N° 70 | September 2012

Eat tasty, eat healthy, eat Peruvian1… and let’s start working on that

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During the last decade, Peru’s traditional cuisine, with its nearly magical and successful fusion of Andean, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese traditions, and its numerous reinterpretations, has gained global recognition, making several celebrity chefs, among them Ferran Adria, stop, try it and roll their eyes with a resounding “Hmmm!”

This eruption of Peruvian food on the global stage has been brewing during the last two decades, concocted by a new cohort of adventurous chefs that took Peruvian culinary to prominence. Without question, however, the mother of those fusion exercises can be traced five-hundred years back when Spanish conquerors were introduced to an almost infinite array of new foods (such as potatoes, peanuts, beans, corn, chili peppers, quinoa, and unknown fish) as part of the local Andean culinary delights. In the ensuing five centuries, Andean, Iberian and Arab cooking traditions amalgamated into what was later known as Peruvian food.

The food and economic boom

The Peruvian cuisine boom has serious economic figures attached to it. The hotel and restaurant industry has grown from 3.9% to 7.6% of GDP between 2000 and 2006, and employment in restaurants and bars grew a staggering 39% from 2001 to 20042. Tourism figures are in the same track, and a growing number of tourists are now opting for gastronomic tours instead of the typical trip to the Machu Picchu ruins in Cusco. Peruvian food abroad is also making big strides. Cities like Barcelona, Madrid, San Francisco, New York, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires today host top notch Peruvian restaurants that compete with the best in town.

Culinary matters are a top daily priority to most Peruvians who remain loyal to their sabor nacional (the national taste). Peruvian anthropologist and chef, Mariano Valderrama2, forecast the “boom” will have a far reaching impact to positively influence the quality of home and street food. It will also add value to the country’s food supply chain, creating a greater demand for a myriad of traditional foods, and culinary ingredients.

Food traditions and health

The Peruvian Ministry of Health’s slogan “Eat tasty, eat healthy, eat Peruvian”1 was certainly inspired by the current culinary boom and its force to inspire social change. In fact, the Ministry of Health came up with the slogan last year after identifying that Peruvian food has valuable characteristics. Firstly, the fact that a wide variety of natural (whole) foods are the basic ingredients of traditional dishes loaded with superb taste. In addition, Peruvian food is based on the use of local grown food and also an intense regional exchange; implies an active participation of individuals in food preparation; and also favors commensality, i.e. sharing food around a meal which has a symbolic and cultural dimension.

On top of all that, Peruvian cuisine has also stood the test of time as it has nurtured and nourished several dozens of generations of Peruvians. Quite an accomplishment when compared to the wreck of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer left by the Western Diet (a.k.a. junk food) in the last two generations.

The idea of taking traditional foods as a guide to healthy eating is not new. The Mediterranean and Japanese food traditions, after being meticulously studied, have turned into global examples of healthy eating. Not all food cultures have received similar scientific scrutiny, but without a doubt all have stood the test of time that runs well over millennia. What most, if not all, of them seem incapable of achieving on their own, is to withstand the market muscle of ultraprocessed products (UPP)3,4 industries. These have gained significant influence on agriculture priorities, trade and government subsidies under the mantra of quantity over quality, and sell convenience by leaving cooking behind. They employ multi-billion dollar marketing budgets to infuse in their products an image of coolness and health.

Conclusion

A country’s food traditions offer a wonderful platform and provides a profound connection between the planet, food, people and cultural identity. Nonetheless, in places where globalized industrial food markets are making significant inroads, it is unlikely that the promotion of healthy eating per se will make serious progress unless it is coupled with the creation of an infrastructure of healthy eating. This means, resisting the invasion of UPP, regulating food marketing, and creating the incentives to make whole food agriculture and allied markets, flourish and grow strong.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
To Mrs. Patricia Murillo, my wife, for her ideas, comments and editing work. To Dr Jean-Claude Moubarac at the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health
and Nutrition, University of São Paulo, for his valuable comments.

  1. Translation from the original in Spanish: “Come rico, come sano, come peruano”
  2. Valderrama M. El Boom de la Cocina Peruanahttp://www.rimisp.org/FCKeditor/UserFiles/File/documentos/docs/pdf/DTR-IC/elboomdelacocinaperuana.pdf
  3. UPP include soft drinks, and ready-to-eat savoury or sweet snacks, or products liable to be consumed as such. As well as, pre-prepared ready-toheat products designed to replace dishes and meals in the home or on site in catering establishments.
  4. Monteiro CA. The big issue is ultra-processing. World Nutrition 2010; 1(6): 237-59. Available at: http://www.wphna.org/wn_commentary_ultraprocessing_nov2010.asp
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