From the 1970s until the late 1990s, Peru was the standard example of a Latin American failing state. However, almost three decades of unprecedented economic growth, partly driven by high commodity prices and prudent macroeconomic and financial policies, have turned Peru into one of South America’s prime travel and tourism destinations. This shift has also been galvanised by a sudden and growing global interest in the country’s unique cuisine. With an unparalleled history of culinary tradition in the Americas, perhaps comparable only to that of Mexico, Peru’s cuisine has benefitted greatly from ancient culinary techniques, innovations brought by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century and later by coming immigrants. Modern dishes can trace their influence back to African slaves, Chinese railroad workers, Japanese sugar farmers, Italian landowners and English industrialists.
Adding to the country’s history, its unique geography and climatic diversity make Peru one the world’s most distinct food growing regions. The country is home to more than 3000 tuber species and over 50 different types of corn. There is an abundance of fruit and vegetable varieties grown in the fertile soils of its three well-defined climatic regions: mountainous (the Andes), marine (the coastal provinces) and jungle (the Amazon). In addition, more than 2200 km of coastline provide a steady fish and seafood supply that form the basis of many Peruvian dishes.
For decades, Peru’s rich culinary tradition was largely unknown beyond the Andes. Gastón Acurio, perhaps Peru’s most well-known chef, radically changed this in the mid-1990s when he and his wife, Astrid Gutsche, opened a restaurant in Lima. While initially featuring a European menu, Acurio and Gutsche quickly switched to local delicacies.
“I wanted to prove to our people that we did not have to imitate European or foreign food cultures to excel as a restaurant. Peru has a beautiful and varied cuisine that deserved to be shown to the world,” Acurio told OBG.
This helped propel Peruvian cuisine and culture to new heights in the 2000s and 2010s, with the number of tourists increasing over 800%, from barely 500,000 in 1994 to more than 4.4m in 2018. While only a handful of Peruvian restaurants could be found abroad a decade ago, there are now over 1400 such establishments, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Peru Model
Other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Brazil and Chile, are currently hoping to replicate Peru’s culinary successes. Chile’s case is particularly interesting, as the two neighbouring nations are currently embroiled in a legal disagreement over the exclusivity of naming rights for pisco, a regional spirit distilled from grapes. At present, some 30 countries around the world recognise Peru as the sole producer of pisco, and 40 states, including the EU, recognise both Peru and Chile as legitimate producers.
More Than Tourism
Other industries have been able to piggyback on the growing global demand for Peruvian food. Beginning in the late 2000s the local agro-industrial sector embarked on a series of continuous investments in agricultural promotion, innovation and research and development. In 2003 Peru exported $220m worth of fruit and vegetables; by 2018 that figure had grown to over $3bn. The Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism estimates that exports will reach $4.2bn by 2021. Key export crops include asparagus, grapes and Hass avocados, the latter of which saw its export value increase to $723m in 2017.
In less than two decades, Peru has strengthened its position to become one of the world’s top-20 food-producing countries. The country is the largest producer of asparagus and quinoa, and second-largest exporter of blueberries, avocados and tangerines. The government is also working to promote a number of health foods under its “Superfoods of Peru” branding. These include, but are not limited to: kiwicha, cherimoyas, maca, yacón, carob, camu camu and lucuma, which have yet to be massively introduced to other markets on a global scale.
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