When Miguel Aleman first arrived in Atlanta nearly three years ago, he already had a self-imposed mandate in mind.
If he accomplished nothing else while taking care of the 30,000 Peruvians across his six-state region, the consul general said, half-jokingly, that he would focus on one all-important metric: attracting an upscale Peruvian restaurant to metro Atlanta.
Three years into his posting, Mr. Aleman has found 12 local establishments offering a selection of Peruvian flavors, but none that fully embody the South American nation’s culinary emergence.
“The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” in London says three on its list serve Peruvian fare. Mr. Aleman added one more:
“Three are in Lima and one is in London but called ‘Lima,’” he said during one of Global Atlanta’s monthly Consular Conversations at the law offices of Miller & Martin PLLC.
Now, he said, travelers are coming to Peru not just to satisfy their thirst for adventure at the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, but to sate their hunger at a widening array of restaurants in Lima, he said.
Maido and Central in the capital city were ranked No. 8 and No. 5 in the world, respectively, in the latest “World’s 50” list. Astrid y Gaston, which sits at No. 33, has even been expanding with branches in other Latin American capitals. Its namesake proprietor, Gaston Acurio, has helped popularize the delectable diversity of Peru’s cuisine, refining it with a European commitment to craft.
“Everybody’s mixed a little in Peru.” -Consul General Miguel Aleman
He’s one of many homegrown chefs helping break new ground for Peru, some of whom were interviewed by Global Atlanta during a 2015 visit to Mistura, a two-week food fair that each year draws more than 200,000 hungry travelers to Lima from all over the world.
Mr. Aleman becomes animated when describing how food has become an entree for his country’s soft-power efforts around the world. He’s pushing for Atlantans to visit Lima for Mistura, which begins Oct. 26. (Disclosure: Peru is advertising the festival with Global Atlanta.)
“Food in Peru is part of the identity, our culture, our life, our history,” he said. “Peru is a melting pot. We come from all around the world. We are descendants of the Incas, we are from Europe, Asia, China, Japan and some of us are from Africa. Everybody’s mixed a little in Peru.”
About a tenth of Peruvians have Chinese blood, he said, and the country of 31 million people has one of the largest ethnic Japanese populations outside of Japan. (In last year’s presidential race, Fujimori ran against Kuczynski, who won.)
Divergent origins melded together in Peru, a former Spanish colony, to create fusions that have become categories in their own right. Chinese-Peruvian is known as Chifa; indigenous ingredients prepared in Japanese style constitute Nikkei. There’s even Bachiche — a word for Italian-Peruvian.
Besides its people, Peru also boasts geographical diversity that has contributed to the country’s rich food heritage. From the Andean highlands to the coastal Ica desert to the Amazon rainforests in the northeast, the environment is marked by distinct microclimates. And converging currents in the Pacific make it a fertile fishing area. (Great ceviche is one happy result.)
An Agricultural Tradition
While upscale techniques may be relatively new, the raw materials for great cuisine have been in Peru for millennia.
“When you go to a Peruvian supermarket, you have a festival of colors,” said Mr. Aleman, pointing to 4,500 native species of potato, including 500 different kinds of sweet potato. Peru is also (possibly) the birthplace of corn and cacao, though the exact origins of both are up for debate.
What Peruvians won’t debate is their national brandy, pisco, which is a source of patriotic passion that drives a rivalry with neighboring Chile, which also claims the liquor made from distilled fermented grape juice.
Mr. Aleman, who at one point stationed at the Peruvian embassy in Santiago, Chile, said the countries also compete on farm trade. Both nations have free-trade agreements with the United States and a posture of openness with the world.
Peru sits behind Chile as the No. 2 exporter of grapes to China. Peru’s No. 4 in blueberry exports around the world, and it sends large amounts of asparagus and other produce to the United States in commercial jets and dedicated freighters alike. Poultry’s also a big sector, and nearly 100 delegates descend on Atlanta every January for the International Production and Processing Expo, known as the “poultry show.”
But Mr. Aleman points to another achievement as proof of Peru’s arrival as an “agricultural powerhouse.”
“Now we are selling avocados to Mexico; it’s like selling bread to the baker,” Mr. Aleman said.
Peru’s trade prowess is rooted in its history, with the port of Callao outside Lima having operated as an early conduit for goods shipped out of the Spanish viceroyalty. Now, the country has a range of bilateral investment treaties that help underpin free-trade pacts covering 50-plus countries.
Peru is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal trying to find a path ahead after the departure of the United States, its driving force. It’s also party to the Pacific Alliance, a commercial bloc with Chile, Colombia and Mexico.
Openness has been one constant in a Peruvian growth story that has emerged over the last two decades after a period of upheaval. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Shining Path’s Maoist insurgency terrorized the population and held hostage the economy.
After getting past a resurgence of violence in the early 2000s, Peru has been posting much higher growth rates and has been more successful in attracting foreign investment.
Gap Year in the Eastern Bloc
Mr. Aleman was no stranger to communism. He’d seen its waning days in the Soviet Union as a young traveler taking a sabbatical that might now be called a “gap year.” He visited Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. Just 10 days after he left East Berlin, the wall came crumbling down.
“I thought to myself, ‘The whole international system is changing,’” he said, noting that the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 had already happened that June. “It was a symbolic year for the world.”
All this solidified a journey toward diplomacy Mr. Aleman traces partly back to his parents giving him world history books one Christmas when he was 7. Though he would become a lawyer, he eventually knew he’d join the foreign service.
He would later serve in Beijing, a former Soviet ally aiming to flesh out its own views on blending communism with capitalism. He had a brief stop in consulate in Hong Kong in 2000. Other postings include five years in Chile (2006-11) and multiple stints back in Lima.
Mr. Aleman has been posted in Atlanta since August 2014, making him the second longest-serving diplomat in Atlanta behind Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, consul general of the United Kingdom, who was recently named dean of the Atlanta Consular Corps.
Mr. Aleman was also on hand during the recent visit to Atlanta of the Peruvian ambassador to the United States. Carlos Pareja met with business leaders at the Commerce Club Oct. 5.
Read more about Mistura and how Peru is using food for an agent of social inclusion here: Globally Acclaimed Peruvian Chefs Inspire Upward Social Mobility