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Peruvian cuisine’s slippery road to UNESCO

This blog entry is an excerpt of the article Matta, Raúl. “Food Incursions into Global Heritage: Peruvian Cuisine’s Slippery Road to UNESCO.” Social Anthropology 24, 3(2016): 338-352.

Picture from a peruvian cooking television program ’La Aventura Culinaria’ in which Gastón Acurio is involved

An increasing number of strategies of cultural preservation acknowledge local particularities by including them in political and economic programmes. Recent research has demonstrated how governmental and private institutions work to stabilise, promote and manage the particularities of ’national’ foods and cuisines and the image of the countries themselves (Caldwell 2002; Karaosmanoglu 2007; Hiroko 2008; DeSoucey 2010). Food heritage emerges in this context.
Food heritage includes agricultural products, ingredients, dishes and cooking artefacts. It also comprises the symbolic dimension of food, techniques, recipes, eating practices and food-related behaviours and beliefs; and it extends to processes of selection, decontextualisation, adaptation and reinterpretation. It is therefore, a historical, cultural and social construction that combines ’conservation and innovation, stability and dynamism, reproduction and creation’ (Bessière 1998: 27). After the ratification of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (CSICH), nation-states for whom food was already relevant to their heritage and tourism began constructing narratives about their cuisines. The ’culinary candidatures’ to the ICH List led to UNESCO’s decision to interpret the CSICH to include food practices.

In Peru, it has never been a secret that the inclusion of Peruvian cuisine on the ICH List promises to increase its growing international prestige. Visibly, early formulations of food heritage attached great importance to international standing and market development rather than to principles of typicality and representativeness, which are more in line with UNESCO’s interpretation of intangible cultural heritage.
Food heritage awareness in Peru resulted from recent changes in Peru’s society and politics. Fifteen consecutive years of economic growth and opening-up increased purchasing power in the main cities, principally in the capital Lima. The arrival of global cultural patterns prompted processes of class differenciation through new tastes and consumption trends. In such a context, the interest in gastronomy, one expanding aspect of urban economies, became an instrument of choice for Peru to face the challenge of re-inventing itself within a world of nations.
Peruvian cuisine transcended the domestic culinary sphere by undergoing a process of rhetorical and technical development. This process is called the ’Peruvian gastronomic boom’ and should be considered to be the cornerstone of a strategic push by political and entrepreneurial sectors into the fields of heritage and public diplomacy. It configured Peruvian cuisine as a formal order to consolidate its prominence as a legitimate cultural field and a profitable activity.
Different actors take an active part in initiatives linking food cultures to development issues. Food heritage arose then as a prism reflecting a series of economic and development concerns with respect to the country’s future.

The first candidature to the ICH List: balancing cultural conservation and development
The first nomination file was instructed by the Division of Intangible Heritage of the Ministry of Culture. It mobilised its research staff, with an anthropology professor from the Universidad Catolica del Peru as the head of writing team. Despite not having previous research experience on food cultures, the professor was confirmed in her role due to former collaborations with UNESCO in matters of cultural heritage nominations. Yet, when the Ministry called for her expertise, she was not particularly willing to accept the task. She would have preferred not to be involved ’in the making of a technical dossier [which] would unavoidably culminate in an invention of traditions.’ The professor finally accepted the Ministry’s proposal.
With the aim of dispelling every form of ethical malaise, the writing team sought to introduce depth and complexity into the candidature’s statements. Several pages were produced to reflect both the dimension of the commonality of Peruvian cuisine and its role in the production of categories, hierarchies and social distinctions.
The main idea in the first version of the dossier suggests a search for balance between the valorisation strategies of Peruvian cuisine and the preservation of traditional features of local food cultures.
The dossier suggests that any emergent culinary trend or activity claiming to be derived from Peruvian food heritage must somehow be consonant with the existing cultural food patterns, as they are part of the living memory of the communities.
Finally, the expected enhancement of gastronomic activities via UNESCO recognition is also contemplated: the document argues that the rewards from the nomination should not only strengthen market mechanisms, but also enable intercultural dialogue with traditional farmers and contribute to food security.
The candidacy was, however, suspended. The reasons for the interruption were manifold: the debate on the suitability of culinary heritage at UNESCO had not yet concluded, according to the delegation’s preliminary report from 2008, the file was too anthropological and cultural in its orientation. The same report argued that the file contained many references to the internationalisation of upscale features of Peruvian cuisine, which could have been detrimental to the candidature. The delegation pointed out that the scope and contour of the element to be inscribed were not sufficiently delineated: Peruvian cuisine appeared like an ‘all-inclusive’ element difficult to be measured as representative of a group. The diplomatic delegation expected the focus to be on one specific food-related practice, knowledge or technique.

The second candidature: the conservation-through-development approach
Candidature resumed two years later, when the gastronomic boom was in full swing. On one hand, circumstances were favourable for promoting food cultures as a conveyor of meaning, identity and national imagery, thus providing new drive to the country’s cultural policy and diplomacy. On the other hand, the widespread infatuation with Peruvian cuisine would have taken attention away from heated debates about transgenic agriculture in Peru, for which Garcia’s neoliberal government was quite positive.
It was then that anthropologist Juan Ossio was named head of the Ministry of Culture, in 2010. He was seconded by journalist Bernardo Roca-Rey as Vice-Minister of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Industries. The Vice-Minister has long enjoyed a reputation as gastronome and cook, known for being creator of Novo Andean cuisine, a mix of Andean ingredients and European techniques. He is also founder of APEGA (the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy), a lobby and think-tank on food issues. It would definitely be fair to say that Roca-Rey had many credentials to run and promote the candidature project successfully.
The task of writing a new nomination file for inscription in 2012 was entrusted to members of the diplomatic delegation at UNESCO, while APEGA would act as consultant.
APEGA is a non-governmental organisation founded in 2007, which sees Peruvian food and foodways as vehicles for fostering national identity, social inclusion and economic development all across the country. Despite its goals, APEGA’s direction is only composed by top-down professionals, there are no representatives of peasant communities or of small-scale food traders. Closer inspection on the association’s statements reveals that it is primarily about promoting Peruvian cuisine internationally, attracting tourism and producing value-added food products grounded on alleged sustainable principles.

Far from initial demands of intercultural dialogue and inclusive development, Peruvian cuisine’s road to the ICH List finally favoured commitment to international markets. What is salient in the new stakeholders’ idea of heritage is the presence of a linear notion of ‘progress’ inseparable from distinctive performances in the global economy.

Actually, the UNESCO ICH Secretariat indicated in the application preliminary report the safeguarding measures appeared ‘overwhelmingly centred on the restaurant industry and on the mediatisation of popular chefs’. Second, the description of current efforts on safeguarding foodways and agricultural production was pointed out as having little relevance, as it was asked to provide information about the safeguarding plans that would require UNESCO support. Finally, the online campaign ‘Peruvian Cuisine to the World’ was regarded as irrelevant, as it ‘seems to be promoting a marketing and branding campaign for the Peruvian food industry’. The Secretariat invited the diplomatic delegation to revise the manuscript but so far a new version has not been submitted.

Ideological bias and decision-making based on favourable circumstances have diverted Peruvian food heritage’s focus from cultural diversity to sustainability strategies driven by market competition. Such an approach envisions the safeguarding of food heritage by means of mechanisms of reproduction framed within the logics of the commodity. The path of ’Peruvian cuisine’ to the UNESCO ICH List has indeed shown how cultural and anthropological concerns delineated in the first application vanished to leave room for developmentalist objectives. The initial willingness to recognise local and traditional food knowledge as the basis of Peruvian cuisine was replaced by a business-oriented programme aiming first at propelling Peruvian food into world-class gastronomic circuits, and then at selling it as cultural heritage.
Food heritage appears to be timely and challenging to the assessment of national understandings of global heritage and cultural policies, as the cultural dimensions of foodways may act as solid bridges between local and global benefits.
In the light of the foregoing evidence, it would be fair to say that the failure of the Peruvian cuisine nomination was basically due to the inability of stakeholders to abandon claims of outstanding value, rather than severity at the examination stage. Should, with a better-formulated argument, one hiding the real intentions of stakeholders, the listing of Peruvian cuisine in the ICH List have been successful?

Raúl Matta, researcher at the University of Göttingen, head of the DFG Project “Food as Heritage"


Bessière, J. 1998. ‘Local development and heritage: traditional food and cuisine as tourist attractions in rural areas’, Sociologia Ruralis 38: 21–34.

Caldwell, M. 2002. ‘The taste of nationalism: food politics in post-Socialist Moscow’, Ethnos 67: 295–319.

DeSoucey, M. 2010. ‘Gastronationalism: food traditions and authenticity politics in the European Union’, American Journal of Sociology 75: 432–55.

Hiroko, T. 2008. ‘Delicious food in a beautiful country: nationhood and nationalism in discourses on food in contemporary Japan’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 8: 5–30.

Karaosmanoğlu, D. 2007. ‘Surviving the global market: Turkish cuisine “under construction”’, Food, Culture and Society 10: 425–48.