Peruvian food claims ever more recognition in the United States, but there is an unsung melody in this operatic ascent. Those notes are the story of Peruvian immigration to the US and the development of supply chains to meet the immigrant’s demands for food from their home country as well as restaurants to satisfy their palates and make them feel at home in a strange place.
A bit more than a week ago, I went to the airport to receive two young men from Cuzco who have been working in the US for the last five months as part of an international program. As I was driving them around Salt Lake City, at dusk, we happened to pass a Peruvian grocery store named La Pequeñita. I mentioned it to them and could tell by the sudden light that came into their faces they wanted to see it.
We parked and they went in like children on Christmas morning. “Mira bro, hay panetones.” (Look, they have panetones—a Peruvian sweet bread).
After they went through he store looking at each item with looks approximating devotion, we decided to go to a Peruvian restaurant—El Rocoto, owned by a family of immigrants to Utah from the northern Peruvian city of Cajamarca.
It was hard to choose what to eat. For five months they had not had food from their homeland and had lived among Americans and people form other countries. Faced with pictures of dishes from Peru — a menu built on the canon of Creole food, lomo saltado, tallarines with huacaina sauce, pollo a la brasa, ceviche, jalea, and so on — they could hardly make a choice. One of the Cusqueños softly said, “Es que quiero pedir todo.” (It’s that I want to order everything.)
This last year Kelsey Brain of Portland State University, in the very foodie city of the US Pacific North West, published an important article that explored this issue. Bain’s research demonstrates the power of Peruvian food for people far from their Andean home.
She shows how restaurants have sprung up wherever there are enough Peruvians to meet their need and how, despite all the press about the demand among Anglos for Peruvian food, the restaurants’ clienteles remain heavily Peruvian. They are the bedrock of the spread of Peruvian food into the United States.
Crossing over into the Anglo mainstream is still a matter of work. Many large immigrant communities have not managed that yet, though it looks like Peruvian food is well on its way.
Of course, the Peruvian community in the US is also growing strongly. It more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, according to the US Census. In 2000 that agency claimed 233926 People of Peruvian origin lived in the United States. At the beginning of this decade that number had grown to 531,538. This means that in the varied and diverse Latino population of the United States, Peruvians occupy a strong place and their presence will be increasingly important in North America.
Bain notes that “Peruvians began emigrating out of Peru in significant numbers in the 1980s for economic and political reasons . . . Peru currently has one of the highest emigration rates in Latin America . . . This is expected to continue, as seventy-five percent of Peruvian youths state that they aspire to emigrate in the near future . . . Currently, more than 10% of Peruvians live abroad, sending home remittances and establishing transnational migrant networks.”
This Peruvian diaspora plays a role in Peru’s development. Bain sees it as containing a demand that has impelled the development of wholesalers who have arisen to import Peruvian products into the United States. She writes, based on interviews with a wide range of Peruvians from chefs to housewives, that the items most mentioned as needed are “aji peppers, corn of various types, yellow potatoes (papa amarilla), cassava root (yuca), Inca Kola (a Peruvian soda pop), and pisco (a stilled grape brandy).”
Brain’s research showed that four companies provide these and other products to the US Peruvian population. These are Amazon Imports from Los Angeles, California; Peruvian Import Company (Inca’s Food) of Passaic, New Jersey ; Mi Peru Products Imports from Redwood City, California; and, Belmont International Trading Corporation of Miami, Florida. Each of these are located both near major ports and in areas where they are substantial communities of Peruvian immigrants.
Bain explores the different ways in which these companies obtain their products for import in Peru. For example, Amazon Imports buys from Peruvian farmers through an agricultural consultant while Peruvian Import Company has a fully owned subsidiary company in Peru, Importadora y Exportadora Doña Isabel, which obtains and packages the products for export to the US. Mi Peru buys its products from The Green Farmer SAC in Callao, Peru. This company sells prepackaged food items to five US and one Spanish Company. Finally, Belmont International Trading is a Peruvian American partnership and buys food directly from Peruvian farmers. They then process and package the food in their own plant in Lima.
Bain argues that for two of these four companies, those which own the plants in Peru and the distribution system in the US, “the majority of the revenue ends up in large US cities and, in Asian cities because the shipping companies that bring the product from Peru to the US are owned by Asian companies.
Inca Kola and Pisco have different means of distribution. The soda is owned and produced by Coca Cola , since 1999. Under an agreement with Coca Cola, Continental Food and Beverage produces the pPeruvian soft drink in its northern and southern California plants. and then sells it to distributers. This is a separate line of production and distribution than is found in Peru for Inca Kola.
In the San Francisco market studied by Brain, Pisco is obtained from Inca Gold and Sol de Ica.
In concluding her article Brain listed four reasons why Peruvians cook and consume Peruvian food in the US: nostalgia and memories, taste, for their children to experience, and to keep Peruvians together and connected to home.
She also argues that the networks created to meet this demand did not develop at random, but followed “specific paths dependent on centers of capital and power; physical geography of ports, natural resources and barriers to transportation, and available transnational shipping routes. Additionally, the control of these networks is limited to a few, select companies, and the resulting revenue benefits a select few.”
Kelsey Bain, “The Transnational Networks of Cultural Commodities: Peruvian Food in San Francisco “ Association of Pacific Coast Geographers Yearbook, 26, 82-101: 2014.
US Census, The Hispanic Population: 2010, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf (Consulted January 25, 2014).