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Peru's Cuisine is No. 1, Again
Why Lima's creole food is one of the world's best
¡Feliz Año Nuevo! / Happy New Year!
This month’s newsletter kicks off 2022 with Peru’s creole food. I take a look at its cultural diversity and biodiversity, plus the awards it has earned as one of the world’s great cuisines. I also share some inspiring Peruvian chefs and restaurants; and why I believe the future is vegan.
The 2021 World Travel Awards named Peru World’s Leading Cultural Destination, World’s Leading Tourist Destination, and World’s Leading Culinary Destination—this is the Oscar of the food world, and it went to Peru.
Peru has received the World’s Leading Culinary Destination award 9 of the past 10 years, beating out culinary giants like France, Italy, Japan, China, Mexico, Australia, India, and the United States. Since 2012, the only exception to Peru’s streak was when Italy won in 2020.
But before these awards, the press noticed Peruvian cuisine’s growth in popularity. One early mention is a story by The New York Times in 1999:
“Peru has one of the great cuisines of the world. It is the original fusion food, having absorbed influences from almost every continent over the last 500 years and melded them with ingredients and dishes that provide a direct link to the Incas.” — Peruvian Cuisine Takes On the World
Then, The Wall Street Journal predicted in 2011 that Peruvian food is the next big thing. Three years later, Conde Nast Traveler declared Lima a new global culinary epicenter, and super chef Ferran Adrià stated, “the future of gastronomy is being cooked in Peru.”
They were all correct. The reason is Peru’s comida criolla, its creole food.
“Millions of tourists travel to Peru every year to eat. The draw is Lima’s unique comida criolla (creole cuisine)—the 500-year fusion of Andean, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Japanese culinary cultures.” — The Soul Food of Black Peru
To eat creole food in Lima is to travel the world.
You like paella? Then you’ll love Peru’s arroz con mariscos, rice with seafood and hot peppers. You are a fan of street-food? Then you’ll love the dishes that Afro-descendants have cooked in Lima for centuries like anticuchos (beef heart kebabs) and picarones (sweet potato donuts). You crave Chinese food? Then you’ll love chifa, Peru’s creole version of Cantonese cuisine with its sopa wantan (wonton soup) and arroz chaufa (fried rice). You delight in sushi? Then you’ll love the Japanese-Peruvian sashimi version of ceviche, tiradito nikkei.
But Peru is more than just Lima—its food culture extends from the coast, over the Andes mountains, and into the Amazon jungle.
Biodiversity and Ingredients
Lima is Peru’s culinary epicenter. But to cook all its creole food, the coastal capital imports ingredients from Peru’s vertical ecology.
This vertical ecology—the coast, mountains, and jungle—gives Peru 84 of the world’s 103 ecosystems, and 28 of the planet’s 32 climates. While colonial foodways brought new ingredients such as onions and limes, Peru’s biodiversity produces many unique ingredients, both plants and animals, that are native to Peru.
The coast’s Humboldt current offers the catch-of-the-day for ceviche, escabeche, arroz con mariscos, and more. In the Andes mountains, there are over 3,000 varieties of potatoes, plus quinoa, tomatoes, corn, hot peppers, and wild mint. While in the jungle, there’s giant river fish, plantain, yuca, pineapple, coffee, and cacao.
All those ingredients are essential to Peru’s creole cooking, as are the producers who cultivate and harvest the crops throughout Peru. Without them, Lima would not have its award-winning restaurants and chefs.
Restaurants and Chefs
Peru’s restaurants are now among the world’s best, alongside legendary Noma which took the No. 1 spot in 2021.
The 2021 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list includes two from Peru in the top 10, Central at No. 4 and Maido at No. 7; and another three Peruvian restaurants in the top 100, Mil at No. 90, Kjolle at No. 95, and Astrid y Gastón at No. 96. They represent Peru’s contemporary culinary diversity.
Virgilio Martínez, of Central and Mil, prepares dishes with ingredients foraged at different elevations. Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido offers Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei cuisine. Gastón Acurio, of Astrid y Gastón, prepares a tasting menu inspired by traditional creole dishes. And Pía León’s Kjolle, named after a tree from the Andes, sources Indigenous ingredients from the coast, mountains, and jungle.
This is the award-winning present, but to divine the future, we need to take a look at the past and the food of my Incan ancestors.
The Past Was Plant-Based, The Future Is Vegan
“Yet after a bit of historical research, Vera realized that the diet of his Incan ancestors was actually pretty plant-forward, with its focus on corn, tomatoes, quinoa, and plenty of foraged herbs rather than animal products.” — Indigenous Cuisine Tells the Story of Connected Continents
I love Peru’s comida criolla. It’s the food I grew up with and that my mother taught me to cook. But I also acknowledge that it’s a product of colonization. And while I can’t change that, I can honor its origins and choose to cook Peru’s traditional dishes with plant-based ingredients, much like my ancestors did 500 years ago.
As I’ve re-created Peru’s creole dishes without animal products, I’ve realized that the soul of the dish is still there. It’s in the Afro-Peruvian carapulcra chickpea stew, the Andean papa a la huancaina potato salad with nutritional yeast, the creole tacu tacu with rice and lentils, or the pisco sour with aquafaba.
Recently, I faced a culinary test—I cooked several vegan Peruvian dishes for my parents. They are not vegan, and they’ve enjoyed traditional Peruvian creole food all their lives. So I was delighted that they loved my food. More than that, they were marveled and surprised that I was able to preserve the creole essence of each dish.
I believe the future is vegan, and that cooking with plant-based ingredients forges a deeper connection with our ancestors. That’s why I am on a mission to veganize Peruvian cuisine, make it accessible to home cooks, and share it with the world.
This New Year, I invite you to cook with me on this journey.