Dating back to pre-Incan times, the cuisine of the Peruvian coast, mountains and rainforest is finding a place on today's menus,
Fifty percent of chefs think Peruvian food is a hot trend, according to the Chef Survey: What's Hot in 2010, conducted by the National Restaurant Association.
Interesting that this “hot trend” has been centuries and centuries in the making.
The Incas, who had an elaborate terracing and irrigation system in place at the peak of their empire in the 15th century, still influence the cuisine of Peru today.
“Everything we eat, we owe to the Incan civilization,” says native Peruvian Valeria Molinelli, associate instructor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University.
Much of the cuisine was born from the very unforgiving climates of Peru. The country is divided into three regions: the coast on the Pacific Ocean, the Andean Highlands and the Amazon Rainforest. The many varieties of potatoes are the result of their hardiness; being able to be cultivated at high altitudes and cold temperatures. Other menu staples, such as marinated guinea pig (“They come packaged just like chicken in the grocery store”), aren't appropriate for U.S. tastes, but most dishes, alive with the fusion of unique flavors, will tempt American palates.
However, not many chefs in America know Peru the way they know Italy or France or Mexico. FM spoke with Molinelli, who moved to the United States 12 years ago and visits Peru every year, to find out about the basic Peruvian culinary trends, and to finally set the record straight about Peruvian tamales.
“You'll find a lot of fusion within Peruvian cuisine. From the years 1849 to 1874, 100,000 Chinese immigrants brought their traditional ingredients and cooking techniques, but had to make use of the ingredients that were available. Peruvian fried rice is very similar to Chinese fried rice and is very popular with kids. You will find chifas all over Peru. That's a Chinese restaurant that most Peruvians dine in at least once a week.
“Japanese culture also has an influence in Peruvian cuisine. The ceviche we make is sometimes cut in the sashimi style. Peruvian ceviche is very simple. It usually has no tomatoes, just sliced red onions, salt, lime juice, some chili peppers, and maybe a little cilantro added at the end, because we like to taste the fish.
“When you go to the grocery store in Peru there are two aisles of potatoes. With 3,000 varieties of potatoes indigenous, the potato is a staple that is eaten daily. (see sidebar)
“Huacatay is a very important Peruvian herb. The flavor is very unique; somewhere between cilantro and mint. In restaurants, you would find this pureed with water, garlic and hot peppers, served as a condiment. A little chili paste goes a long way. Our food has flavor; it's not quite spicy-hot, and never to the point of crying.
“The street food of Peru is like nowhere else. The Peruvian people do a lot of their eating on the go during the work week. The street foods change with the time of day. Peruvians are big on breakfast. You can find fresh-squeezed orange juice, fresh coffee and breakfast sandwiches with meat.
“At the end of the day, dessert carts come out with sweets similar to the beignets you find in New Orleans, or maybe you will see candied apples.
“The most popular street food is deep fried hot dogs with fries and a cheesy sauce. Sometimes you'll find this dish served with just plain fries, or sometimes there are condiments on the side, such as ketchup mixed with mayonnaise.
“The other big street food is meat on skewers. Peruvians aren't big on fast food; when eating on the go, they stick with the street food. Maybe you'll see some chain fast-food places, but those are mainly for the tourists.
“My recipe for Chilled Layered Potato Salad is a good way to get a feel for Peruvian flavors and ingredients. It could easily be made in a large hotel pan and cut into many portions. (see recipe)
“When people think of tamales, they usually think ‘Mexican.’ In Peru, the tamale does not use the corn husk. We use fresh banana leaves, and that makes them more tender. Instead of corn flour, we use a pureed corn (Peruvian corn is much starchier than American corn). We always garnish our tamales with roasted peanuts and olives.
“Red onions are a big garnish in Peru. They are about the only onion that we use.
“Chicha is a drink, served like iced tea, made from deep purple corn with big kernels. The corn goes into water with cloves, cinnamon sticks, apple and pineapple skins, is boiled, then strained and chilled. It's loaded with antioxidants and is very healthful.”
To view an interview with Valeria Molinelli, associate instructor of culinary arts and Johnson & Wales University, go to food-management.com/video/peruvian-cuisine-0110/index.html
Potato Information Central
The Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato Center) can be found at www.cipotato.org. The Center is headquarted in La Molina, outside Lima, Peru's capital, and consists of an international team of scientists whose mission is to reduce poverty and achieve food security in developing countries through scientific research on potatoes.