#16 food & farming
Barbara Ilse Petzold Horna

Lima’s New Cuisine

Food trends in Lima involving traditional and indigenous dishes are altering the identity of the nation.

Internationally there is growing interest in food and the culinary culture that surrounds it. In Peru, this phenomenon is reflected in the current food boom. Many books have been published on Peruvian cuisine, new restaurants are opening, and chef training is increasingly popular as well. Lima is considered the gastronomic capital of South America and home to three of the best restaurants from 2015, according to the specialized magazine Restaurant. This development is not just affecting specialized gourmets though. It represents the increasing medialization of an existing cultural tradition, since cooking and eating have always been national passions in Peru. Even sceptics, who might dismiss this boom as just another marketing strategy for tourism, need only set foot in the country to confirm that every corner smells enticingly of onion, chili and herbs at lunch time. For many Peruvians, culinary culture is more representative of their homeland than its archeological sites, crafts or folklore.

Local and popular cuisines are being revalued in Lima’s food scene.

What makes this particular boom so different is that it has declared cultural diversity to be the defining characteristic of Peruvian cuisine. This invokes a number of issues that go well beyond the simple cooking pot and involve society, the economy, and politics. Cuisine is an expression of a socio-cultural and economic reversal. Local and popular cuisines are being revalued in Lima’s food scene. These culinary cultures are leaving their subordinate and marginalized contexts and developing into identification mechanisms that cross cultures and milieus. In the course of globalization, processes of migration, and social change, the parameters of aesthetics and taste seem to be undergoing a shift as well. The old and marginalized are being reintegrated and new cultural values are being established.

These new processes of valuation are particularly striking against the backdrop of Peru and Lima’s socio-historical background. A range of very different discourses and definitions of Peruvian identity have competed since Peru declared independence in 1821. One powerful discourse centers on the mestitzaje. This theory is based on the assumption of integration following independence and reference is made to a shared “mixed nation” consisting of indigenous and Spanish elements, though Western education and government universally prevail, which implies homogenization. This stands in contrast to the indigenismo school of thought which idealizes the Incan past and as such reduces the indigenous to the pre-Columbian era. Neither of these discourses has so far been able to embody an integrative project that represents the nation’s different socio-cultural groups equally.

Peru is characterized by its fragmented society. The multiplicity of geography, languages, and populations has resulted in a wide array of conflict lines that prevent political participation for a majority of residents and render dialogue between the different groups difficult. Over the centuries, the social inequalities and the continuation of colonialism in the modern sense have been expressed in a culture of structural violence and discrimination.

The new masses and the associated presence of the (formerly stigmatized) Andean culture is gaining ground in the city, in the media and the culinary landscape.

The socio-political grievances of the 20th century have driven increased migration to the capital Lima, which is now home to one-third of the Peruvian population. Half of all limeños and limeñas, as residents of Lima are known, come from a background of internal migration. Set against decades of racism and discrimination, migration and encounters between different ethnic groups have not been peaceful. Indigenous cultures and identities in particular are denied and stigmatized in a governmental context. There has been no simple assimilation or acculturation by migrants though. Instead a complex process of hybridization is underway. People who have migrated to Lima do not simply passively absorb a host of cultural elements. They develop new methods of self-expression and create spaces and strategies for their redefinition. Cuisine is one of these. Lima is becoming a city of contrasts in which social groups with differing levels of power interact. The new masses and the associated presence of the (formerly stigmatized) Andean culture is gaining ground in the city, in the media and the culinary landscape. So traditional foods from rural regions, like cuy chactado (deep-fried guinea pig) and pachamanca (marinated meat and vegetables roasted in an earthen pit), are considered delicacies in Lima today.

Cultural and gastronomical encounters

Peru’s (and Lima’s) cuisines illustrate a process of creativity, active appropriation and the expression of desire.

The convergence of global and local conditions is giving rise to new forms of culture and creating new markets and identities. This is clearly visible in the culinary landscape: Peru’s (and Lima’s) cuisines illustrate a process of creativity, active appropriation and the expression of desire. Today culinary culture facilitates the negotiation of identities and implicit or explicit discourse on problems, such as discrimination and a lack of social cohesion. The history of Peru’s cuisine is a story of cultural encounter. The most important in rough chronological order have been indigenous (pre-Spanish), Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese and Italian cuisine. The most recent addition has been the US-American model of fast food restaurants. At the same time, new forms of culinary culture based on or in opposition to this globally dominant model are emerging. Peruvian fast food chains like Bembos, Pardo’s Chicken and Norkys have expanded beyond the country’s national borders to open subsidiaries in Chile or even India.

Restaurants can be divided into various categories that target different consumers: Regional restaurants and comida criolla (traditional cuisine from the coast) stand for the preservation of traditions, pollos a la brasa (grilled chicken) is the appropriation of the industrialized fast-food model, cebicherías (fish restaurants) and fusion gourmet restaurants are an expression of cosmopolitan tastes, and vegetarian restaurants are a sign of traditional concepts of health as well as a nutritionally aware fad. They are symbolic forms of the negotiation and re-articulation of the city’s identities in the context of globalization.

A trend toward culinary experimentation is continuing to make inroads into Lima’s society.

Consumer preferences generate more than just a sense of community; they also communicate a system of demarcation from which a set social order follows and thus render power relationships visible. In the city of Lima, central Lima (historic districts) and peripheral Lima (districts created by waves of migrants) exhibit differences in their culinary identities which correspond to their cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. On Lima’s periphery, regional restaurants and fast food chains primarily serve food based on the cuisine from migrants’ home villages or provincias. The central region is home to a varied range of restaurants and almost all gourmet restaurants are located here. This culinary segregation seems to be dissipating slowly as new identification opportunities, such as generation or lifestyle, increase in importance. A trend toward culinary experimentation is continuing to make inroads into Lima’s society. Through consumption, participants communicate a dynamic, contiguous identity, and they hold fewer prejudices against the new.

After all, access to the cosmopolitan “diversity experience” and culinary experimentation is only open to those who can afford it.

This is often interpreted as a sign of the disappearance of the interconnectedness of cultural taste, aesthetic sensibility and economic status. Still, the growing respect for other senses of taste goes hand in hand with other forms of demarcation that maintain social inequality. After all, access to the cosmopolitan “diversity experience” and culinary experimentation is only open to those who can afford it.

The kitchen as a stepping stone

Despite some remaining boundaries, chefs and their commensals in Lima see a mutual respect emerging among the various cuisines. Cuisine is effecting a positive wave of self-stereotyping coupled with the power for self-realization and self-esteem. Peruvians view it as a unifying element. Many young people today want to realize culinary projects in their homeland. This rising sense of pride and innovative power are also reflected in the waves Peruvian skilled workers returning from abroad and in statements made by micro-entrepreneurs who are seeing opportunities for self-realization in Peru for the first time. On an individual level, gastronomy offers a social mobility niche. Head chefs and restaurateurs view themselves as trailblazers for social change in contrast to the government institutions deemed incompetent in this arena. On a symbolic level, culinary culture is an expression of the preservation of cultural identity, integration into the economic market and as such a way out of subalterity and marginalization.

The newly articulated culinary culture of Peru is kicking off a new identity paradigm quite distinct from old discourses of identity.

Ultimately gastronomy is a national project that respects and promotes a range of diverse identities. The newly articulated culinary culture of Peru is kicking off a new identity paradigm quite distinct from old discourses of identity. Peru’s elite used to center their identity on Westernization and the rejection of Andean culture. An opposing culinary discourse has now emerged that is decentralized and upvaluing identities that have long been excluded.

Criticism and challenges

It is as yet unclear what purpose a cultural and here also a national identity serves, and to what extent it might be important for the development of the living situation of average Peruvians.

This revaluation goes hand in hand with a process of nation building which is being expressed in the increasing importance of national identity. The growing relevance of these cultural identities and the overcoming of prejudices represent a paradigm change. This change has not defined itself in opposition to the national project; it is seeking to reformulate it instead. This is an integrative and reconciliatory development rather than a revolutionary one. It is as yet unclear what purpose a cultural and here also a national identity serves, and to what extent it might be important for the development of the living situation of average Peruvians. According to political scientist Walter Tanaka, Peru’s problems are not due to a lack of a national identity, but rather a lack of democracy expressed in the arbitrariness, absence the of justice, and indifference to poverty.

The media have not critically explored the culinary thematic. The positive connotations have turned the subject into the perfect populist parole. The state is absent from many areas of life, which has resulted in little identification with government institutions. The current popularity of culinary culture has inspired governments to exploit this phenomenon for their own gain. It is the classic problem with nationalism: Pride in the allegedly authentic Peruvian is used to obscure the country’s real problems, such as poverty and injustice (in other words social inequality). It is relatively easy for politics to instrumentalize these cultural topics.

The following paintings are from Barabara Petzold Horna’s PROTAGONISTA exhibition. In PROTAGONISTA, Petzhold Horna turns the conventional image of Peru presented in the media on its head, using painting to shift the focus to underrepresented populations and underscore their role as protagonists.

Barabara Petzold Horna’s PROTAGONISTA exhibition

Conclusion

The culinary boom is a sign of change for many Peruvians. Culinary culture serves as a space to project the current discourse on identity and a safe space where it can be carried out without conflict. Its presentation in the public sphere – in writing, audio-visually, and as a sensual experience – have given negotiations regarding identities new dimensions in the social realm. This process is overcoming prejudices, reversing the rejection of Andean culture, and limiting the marginalization of certain socio-cultural groups. The national cuisine is the sum of a variety of cuisines and harmonizes with the discourse on cultural diversity and the revaluation of the local. Here integration is not necessarily in opposition to cultural diversity.

The culinary boom has also generated good examples of political participation.

In the complicated and diverse city of Lima, the kitchen is becoming a direct authority for providing meaning. Lima has become a metropolis of gastronomical stories that each inhabitant can write for themselves and in their own way. It is an area most people feel quite at home in, and a place to let creativity run free. Its power as a catalyzer for shaping strategies and alternatives should not be underestimated, especially in a country in which fears are often stoked by the media and society feels limited in its freedom. Restaurateurs have built up a powerful network, are well organized, and know how to make their voices heard in politics and the media. The introduction of GMO maize was successfully blocked thanks active protest by top chefs. The culinary boom has also generated good examples of political participation. Central characteristics are the decentralized emergence of the movement and its rootedness in society. The instrumentalization of this trend by the government is the greatest risk it currently faces.

Photo: © Barbara Petzold Horna

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