From Japanese to African to Chinese and Beyond, Peru is a Crossroads of Culinary Influences
No country perhaps better showcases its history through its cuisine than Peru. Incan, Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, even Italian, French, and German—the traces that are left on Peru’s menus speak of conquest, labor, and immigration just as much as they speak of flavors and ingredients.
Indigenous communities populated Peru thousands of years before the Incas arrived in the 12th century and began growing maize and potatoes in elaborate terrace systems. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores brought ingredients like pork, wheat, and sugarcane, as well as African slaves to work the plantations. This African influence continues to manifest itself in dishes like anticuchos, the grilled meat skewers originally made with offal—and still, famously, beef hearts—and frejol colado, a sweet black or canary bean pudding. In the late 19th century, after Peru gained independence, the Chinese laborers who immigrated there birthed Chifa cuisine; its most famous representatives, lomo saltado (beef stir-fry) and chaufa (a sort of fried rice), are staples on Peruvian menus worldwide. Meanwhile, Japanese contract workers and their descendants, called Nikkei, introduced Peruvians to octopus, and blended the cultures with tiradito, a take on ceviche where fish is cut sashimi-style and sauced with citrus juice and a chile paste instead of marinated in citrus.
In the 1990s, advocates of Novoandina cuisine set out to use native Peruvian ingredients and traditional preparations in modern ways, at a time when fine-dining restaurants in the country were French. They built upon the knowledge of chefs like Afro-Peruvian expert Teresa Izquierdo and the iconic Peruvian chef Marisa Guiulfo. Gastón Acurio opened his first restaurant, Astrid & Gastón, in 1994; nearly 25 years later, his menus continue to dive deep into Peru’s history. A powerhouse behind the international interest in Peruvian food, he now owns more than 40 restaurants around the world.
Acurio has also been a central figure at Mistura, Latin America’s largest food festival, launched in 2008 to promote Peru’s gastronomy and featuring presentations from the likes of René Redzepi and Alain Ducasse. They brought attention to Lima’s restaurant scene—and votes for the S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, where Astrid & Gastón first appeared in 2011. In 2018, the list featured three Lima-based restaurants, while two of the top three restaurants on the Latin American list for the last four years have been Peruvian. The most highly ranked alternate between Central, where Virgilio Martínez offers a menu devised around the topology of the country (with each dish coming from just one ecosystem), and Maido, Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Nikkei restaurant.
In the United States, chef-driven Peruvian restaurants are on the rise, as chefs like Erik Ramirez, Ricardo Zarate, Emmanuel Piqueras, and Diego Oka are proudly cooking from their roots, to wide acclaim and national recognition. Whether they stick to a Novoandina menu or turn their native cuisine into personal statements, they go back to the origins of the ingredients and cultures that have shaped Peru’s cuisine. Just like Acurio, for whom many of these young chefs have cooked, they and their disciples will continue to move forward our understanding and appreciation of the complex deliciousness of Peru.
Anne E. McBride has a PhD in food studies, which she uses to justify thinking about little else than the evolution of cuisines—and eating her way around the world.