“People here do not like hot food.” An entrepreneur from India living in Cuzco told me this in reference to the spiciness from hot peppers. He is looking to build an industry exporting mango chutney from Peru to the US.
I might not have taken him too seriously, given that Indian food often relies on combinations of spices, beyond peppers, that are unusual to people here, had I not heard much the same thing from market women who sell ajies, Peru’s native hot peppers.
Its rocotos and especially its ahi limos are known far and wide for their heat. Though they also have complex and rich flavors, they are very hot, ranking higher on the Scoville scale of heat than most Mexican peppers. Peru’s famous yellow ajies, also called mirasol, are also very hot.
In fact, a traditional word for food is uchu, the Quechua word for hot peppers. In Spanish this became ají, as in an ají de lisas, etc. It could also be a picante, to use another Spanish word, one that refers to the hot quality of peppers.
Yet, according the the market women, people want peppers with less heat. They say that the peppers they receive, especially the ones from the large industrial farms of lowland Peru are less spicy than they used to be.
This is but one of the changes that is taking place in Peru. The peppers are larger and prettier in the supermarkets and even in the neighborhood markets, where industrial produce takes over from local producers who grew products based on local land races.
But it is not just peppers. Tomatoes are increasingly flavorless, a kind of bland, colored, fruit instead of the ball pumped with flavor I remember from years past. These are mostly similar to the roma variety.
Even Peru’s famous potatoes are shifting more and more to “improved” commercial varieties rather than the local, highly varied potatoes, of its very recent past. You can still find these local varieties in markets, but many shoppers seem to prefer the larger, more uniform potatoes from “improved” varieties. It wasn’t more than two decades ago that people resisted these large potatoes, calling them picante or spicy since their flavor was noticeably different from traditional types.
Peruvians’ tastes are increasingly conditioned by industrial agriculture, whether we are talking about pollo a la brasa (the omnipresent young rotisseried bird with fries), bags of chips, or KFC. And this new industrial agriculture is moving into the fields of small producers and changing even what is available in the market, local markets as well as super markets.
As Diana Kennedy the scholar of Mexican food and critic argued “the key to food is the market”. She did not mean the large idea of the free market (capitalist) advocates where industry is able to produce economies of scale and dominate, rather she meant the local, small stand, markets of individual merchants.
These are increasingly offering more industrial varieties and fewer local, traditional forms of fruit and vegetables, or seasonings, even in Cusco.
Kennedy writes about the flavors that are being lost. She argues that the new, improved fruits and vegetables may be pretty but they do not cook up as well, nor do they maintain the traditional flavors of Mexican cuisines.
Peru may not be as far along this path as Mexico, though the difference is not huge. Nevertheless, flavors are changing and with them people’s tastes as their diets, bodies, and culture become more attuned to the capital market than to a traditional local market where local farmers and eaters met.
The spiciness of food (the piquancy or picante as they say in Spanish), the heat, is only one index of change. There are many more.
I remember eating ceviche with limo peppers that made my eyes tear they were so hot. That has not happened in a long time. Instead I hear more and more about techniques for reducing the heat of peppers at the same time Peruvian cuisine is more and more alike across the country. Food changes and it fits new people, even though they harken to “tradition” to define themselves.