One morning, while waiting in line outside the Peruvian Consulate for my tourist visa, I thought I heard a vendor whisper what sounded like “empanadas.” He was carrying a cooler that enticed me with its fragrant wares. Happily, he wasn’t my only choice — the street was alive with vendors carrying all kinds of typical Peruvian road food, like alfajores, mazamorra morada with arroz con leche, and corn tamales.
The intoxicating aromas seemed to make the unmoving queque of fidgety, jaded businesspeople and anxious tourists seem much less exasperating. What an unexpected opportunity to peek into the food culture of the country we were going to visit. Best visa appointment ever!
Surprisingly, Peruvians are one of the few ethnic communities that didn’t arrive and settle in New York City first. Instead, they moved to Paterson, New Jersey. As it turns out, Paterson was recognized as America’s “Silk City,” with expanded textile production units in…guess where? Lima, Peru!
As the political situation became more complicated in the ‘80s, America saw a professional middle-class migrate to the metropolitan New York Area, specifically to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, still home to many Peruvians.
Peruvians come from a rich food heritage that spans three main geographies — the coast, the jungle, and the Andean highlands. The essence of the gastronomy dates back to Pre-Inca and Inca staples. The cuisine was further finessed by the influence of the Spanish, Basque, African, Asian, French, Italian, and British émigrés. They were doing “fusion food” way back in the 19th century.
Ceviches came into being when the Spanish encountered the local Moche (indigenous coastal people) who flavored raw fish with chili. Succulent pieces of fish and seafood tossed with exotic varieties of corn were marinated in lime and other astringent fruit juices. Downed with a frothy Pisco Sour or a chilled Inca Cola, they allow us to travel exotically through an aperture of history.
In fact, the Cevicherias are as ubiquitous with Peru as pizza parlors are with NYC. Now, New Yorkers are spoiled for choice when it comes to Peruvian cuisine. Pio Pio, Warique, Manka, Mancora, Raymi, Surfish Bistro and La Cevicheria are some of the eateries that delight us with their ceviches and chichas (beers).
There is no better place in the world than the Big Apple to assess the popularity of a new trend, whether it’s a crazy spa treatment or the emergence of Peruvian cuisine. If it makes it here it can become a world phenomenon. The Peruvian Consulate in NYC and the Trade Commission of Peru gets that. It’s no wonder that they promote the cuisine aggressively with festivals and competitions. Over 30 Peruvian restaurants from New York City and New Jersey participate in the ceviche festival every summer. The #CevicheSummer @NYC, a month long fest, is held in participating restaurants to promote and introduce the vast cuisine of Peru. The Trade Commission regularly posts event information on Peruvian food battles like #CevicheVsTiradito and other ongoing festivals.
Want a taste of Peru? Simply visit Union Square, where the food truck Morocho is converting one New Yorker at a time.
Video produced by Thomas Peisel