I talked last time about how I chose the place and time for my story. And once that was done, I started looking into the culture of modern and historical Peru.
The rabbit hole of link clicking was astronomical so I’ll spare you those details. I learned a bunch of basics and found a whole bunch of stuff I wanted to research more thoroughly.
If you know me online or in person, it probably comes as no surprise when I tell you that where I decided to start was food.
What kinds of things grow/grew in the area? How would they prepare those things? Did they have spices? Are they close enough to the coast to have seafood? How does the meal of the princess differ from the meal of the outlaw?
And then, after all of that, there are the secondary questions. Like how is food prepared and shared? Who serves the food? Who gathers for meals?
Food and culture are so intricately linked that it was almost impossible to untangle but I did my best.
Because the internet is a thing and the people of Peru are friendly and helpful, finding out what they eat now, how it is prepared, and how it’s shared was all pretty easy and fun. So I’m going to focus this blog post on some of the many examples of the amazing dishes Peru has to offer currently.
There are so many videos and articles on the food prepared in the various regions and the cultural norms around preparing and sharing a meal. I wish I could share them all with you, but I’m going to focus on the ones that will be most helpful to my world building.
Perhaps the most famous dish Peru has to offer is ceviche. If you’ve ever searched Peruvian food on the internet, this dish is almost certain to have popped up. It is the national dish, after all. In its modern form, it is raw fish cured in fresh citrus juices (usually lime or lemon). It usually also has other ingredients for flavour like onion, cilantro, tomato, onion, garlic, or chilli peppers.
It originated in the Northwest of what is now Peru and though citrus like lemon and lime were introduced to the area by the Spanish, a form of ceviche has likely existed since before what we now call the Incan era. It is believed to have been a cultural practice from as early as 3000 years ago.
I did some basic searching and found a National Geographic article suggesting the fish may have been cured with a type of seaweed and local varieties of acidic hot peppers. Anything with enough acid will “cook” the fish in a pinch, though it’s unlikely they would have used ineffective or unpalatable options outside of extreme emergencies or food shortages, I’m noting it here. After all, who knows what dangers might befall my characters?
Papa a la Huancaína
This dish utilizes the classic Peruvian staple: potatoes. It is a very popular dish of thickly sliced golden potatoes in a cheese sauce made of queso fresco Cheese), hot chilli, garlic, evaporated milk, lime juice, and saltine crackers. That last ingredient was extremely surprising to me, but apparently it works!
Unfortunately for my story, this dish looks to have been created sometime near the construction of the Peruvian railroad which is much too late for my story. However, I did learn that the potatoes and yellow Peruvian peppers (ají amarillo) used in this dish are ancient species of the area. The earliest known existence of the pepper, for example, is over 4,000 years ago. Don’t ask me how they can figure that out, but I think it’s a fun fact.
If you’re like me and even the thought of eating plants or animals you aren’t used to eating makes you tremble, the cuisine of foreign countries (who have different local animals and plants) might be difficult to grasp. But in the Peruvian Andes, two of the most common sources of meat are alpacas and guinea pigs.
Cuy is a dish made by roasting a guinea pig very slowly over an open fire. This makes for very tender meat and crispy skin. This delicacy is usually eaten on special occasions and is usually picked up with your hands – just like you would eat a piece of fried chicken!
The history of this dish dates back an astonishing 5000 or so years! which is amazing and perfect for my book writing purposes. The modern dish often uses lime juice, spices and garlic, so I’ll have to do some research for spices and food that existed at the time of my novel, but I imagine some variation of this dish would not be unfamiliar to a princess – type at the time. Maybe with some spicy acidic pepper.
Causa (Potato Casserole)
This native Quechan dish is found in many variations all across Peru. By now you are probably not shocked to hear that this dish contains both yellow peppers and potatoes. These ingredients are used to make something resembling a dough that is then used as a bottom and top layer of the dish. In between these layers, some type of protein (chicken, tuna, ceviche) provides additional texture and flavour. It is this layer that varies most based on where the dish is prepared. vegetarian versions of this dish might be filled with sautéed vegetables or fried mushrooms, for example.
This recipe gave me a lot of the above information and then some if you want to try making your own. I should also mention that this dish, served cold, can be served in many different shapes including a stack, a roulade, or a ball.
There are many, many other dishes that are popular in Peru. Often, these dishes mix the native cuisine of Peru with ingredients or techniques brought by Spanish and, later, world-wide immigration to the area. These dishes all sound delicious and could probably make their own blog post (or two) but they aren’t overly helpful to my world building (right now) so I’m going to set them aside and suggest you check out this site for some amazing, mouth-watering options. I mean, ideally you could go to Peru, but if you don’t have that option, a local Peruvian restaurant or making the dishes yourself could be lovely alternatives.
Summary of Research
In my research of Peruvian food, I have learned many things. First, that I really want to eat all of it. I mean it. It looks absolutely delicious. Second, I learned that Peruvian food often has its roots so far back that even modern dishes bear striking similarities to what people in pre-Columbian eras. Third, I reinforced my understanding of and belief in the idea that food is an integral part of culture and is inherently tied to location. Food traditions develop in large part due to available ingredients in conjunction with societal power structures and expectations. The way feasts can be used to establish and solidify power and control is fascinating to me and I’ll definitely be coming back to that idea.
Where to Next?
Now that my research of modern Peruvian food is concluded (at least enough to move forward), I need to think about where that “forward” is. As you probably noticed, some ingredients keep coming up as native to Peru. So my next step is to look a little bit into those local staples of the area. I’m not sure whether the history and use of tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc), corn, amaranthaceae (quinoa etc.), and legumes (beans) will be interesting enough for their own blog post, but I know I need to understand it before I move on.
Once I complete the research on native Peruvian food sources, I get to do the hardest part: research and learn what I can about food in Peril before Columbus and co. stumbled their way into town. My preliminary research suggests. I may have to make some educated guesses in this area as written records were rarely, if ever, kept. And I have neither the money nor language skills to go learn ancient cooking techniques from people who might know them. As cool as that would be to do.
So, in short, I have a lot of work to do! My next post will either be about local Peruvian food sources or the types of food likely consumed back when my story was set (or both). And in the meantime, I’ll also be trying to make sense of how food and culture connected
As always, if you know more than I do, please feel free to correct me, or share information. I’m trying to be as accurate as possible.
See you next time,