruvian restaurants.
“Peruvians do not have prejudices against any foods,” Vargas said. “It comes from where it comes from. They have an innate curiosity about new taste, different cuisine. The difference is that no matter how well they do it, they are already thinking of how to fuse it, to copy it and to adapt it to their taste.”
Vargas said the key to Peruvian cuisine’s popularity is its ability to be seamlessly fused with other country’s foods.
“This capacity of altering cuisine is perhaps the best definition of a Peruvian. In short, it is someone who uses all of his or her resources to surprise a guest,” Vargas said. “This is what has attracted the attention overseas.”