The Andean region is home to one of the most important centers of genetic diversity in the world. Peru alone has over 35 species of corn, 2000 varieties of potatoes, and 650 native species of fruit. Today Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the most diverse in the world and is now being recognized in the U.S. for its sophisticated flavors. This great diversity stems from three major influences – a unique geography, an openness and blending of distinct races and cultures, and the incorporation of ancient cuisine into modern Peruvian cuisine. Thanks to its pre-Incas and Inca heritage and to Spanish, Basque, African, Sino-Cantonese, Japanese and finally Italian, French and British immigration (mainly throughout the 19th century), Peruvian cuisine combines the flavors of four continents.
The Incan civilization, which was prominent from the 12th century until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, improved farming by introducing terracing and irrigation, cultivating new crops such as cassava and peanuts, and elevating the already high status of corn by declaring that only the Supreme Inca himself could plant the first seed of the new season. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Incas cultivated almost as many species of plants as the farmers of all Asia or Europe. But many of these hardy plant species held in honored positions in the indigenous society for thousands of years were deliberately replaced by European species.
Fortunately in the high Andes, the Quechua people (modern-day descendants of the Incas) fought to preserve their customs, and unique and highly nutritious grains are now available to the outside world. Zócalo Gourmet imports one such grain, kañiwa, which is a high-protein “pseudo-grain” from the same family as quinoa and is considered a staple food by the Quechua.
The most important seasoning used to prepare meals during Pre-Hispanic times was aji, which even today is omnipresent in Peruvian food. Aji is a hot pepper considered the soul of Peruvian cooking by its chefs. There are dozens of varieties in Peru including: Amarillo, Panca, Limo, and Rocoto. It is also used in the popular seafood dish ceviche.
Potatoes are eaten extensively throughout this region and Peruvians grow hundreds of different types, including sweet potato, which is highly nutritious and versatile as a flour. Mesquite is another heritage food whose roots can be traced back to Incan times. The pods from the mesquite tree are dried and milled to create a fragrant flour that is slightly sweet with notes of chocolate and cinnamon.
Corn, of course, is also very prominent in this region’s cooking. A special maiz morado, or purple corn, which is high in antioxidants, is used in a common deep purple drink called chicha morada, which can be either alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
Many fruits are grown in this region, including goldenberry, elderberry, cherimoyas, and the unique lucuma which is often used to make an irresistible ice cream. Other important ingredients are walnuts, pine nuts and peanuts, which are often ground to make rich sauces.
Zócalo Gourmet is proud to work with small and family-owned producers to bring these foods to the U.S., thus preserving heritage food traditions and a native agricultural way of life. To learn more about our vendors from Peru, read our Passport to Peru.
References: South American Food & Cooking by Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli Lost crops of the Incas by The National Research Council