By Mike Gasparovic
“¡Oye, maestro, más chancho rapidito!”
The barked order comes from a grill cook in a ten-gallon Stetson and surgical mask to protect against the spicy smoke billowing from the coals. Before him, a massive contraption with 12 revolving gridirons, spluttering with grease. Busy basters are brushing the chancho al palo (pork on a skewer) with extra marinade, while the hair-netted ticket girl roars, “boletos, boletos,” herding the pack 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, surprised the 420,000 chow hounds in attendance for being a model of logistical efficiency. The lines at the kiosks were shorter than in past years, the security tighter—all this apart from the incredible edibles themselves.
The upshot? If you’re in Peru around Labor Day, you have a chance not only to sample on a massive scale a cuisine widely regarded as one of the world’s best, but to do so in a relaxed, orderly setting. Tranquilo, as Peruvians like to say.
A Recipe for Success
Gastón Acurio likes to think globally.
Today Peru’s top chef is world-renowned, the closest thing the culinary industry has to a rock star. But back in 2005, he was just a man with a string of popular restaurants—and an idea. Peruvian food, he’d noticed, was a hit. A big hit. Not just among his countrymen, but among foreign visitors as well. 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? Would it be possible, via such an event, to promote all the links in the alimentary supply chain—farmers, fishermen, and small artisans, no less than the cuisiniers themselves?
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 fair quickly became a must-attend for the food business. From just 15,000 attendees in 2008, it snowballed to 500,000 in 2013. Presidents started showing up. International figures like Ferrán Adriá were on the guest list.
Today the festival has become so popular, among industry mavens and hungry commoners both, that it’s outgrown downtown Lima altogether. In 2013, organizers cognizant of Peruvians’ growing mania for the weeklong shindig decided to transplant Mistura to its current home, a 25-acre strip of beach in the seaside community of Magdalena del Mar. Total revenues from that year: $11 million.
Acurio’s inspiration, it would appear, was a recipe for success.
Worlds of Food
When you go to Mistura, you’ll find yourself tempted by booths representing eateries from all over Peru. These booths are divided into clusters or “worlds”—Seafood World, World of Desserts, World of the Andes, World of Breads—with each restaurant submitting three or four signature platos for your delectation.
Last year’s World of the Amazon, for instance, featured as one of its standouts a spectacular tacu-tacu de frijoles negros ucayalinos, a fried slab of mixed rice and beans topped with pork. The proud creator was El Pichito, an emporium specializing in jungle fare. 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 lovely about the festival’s system is that you can sample small-plate portions of many delicacies without emptying your wallet. After dropping the $9 entrance fee, you buy tickets and spend them as you go. Cost of a typical dish: about $5.
Farm to Table
No less popular than Mistura’s restaurant stalls is “El Gran Mercado.” Here, under spreading tents covering nearly an acre, Acurio’s dream of providing a forum for small artisans and wholesalers has become a reality.
In the mercado 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.
For these suppliers, what the festival offers is a chance to network on a grand scale, not just with the public, but with the distributors and restaurant owners who scout the fair for new products. In a single day, they may buy anything from brown-sugar honey to artisanal fudge to purple potatoes to every conceivable variety of quinoa.
The links so abundantly apparent here between farm and table 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.”
Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, providers of gastronomic and other personalized tours all over Peru.
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