Food & DrinksPeruvian Food

Exile, Rediscovery, and Power: The Story of Novo-Andean Cuisine

A new cuisine was born in Peru around 1986, at a time when democracy had returned, two guerrilla groups fiercely battled the State, and nationalism filled the air. Called Cocina Novoandina in Spanish, and either Novo Andean, or Nouveau Andean, or just New Andean cuisine in English, it thrust Peruvian cooking into a global arena, impacted the cooking of neighboring countries, and claimed the kitchens of most of Cuzco’s better restaurants.

Novo Andean Cuisine claimed Cuzco beginning in 2000, according to Rosario Olivas Weston in her beautiful and award winning book Cusco, el imperio de la cocina. Given the fourteen years between then and its birth,  this new cuisine germinated and grew elsewhere.

That place was a troubled and over-extended Lima, Peru’s capital, that was receiving hordes of people escaping the guerrilla movement in the highlands and was suffering from US sanctions and the increasing difficulty of the poor to find work and food.   But it was not among them, people whose first language was Quechua and who often ate at collective kitchens, that Novo Andean cuisine arose.

Most work locates the beginnings of Novo Andean Cuisine in the columns that then newspaper man and now Peruvian Vice-Minister of Culture, Bernardo Roca Rey, wrote for the major Lima paper El Comercio under the pseudonym of “El Comensal”.

Roca Rey is a member of the elite Miró Quesada family that for generations has owned this most important of Peru’s dailies, except for the period between 1975, when the newspaper was nationalized by the left-leaning military government that ruled Peru, and 1980 when democracy returned to the country. The new president, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, promptly priviatized the newspaper and returned it to the Miró Quesada family.

Bernardo Roca Rey narrates:

“On the day Belaúnde returned the newspapers I was introduced to him and I said ‘How can I be of service?  I would love to write a scientific page [since my training was in science].’
“‘Yes but for the scientific page we have Fernando Unger.  However, we need someone to write about tourism, cuisine, and gastronomy’
“So I invented a page [in the paper]  that was called “Fin de Semana” [Weekend] where a man called “El Comensal” wrote about food.  He was a man who I imagined as being sixty or so years old, very big and very fat, with a carnation in his lapel.  I put myself into this character so many times  that I even began to write like him.  I developed him a lot.  And, on the side, of course, appeared another character called “El Fugitivo” [The Fugitive], and when I was “The Fugitive” it was the opposite.  I took ten years from myself, I put on blue-jeans, and was riding my bicycle or went around in a Land Rover that I had at that time exploring side roads.”

Roca Rey’s dual alter egos, the restless and youthful “Fugitive” with his four wheel drive for discovering the byways of his native country and the sedentary aesthete, the “Dinner Companion” locked in a Lima that was both backward-looking and linked to the latest trends of Europe, suggest an important piece of background for understanding the development of Novo Andean Cuisine.

The Military regime that took away Roca Rey’s paper had nationalized much industry and carried out an agrarian reform that expropriated agricultural land in a push for state-led national development. As a result many of Peru’s elites lost their property. Many of those who could left the country, especially for the United States and Europe.

While abroad, where many of them obtained their advanced education either prior to leaving or while in exile, in a land where they did not have the same status as at home or the same relationship to local culture and traditions, they developed a nostalgia for their home country and its folk ways.

The sixties, seventies, and eighties were times when romantic nationalism had a strong grip on much of the world’s population, including Peruvian elites.  This romantic allure of the particular, enhanced — in the experience of these Peruvian elites — by the alienation of exile created a powerful hunger for their own, national modernity that could stand up against Europe and the US.

The coming of democracy and the return of Fernando Belaúnde to the presidency in an election allowed many people to feel they too could return and begin the process of re-encountering their country after living in other countries and experiencing other ways.

Roca-Rey began his column at this propitious time of return and began urging the re-discovery of Peru, its traditions, its heritage, and products just when several important elite Peruvians, such as celebrity chef Gastón Acurio were returning with diplomas from European culinary schools. They clicked. And Roca Rey had the means to name the result of the moment and to evangelize it through his newspaper. Roca Rey and recently returned chef Chucho La Rosa opened together one of the first restaurants to develop this new cuisine; they named it for Roca Rey’s column “El Comensal”.

As a result, novo Andean cuisine is an elite movement of gastronomic exploration of Peru in nationalistic exuberance.   But it is not the ordinary nationalism of a lomo saltado, it is the shining, star-filled, and foreign-based effervescence of Peru’s elite “re-discovering and rescuing” their nation’s traditions from impending modernist doom and having the means to promote their discovery and propel it forward as an international culinary force.

Novo Andean cuisine takes the techniques and skills of elite European culinary training and experience in fine, professional kitchens abroad and uses it as a base for engaging the folk traditions of Peruvian cooking as well as ingredients with a past that many Peruvians were trying to leave behind as they reached for the McDonald’s of modernity, a past exemplified in ingredients such as quinoa.

This time of return was also a time when a serious challenge to Peru’s democracy exploded in two guerrilla movements, the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, that through the eighties and early nineties almost won the battle for control of the country.

But, they lost and neo-liberalism (free market capitalism) emerged as the dominant force in Peruvian politics and economics. It, in turn, provided the platform for the massive development of Novo-Andean cuisine in the expansion of middle and up-scale restaurants in Lima that could claim a clientele due to economic growth. This expanding group who patronized restaurants created a growing demand for culinary training to staff the restaurants.  And culinary training became a potential avenue of mobility for more ordinary Peruvians.

It is not surprising that only with the turn of the new millennium would Novo Andean cuisine stake out a claim in Cuzco’s restaurant scene.  Once established in Lima it, and Lima based restauranteurs, could expand more in Cuzco.  This took place at the same time Novo Andean cuisine was gaining notice internationally.  Chefs could present to tourists something “authentically” Peruvian, which the international travelers were also learning about in their native languages through food journalism and the major cities of their countries where fine, Peruvian restaurants were appearing.

Roca Rey, now as Peru’s Vice Minister of Culture, continues to lead the charge to promote and develop Peruvian cuisine. But this is only one of many threads that twine together to create a knotted tapestry of contemporary Peruvian culinary culture, whether in Lima or in the ancient city of Cuzco.

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