Most of the dishes we take for granted originated in elite kitchens and then spread to other tables over centuries, observed Dan Jurafsky in a splendid book about language, history, and food. This got me thinking and made me wonder about Peruvian food, especially about the ordinary cooking of working class or rural peoples.
There are lots of elite-origin dishes in Peruvian cuisine, whether they originated in the country or abroad. However, the country also has a strong history of cooking among its indigenous peoples who up until recently formed the majority of Peru’s population and generally were not elites. These are the same people who domesticated the amazing array of potatoes, and other fruit and vegetables that is so celebrated today.
To be sure, the Inca court as well as that of other elites on the coast and in the highlands probably developed elite dishes, but we do not know what happened to them nor much about them.
Some may have survived in varied forms, such as the tamales and humintas consumed today especially on ritual occasions, though they are eaten at other times.
Jurafsky notes, following the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, that holiday meals tend to be very conservative. They maintain foods and aesthetics of cooking and presentation that otherwise may have disappeared.
In Cuzco, this may mean that meals like the classic chiriuchu, a cold plate of many different foods piled on top of each other in careful order, or lechon and tamales, a dish of roasted pork accompanied by tamales, along with roasted guinea pig or spit fired guinea pig seasoned with the indigenous wakatay herb, or even the stuffed and covered rocoto relleno, may have very deep roots into elite indigenous foods of the past.
Food historians along with archeologists will have to research this in order to demonstrate it. For now we can only say there is a likelihood that these probably strike deep into the past.
Without the European techniques and ingredients they may involve today, these may even go into Inca and pre-Inca times. Despite the onslaught of new elite and mass market foods, such as turkey for Christmas and the whole code of Creole, Chifa and fast foods that are found all over Cuzco, these ceremonial dishes continue to be served on feast days and for the celebrations involving a cargo, what in Cuzco is called a jurka, the responsibility to sponsor a feast and feed people. They are the foods for old ceremonies and they maintain themselves.
In rural areas a different kind of traditional food continues. This is based on indigenous ingredients: such as potatoes in their various forms whether fresh, lightly frozen and thawed, or freeze dried; other tubers and seeds; as well as fresh greens and, of course, both fresh and dried corn. People eat a wealth of soups and boiled foods, as well as the classic huatia, the earth-baked potatoes. For special occasions they eat meat, including the indigenous guinea pig. The presence of meat—roasted over an open flame, salted and dried before being reconstituted and cooked, or boiled makes a meal special and hence ceremonial.
A key to food is the word uchu. It refers to hot peppers, called in Spanish ajies, as well as to them in ground form as a condiment or sauce to accompany boiled tubers. It also can be a general word for a composed dish and more ceremonial fare. Uchu is important to knowing what constitutes meals. In Inca times, it along with salt was avoided for ritual purification and that avoidance the Spanish called fasting. In other words, we could argue that uchu constituted a preparation as a meal.
When people migrate from rural areas to the city they move into a different domain of food. It is related to that of the countryside but is much more focused on meat and involves many more non-indigenous ingredients and cooking styles.
This is also where people encounter the new world of foods from coastal and international elites. Cities and, to a degree, towns are tongues of elite ways in a sea of indigenous Peruvian cuisine. Though much of the contemporary elite culture is from the coast or from abroad, nevertheless Cuzco maintains its own traditional urban cuisines as we have noted above.
The coastal elite with its focus now on chefs who “rescue” or “resurrect” indigenous techniques and ingredients for their formal, specialist, restaurant and TV driven fare developed the idea of gastronomic fairs to celebrate this food and its claim to the country’s culinary loyalty. Through these they present a code back to the country of what its cuisine is and perhaps should be. The recently held Mistura in Lima is the key example.
Nevertheless, following this as an elite cultural form, practically every neighborhood, region, city, and town hold their own gastronomic fairs. In these, local norms and dishes are also finding place and are celebrated. They enter the domain of fixed forms and cuisines that can be known, celebrated, and appreciated as foods by themselves, and not food as part of an array of experiences and actions in feasts or in homes.
Interestingly, the working class area of Lima called Gamarra, known for its market and its small scale industries of clothing production among others, recently hosted a counter to Mistura. They called it Misiura. It was a recognition and holding on high of popular, meaning ordinary people’s, food and culture.
Cuzco, and Peru’s, world of food is complex and layered by time, invasions, migrations, new economic systems, and elite formations. Nevertheless, it maintains much of its indigenous foods if one looks for them. They are there, though often covered. Jurafsky’s observation gives us an important insight to enable us to rethink that layering and the array of foods there.
Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)