The history surrounding the dishes we eat can be as important, if not more so, than the taste they leave on our tongues.
By Nat Wyatt
Lima is a city of good food. It is perhaps most famous now for its ceviche, chifa, pisco sours, and countless other Peruvian classics. Many of these dishes represent a window through which to better understand the complex mestizaje of Peruvian culture, which is at once Latinx, Spanish, part East Asian and West African, while also being a distinct fusion of them all. Just as one can learn about Japanese-Peruvian identity through understanding the origins of a dish like ceviche, Afroperuvian food can also be a way of better understanding black histories as central to Peruvian culture while also fundamentally representative of resistance against enslavement.
In the United States, American culture is black culture. That is, so many pieces of culture that we now consider to be simply American – from cornbread to the Blues – are deeply rooted in African American traditions. Similarly, in Peru much of what seems to be simply Peruvian is steeped in a history that is distinctly black. Nowhere is this clearer than in Afroperuvian food.
My first night in Lima, I was told by the hostel owner that I had to try anticuchos, a staple street food in the city. I tried the street food on a stick later that night and decided that they were in fact worthy of the hype. Anticuchos are in essence leftovers; they are spicy-smoky kebabs of cow hearts or chicken livers seasoned liberally, made from the parts of animals that people rarely eat unless they are being economical or desperate. And so it would make sense that this dish arose in enslaved black communities on the Southern and Central coast of Peru, where scraps from the kitchen could be used to create a meal after the master of the house was served.
I finished my meal that night with a stroll through Parque Kennedy and inevitably a stop at a picarones cart to order the sweet and savory donuts with molasses sauce. Picarones are the layman’s version of buñuelos, Spanish donuts brought to Peru by the Conquistadors. What makes the flavor of the donut distinct is the fact that, unlike buñuelos, the recipe was modified by enslaved black Peruvians, who made the dessert from scraps of sweet potatoes and squash, finished off with chancaca, solidified molasses that was a cheap waste product of the sugar production that dominated plantation life in Peru for centuries. Thus, the Afroperuvian interpretation of the Spanish donut is at once delicious, and now embraced as distinctly Peruvian, while also being part of a tradition of using food scraps and unusual food combinations in order to simply survive.
The next day I tried another Limeño staple and ordered tacu tacu, fried rice and beans. The tasty dish is common throughout Lima. Like much of Afroperuvian food, its status as a dish derived from scraps and leftovers reflects the complexities of appropriating Afroperuvian foods as simply Peruvian while not necessarily discussing the historical oppression that led to generation of such dishes in the first place. Tacu tacu, like much of Afroperuvian food, is typically referred to as criolla, yet it is unclear whether that word fully encompass the history of the cuisine as a mode of resistance against the colonial plantation complex that was central to the foundation of contemporary Peruvian society.
Ultimately, Afroperuvian food, like so much of Peruvian food, can tell stories that are hard to put to paper. However, the history behind such food also reminds me of how important it is to be critical of the modes of culture one consumes as a traveler, food included. In fact, the stories surrounding the dishes we eat can be as important, if not more so, than the taste they leave on our tongues. Elevating certain Afroperuvian dishes to a premier status in Peruvian culinary memory is significant because it allows people to better understand the fact that black culture exists in Peru in the first place. However, with this visibility of Afroperuvian food comes the responsibility to better understand the complicated history behind what we eat and why.
Nat Wyatt is a junior African American Studies and English Major in Davenport College. Contact them at email@example.com.