While many travelers first come to Peru for Machu Picchu, they return—again and again—for the food. Widely revered in foodie countries like France, Mexico, and Italy, Peruvian cuisine is considered one of the world’s finest. Though the United States has yet to really catch on, celebrity chef and foodie Anthony Bourdain anointed Lima the “gastronomic capital of South America,” giving an American voice to an uncontested truth that will hopefully spread the region’s tasty reputation further.
It is a mélange of flavors, based on Peru’s proud Incan inheritance of hundreds of varieties of potatoes and corn, as well as other heirloom crops carefully bred over the centuries to suit the country’s diverse microclimates: deserts, jungles, coasts, Andean highlands. To this rich and complex base, the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Japan, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have been slowly stirred; indeed, Peruvian ceviche, sometimes compared to a delicately flavored sashimi, exemplifies this international flavor. China‘s contribution is so significant that the resulting fusion cuisine has its own name, “Chifa.”
The most important foodie fiesta in Peru is the Mistura Gastronomic Festival, held every September in Lima. In addition to exquisite dishes from the country’s top restaurants and chefs, as well as the Gran Mercado, where Peru’s almost hallucinogenic cornucopia of edible offerings are sold, the ten-day party includes lectures, classes, cultural performances, and dances, all revolving around Peru’s one true passion: food.
This year’s festival attracted more than 360,000 visitors, the biggest crowd in its four-year history. Some 233 journalists from 19 countries, 300 international culinary students, and top celebrity chefs from around the world were also in attendance.
One reason for the festival’s growing popularity was the 2011 release of the award-winning, 38-minute documentary, Mistura: the Power of Food. The film delves into Peru’s cultural commitment to fine cuisine, and the rituals that surround such iconic dishes as the suspiro (literally, “gasp of pleasure”), to literally hundreds of types of bread, each the proud product of some specific region in Peru. Food is more than simple sustenance for the body here, and those capable of whipping up such magical dishes are revered.
Chefs are recognized by APEGA, the Peruvian Gastronomical Society, not only for top overall honors but also specific traditional dishes. These include the Best Ají de Gallina, the classic dish by which Peruvian restaurants are measured, featuring shredded chicken in a rich, delicious yellow pepper sauce; Best Causa, a fantastically structural potato salad, layered artistically with fish, chicken, or vegetable concoctions; and of course, the Best Pisco Sour, honoring Peru’s national cocktail. The Rocoto de Oro award recognizes farmers who preserve Peru’s heritage fruits and vegetables.
Though the 2011 Mistura Gastronomic Festival is done, Peru’s fantastic food is available year-round, and you can work it all off on the Inca Trail. In the meantime, check out the documentary, Mistura: The Power of Food, on their official website and Facebook page, with screenings, outtakes, and more Peruvian cuisine.