Peru’s Great Banquet: Chowing Down At Lima’s Mistura

Mistura Gastronomic Festival, Lima, Peru
Mistura Gastronomic Festival (Photo Credit: Mistura)

¡Oye, maestro, más chancho rapidito!

The cook’s face gleams with sweat as he barks the order to the runner hauling slabs of raw pork to the grill. Spicy smoke rises from the coals, blackening the awning. The line cooks scramble to dish up plates of salad to await the chancho al palo (pork on a skewer), while the ticket girl shrills, “boletos, boletos,” hurrying the line of customers along.

Multiply this insanity times 240 food providers, throw in 40,000 hungry foodies from 18 countries, then multiply all that by ten days, and you have some idea of the enormity of the feeding frenzy that is Mistura—Lima’s annual gastronomic festival, and the largest in all of Latin America.

Unaccountably, it all somehow works. Mistura 2014, last year’s version of the fair, was widely praised by the 420,000 chow hounds in attendance for its orderliness, security, and short lines at the kiosks—to say nothing of the incredible edibles themselves.

The upshot is that Mistura represents not just a chance to sample the bounteous plenty of a cuisine widely regarded as one of the world’s best, but a place to do so in a relaxed, casual setting. Tranquilo, as Peruvians like to say.

Here’s a rundown on this wildly popular Lima culinary blowout. Nota bene: This year’s Mistura runs September 4 to 13. Mark your calendar.

Mistura Gastronomic Festival, Lima, Peru
Mistura Gastronomic Festival (Photo Credit: Mistura)

A Recipe for Success

Sometime around 2005, Gastón Acurio had an inspiration.

Today Peru’s top chef is world famous, one of the superstars of the global food industry.  But back then he was just a man toying with a possibility.  According to surveys he’d read, Peruvians were extraordinarily proud of their country’s gastronomic wealth.  Foreign visitors also raved about it.  What if Lima’s restaurateurs were to put on a food expo, complete with how-to workshops, aimed at turning comestibles into a major industry?  Such a fair would bolster Peruvians’ pride in their heritage while simultaneously teaching them how to take that heritage to the bank.

Thus was born Mistura, or as it was called back then, Peru, Mucho Gusto.  Organized by Acurio and his associates at Apega—the Peruvian Gastronomy Society—the first, 2008 incarnation of the festival was an intimate affair, drawing just 15,000 attendees.  Nonetheless the variety of foodstuffs on display and the talks given by cuisiniers from around the world made one thing abundantly clear: Peru’s eats were potentially big business.

From there the project snowballed.  First to 100,000 visitors, then 200,000, then 500,000.  Presidents started showing up.  International figures like Ferrán Adriá were on the guest list.

The swelling numbers caused the fair to change locales: first from quiet Miraflores to the Parque de la Exposición in downtown Lima, then to its current home, a 25-acre strip of beach in the seaside community of Magdalena del Mar.  Total revenues from last year: $13 million.

Acurio’s inspiration, it would appear, was a recipe for success.

Mistura Gastronomic Festival, Mundo Amazónico
Mistura, Mundo Amazónico (Photo Credit: Mistura)

Worlds of Food

Alimentary aficionados today can savor the results.  When you go to Mistura, you’re tempted by booths representing eateries from all over Peru.  These booths are divided into clusters or “worlds”—Creole World, Seafood World, World of Desserts, World of the Amazon—with each restaurant submitting three or four of its signature platos for your delectation.

Last year’s World of the North Coast, for instance, featured as one of its standouts a spectacular atamalado de mariscos, a creamy seafood stew over spicy rice from the Lima cebichería Donde Peruco.  Meanwhile, in the World of anticuchos (grilled meat kebabs), the venerable Lima institution Doña Julia dished up cancacho, a dish typical of the Andean city of Puno consisting of lamb marinated in black beer and roasted on a spit.

What’s inspired about the festival’s system is that you can sample small-plate portions of many disparate cuisines without emptying your wallet.  After dropping the $9 entrance fee, you buy tickets and spend them as you go.  Each dish runs about $5.

Mistura Gastronomic Festival, Lima, Peru
Mistura Gastronomic Festival (Photo Credit: Mistura)

Farm to Table

When Acurio cooked up the idea of Mistura, he wasn’t thinking just in terms of restaurateurs.  Rather, he aimed to promote all the links in the wholesale-retail food chain, from the farms and fisheries of Peru’s highlands and coast to the small artisans that dot its regional towns.

Today these vendors too have their place at the Mistura table, in the spreading tents of “El Gran Mercado.”  There they traffic in everything from brown-sugar honey to artisanal fudge to purple potatoes to every conceivable variety of quinoa.

Here you’ll find ashaninka and shipiba cacao growers sharing stalls with bowler-hatted Quechua women stirring massive tubs of spicy bean stew.  Bakers of specialty breads from the Andes rub elbows with sellers of organic manjar blanco, Peru’s version of dulce de leche.

More than anything else, the festival offers these providers a rare chance to network, not just with the public that wanders the stalls, but with the distributors and restaurant owners who scout the fair for new opportunities.

The links so abundantly apparent here between farmers, wholesalers, and cooks are just one example of Mistura’s unifying influence.  In a country that historically has been riven by deep geographical and racial divides, food offers Peruvians a chance to come together.

Acurio says it best: “We can bring all Peruvians together with a single anticucho.”

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