The boom in Peruvian food brought a lot of attention to a well-deserving cuisine. At the same time it has led to an explosion of of confusing terms. Restaurants may style themselves as novo-Andean, traditional, regional, national, popular, creole, typical and it is not clear what exactly they offer. Despite the differences in terms they may serve the same few dishes from the basic code of Peruvian cuisine, although with different touches. This can’t but leave visitors to Cuzco confused as they look for places to eat.
Underlying much of it is the idea of nationalism, that Peru as a country and its regions as part of that nation have distinctive foods that characterize them. In this sense, Peru is a buffet with each of its regions (former departments, what in the US are called states and in Canada provinces) represented by a steaming row of characteristic dishes.
The word “typical” then is that which characterizes these regions, although the region can also be seen as a buffet with its segments present with their typical dishes just as in the performances of dances shaking around the plaza we see these provinces present with their typical dances.
To be “typical”, the food (or dance) must exemplify something of the “type”, the essence of each region or each province. And, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle these various types go together to make the whole, Peru.
But Peru is more than the sum of its parts, it also has an essence and so there must also be a national cuisine that is consumed throughout the whole of the country. As a result, while each of the regional cuisines is Peruvian because it belongs to the whole, there is also a Peruvian cuisine that stands above the regions and brings them together into the single whole of a country with a unified culture as Peru.
Peru, then, is made up of the various regional cuisines and of the national cuisines that, like the Sunday ceremony raising the national flag, it found throughout its large and diverse country.
Since Peru is also made up of different ethnic and castes, such as, among others, Chinese-Peruvian, Japanese-Peruvian, Italo-Peruvian, Afro-Peruvian, Creole-Peruvian, and of course Indigenous-Peruvian (meaning the native peoples inhabiting the land before the coming of the others) there are also cuisines representing the essence of each of these. National and regional cuisines represent them.
Since the Peruvian nation has Lima as its capital, on the coast, where the Creoles dominated, politically if not numerically, Creole cuisine (comida criolla) has come to be the national cuisine, the one that like the flag is found everywhere, even abroad wherever Peruvian set down roots.
But because Peru has many ethnicities on the coast, where most immigrants landed and most settled, Creole cuisine as the representation of the essence of the nation can be more than Hispano-Peruvian; it includes representations of these varied ethnicities.
As a result, an open ended code of Peruvian cuisine has developed which includes the following main dishes: lomo saltado, pollo saltado, tallarín saltado, tallarines verdes, jalea, sudado, arroz chaufa, ceviche, and pollo a la brasa.
These are the foods found throughout the country and wherever there is Peruvian food throughout the world. Like the bicolor, red and white, flag these stand for the whole country and they include Creole, Afro-Peruvian, Chinese-Peruvian, Indigenous-Peruvian, Italo-Peruvian, English-Peruvian, and Germanic-Peruvian cuisines as part of the whole.
Nevertheless, each of those cuisines can be broken out and include many more dishes such that Peruvian chifa (Chinese-Peruvian food), for example, can be opened to include its own buffet of dishes. This includes wantan, chijaukay, tipakay, aeropuerto, and so on.
However, there are ambiguities and border disputes in the attribution of dishes to this schema where cuisines, and culture in general, should correspond to the political and social boundaries making up the country. History is far messier than such clean lines on the ground and society is never as simple as a small set of categories. As a result, cuisines and their boundaries are not so simply defined either.
For example, The Peruvian south has a long history of interaction and separation going back to historical processes such as the colonial silver mining complex, the nineteenth century railroads with mineral and alpaca exploitation among others. Throughout this region one may find foods like puchero, rocoto relleno, or the classic picantería dishes. Yet these are often attributed to the regional cuisine of Arequipa, which was to this region what Lima is to the country even if they are typical of other contemporary regions such as Cuzco. This can make for food fights, food hegemonies, and so on.
In each region, whatever the broader historical processes behind its food, there will be national food which one is contrasted with international cuisine on one level and regional cooking on another. The typical, regional food is a category that is always contested and in the process of definition as people cook and argue with each other as to what is the essence of their area and how should tradition be represented in food.
People, families, restaurants and intellectuals throw out their arguments in the form of menus and lists of foods to stand for the “type” of the region. In Cuzco these can include the lists of typical dishes that often include things like lechón with tamales, cuy al horno, huatia, chiriucho, tallarín al horno, chicha, frutillada, puchero (thimpu), caldos, kapchi de cetas, and picantería food among others.
If there are arguments about classification, there are even more arguments about what is the most “traditional” way of preparing these dishes to be true to the essence of Cuzco, that is of the region.
Food is so much more than nourishment. These terms we have described are just some of the things that people consume with pride and argument when they eat. Food stands at the center of most of Cuzco and Peru giving people the chance to make themselves what they eat.