Home>Travel inspiration>Art + Culture>History + Culture

Preserving Peru’s Ancient Culinary Legacy, One Forgotten Ingredient at a Time

share this article
The Mil restaurant and the Mater Iniciativa exhibition center sit on the edge of the Incan ruins of Moray, which archaeologists now believe were once an agricultural test site.

Photo by Gustavo Vivanco Leon/MIL Centro

The Mil restaurant and the Mater Iniciativa exhibition center sit on the edge of the Incan ruins of Moray, which archaeologists now believe were once an agricultural test site.

In the face of environmental and cultural change, innovative chefs, dedicated scientists, and knowledgeable farmers are banding together to rediscover their country’s gastronomic roots.

share this article

Part laboratory, part library, part tasting room, the six-month-old research center in Peru hums with activity. Researchers sort and catalogue piles of roots, seeds, fungi, and plants collected on recent foraging trips. An hour outside of Cusco, next to the Moray ruins in the Sacred Valley, the Mater Iniciativa center is already the epicenter of a groundbreaking movement to rediscover and reclaim a Peruvian culinary heritage by means of its rare and long-forgotten ingredients.

Mater Inciativa research teams are collecting these plants and thousands more in an effort to preserve a legacy threatened by ecological degradation and cultural assimilation. They venture high into the mountains, deep into the Amazon rain forest, and across the arid Altiplano in search of traditional Peruvian ingredients, registering each according to its place of origin and original uses within the indigenous communities.

“We have 250 herbs and medicinal plants already collected and more coming in every day,” director of operations María Pía Uriarte explains as she points to walls festooned with drying herbs and cupboards crowded with carefully labeled jars. There’s cushuro, a pearl-like freshwater micro-algae found only in isolated high-altitude wetlands during the rainy season, kiwicha, a seed used in Incan ceremonies, and chuncho, a native variety of cacao from Quillabamba.

At the Mater Iniciativa research center, scientists collect and catalogue indigenous Peruvian ingredients.
“We meet the villagers and they tell us all the ways they use the plants, then we come back here, add the taxonomy, geographic, and cultural information, and dry them in our herbarium,” Uriarte says. “This knowledge is becoming lost, so we get very excited at the chance to discover and document it.”

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Malena Martínez and her brother Virgilio, protégé of Peruvian cuisine champion Gastón Acurio, one of the country’s most innovative chefs. (Virgilio’s Lima restaurant Central made waves with a menu that uses only Peruvian ingredients and sorts dishes by altitude and microclimate.)

Martínez chose carefully when he built his new restaurant Mil and the Mater Iniciativa exhibition center on the edge of the Incan ruins of Moray: Archaeologists now believe that the 500-year-old concentric stone terraces were a test site for the Incas’ remarkably sophisticated agricultural experimentation.

Article continues below advertisement

The research center is a logical extension of the culinary community’s enthusiastic participation in a larger “indigenismo” cultural pride movement. With 90 microclimates, 47 native languages, and 30 of the world’s 32 defined climates, Peru is one of the most biologically and culturally diverse countries in the world—and these Peruvian chefs, farmers, and botanists aim to keep it that way.

Mater Iniciativa is the brainchild of siblings Virgilio Martínez and Dr. Malena Martínez.
“There are so many ingredients that can only be found here—like our wild oyster mushrooms gathered from the high mountains—and when we use them we get flavors you won’t find anywhere else,” says Ribelino Alegría, executive chef at Hotel Sumaq’s Qunuq restaurant in Machu Picchu Pueblo. The woodsmoke tang of the mushrooms is unforgettable when stewed with chuño, a paste of freeze-dried potatoes, and local fava beans known as habas in the traditional Kapchi de Setas stew.

Alegría explains that the pungent herbs chincho and chijchipa—relatives of the Mexican marigold—are, in addition to their culinary uses, staples of traditional Incan medicine, used to treat stomach illnesses, liver disease, and altitude sickness. “We go to the abuelos and they teach us all the different uses. And sometimes they are very surprising.”

But while it’s crucial to preserve these ingredients for their cultural value, it’s their culinary appeal that’s most visible to locals and travelers alike, who are seeing more and more restaurants highlighting these regionally specific flavors. The six-course “Andean Flavors” menu at Hotel Sumaq in Machu Picchu Pueblo, for example, features a confit of cuy, or Andean guinea pig, seasoned with chincho and a panna cotta made from lucuma, a dense tropical fruit. The hotel also offers a pachamanca cooking experience during which visitors learn how Quechua cooks prepare an “earth oven” stew, which is sealed in plantain leaves and cooked in an underground fire pit.

Huacatay, a key flavor in the stew, is a perfect example of this renaissance. Also known as Peruvian black mint, it has flavor notes of citrus, tarragon, and anise and has come to represent Peruvian food, both traditional and modern.

Article continues below advertisement

“Huacatay is one of those defining flavors—it doesn’t taste like anything else, and when you add it to a sauce, it’s instantly got the flavor of the Andes,” says Jonathan Campos, executive sous chef at Qespi in the JW Marriott El Convento Hotel Cusco, picking a few of its vivid green leaves in the hotel’s courtyard herb garden. Campos has worked with executive chef Heivel Bedoya to showcase local flavors like huacatay, the smoky-sweet chilies known as aji panca, and Quechuan chocolate from Quillabamba in themed tasting menus.

Another of these quintessential ingredients on the menu is tarwi, a type of lupine. But unlike the flowers that blanket the hills of California and the plains of central Texas every spring, the native Andean variety produces tiny edible beans. After days of soaking to remove alkaloid toxins, the beans are ground or mashed and served as a cereal or as the base for dips and sauces. Considered one of the “lost crops of the Incas” by agricultural researchers, tarwi is being hailed as the latest superfood because it’s more than 50 percent protein and is rich in amino acids.

It’s not just the chefs, researchers, and visitors who are benefiting from Mater Iniciativa’s efforts—indigenous communities are making discoveries too. Today, the fields around Moray are once again being used for experimentation: herbs, habas, and 55 different varieties of potatoes flourish on the terraced fields. And Mater Iniciativa shares its harvest, along with modern cooking styles and practices, with the surrounding villages.

Jars of retama, cantú, and cushuro—freshwater seaweed “caviar”—at Mater Inciativa.
“We work closely with the communities and show them what we’re doing, and sometimes it’s weird for them to see how different the tastes and textures are the way we cook them,” says Uriarte. “When we invited them here for a tasting, they were making faces and asking us, ‘What did you do with these potatoes?!’ But then after a minute they told me, ‘I like it, but it is very different—can you show us what you did?’”

This symbiotic relationship continues to drive Peru’s culinary scene. Back in Lima, Cordon Bleu–trained Rafael Piqueras has a new project, Maras, that has made headlines for its flamboyant fusion of Peruvian traditions with European and Asian influences. Located in the tall, modern, chrome-and-glass Westin Lima, Maras is nevertheless named for the still-functioning pre-Incan Maras salt ponds where the restaurant sources its salt. A waiter sets down a plate of Italian-style carpaccio of tuna served with cushuro—the freshwater seaweed “caviar” that is also on display at Mater Iniciativa.

“The old can be new again and the other way around,” Piqueras says, explaining his drive to experiment. “Even an ancient tradition is new to those discovering it for the first time.”

>>Next: On a Return Trip to Peru, Second Time’s the Charm

Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips

Please enter a valid email address.

Read our privacy policy