A Brief History of Peruvian Cuisine in 5 Courses - Part One

In this five part series, Chef Nico Vera presents the rich culinary history of Peru through the lens of a five course meal. Follow along as he breaks down Peruvian flavors, transporting us to the land of Incas and beyond. 

If the saying “You are what you eat” is true, then I am Inca, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Japanese. How can all these diverse cultures be part of my identity, you ask? The answer is simple: I was born in Peru, and I love to cook and eat Peruvian food — the 500-year fusion of spices, ingredients, colors, and flavors that are the pride and soul of a nation is now being discovered and savored by people all over the world. 

There are of course many different ways to experience Peruvian cuisine: you can travel to Peru, visit a local Peruvian restaurant where you live, or try cooking some dishes at home. But your experience will be enriched if you learn more about the culinary history of Peru, and the immigrant cultures that defined its cuisine. That is why when I cook for a pop-up or for friends, the dishes are always paired with origin stories about where the dishes came from, its ingredients, and the hands that first cooked them. Here, in a five-course menu, I present a brief history of Peruvian cuisine.

It all started with the Incas, who were the first to cultivate potatoes, quinoa, and tomatoes in Peru over 500 years ago. Some of these crops were even grown on the sides of steep mountains by using sophisticated terrace farming and irrigation techniques. Combined with their engineering skills and knowledge of the seasons, the Incas were able to build and feed an empire. One of the most unique spices they cultivated, which is the foundation of many Peruvian dishes, is the hot pepper, such as the aji amarillo, aji panca, or aji limo. Take the aji amarillo, smoky, with a slow-burning fire that lingers, make it into a paste and blend it with cooked and mashed purple potatoes, add some olive oil, salt and lime juice, and you’ll have a Causa. Likely named after the Quechua word kausay, meaning sustenance or energy, causa is typically served in a casserole with a tuna salad filling or as small timbales topped with savory seafood. This Peruvian potato salad is creamy, cool, spicy, and nourishing, all at once, and a perfect dish to honor the earthiness of the potato, one of Peru’s gifts to the world.

Check out the recipe for Causa here.

Nico Vera is a Peruvian chef and Pisco mixologist based in San Francisco, California, where he promotes Peruvian food and culture through pop-up dinners and cocktail classes. You can find his recipes and calendar of events on his blog, Pisco Trail.