Behind an unmarked door in a Lima suburb, Javier Wong is planning a revolution in more than just stir-fry cooking. In fact the very future of food – and farming – is being re-imagined here in a city where nobody dined out 20 years ago, where there is no national tradition of gastronomy, and where there is considerable malnutrition. But in the capital of Peru, a city not so long ago wracked by Shining Path terrorist violence, the top chefs – men and women like Gaston Acurio, Javier Wong and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino – believe gastronomy can achieve social justice.
Riding out in the Peruvian mountains, top Lima chef, the late Ivan Kisic, explains: ‘For many years, we chefs have found it really unfair that the principal producers who make it possible for us to cook and to have food on our tables do not have a decent life. So we are moving on very quickly, in terms of technology and cuisine, and I think it’s about time to stop for a while and look a little more at the past.
The past shows that Peru was domesticating potatoes 8000 years ago. Margartia de Tafur, in the Huaraz Highlands, 200km north of Lima, harvests and cooks with old varieties of potatoes most people will never have heard of. Peru’s geography favours nutritious foods, but the high mountains and lush jungles don’t particularly favour modern agricultural practices. Small farmers with niche products – like Margartia – go with the terrain, and have done for millennia. It is the very remoteness that has allowed the many old and highly nutritious varieties of crops to to survive.
Back in Lima, top chef Miguel Schiaffino treasures Margarita’s potatoes, turning a humble ingredient into a fashionable dish. He explains: ‘We’ve been working with native potatoes for several years…I first knew of them as ‘gift potatoes’ with shapes, colours, flavours and textures, thin skins, thick skins, sweet and bitter. The future will rely not on the quantity of food we have, instead we are going to go through a process of selection and we are going to pick the more nutritious foods.”
Chef Flavio Solorzano takes this a step further. He wants to offer people nutrious – and affordable – food. So he is teaching shantytown kids to become chefs and how to use anchoveta, a fish not traditionally eaten in Peru, but exported to the lucrativechicken and fish feed market. Former fishing minister, Dr Patricia Majluf agrees that the anchoveta boats could instead be feeding Peru’s poor: ‘Anchoveta is probably one of the most nutritious species because of its high fat content. It’s widely available and can be effectively used for direct human consumption”.
All very well, but can Peru’s model really meet the challenge of providing enough food for 9.5 billion people by 2050?
To this end, scientists at Lima’s agricultural university say we just can’t afford to ignore the new. Lima’s chefs may have persuaded the President not to sign a bill in favour of GM crops, but top microbiologist Doctor Marcel Gutierrez says, although the old organic ways are great, the figures just don’t add up.
He explains: ‘If we were thinking about establishing organic agriculture in the planet, we would actually need two planet Earths. This is the surface level we would need to feed the population in the year 2050, and this is not possible, and it is also not possible to deplete our forests, we need to take care of the Amazon. So the best choice is to make land more productive. We are not saying that modern biotechnology, that means genetic engineering, is the only way. What we are saying is that without this technology, it is much harder to ensure food sources for this population that is coming up to over nine billion and will require food production to increase by 70 percent. Without modern biotechnology, this won’t be possible.”
Even if Peru’s model cannot be depended on to entirely feed a growing global population, is there room in the mix for the old and the new? Academic, Tim Beach, thinks so: ‘the future of farming I think has a number of trajectories. One of those would be this more holistic attempt and interest by people to be part of a community that is biodiverse, that produces complicated foods, that produces good foods. But there will also always be a future for heavy production agriculture. It’s hard for us to get away from that because it produces so much food for so many people around the world.”
Across town, at the launch of Peru’s Native Potato Festival, Chef Gaston Acurio agrees: ‘I believe in integration, in how we can take part in the same process, where we convince ourselves of our responsibilities for the future. It’s in this balance between the small farming, in harmony with the medium and large agriculture, where Peru will become a beautiful world food power.”
Old food the new way – it’s the Peruvian dream of future food.