By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Lima
Food cuts across all social, racial and geographical barriers
Rich or poor, Peruvians pride themselves on eating well. Fast food is frowned upon and a poorly-prepared platter is seldom tolerated.
Strange in a country where a quarter of children still suffer from malnutrition but Peru's sharp inequality is one of its many paradoxes. It is one of the 10 countries in the world classed as 'mega-diverse' in terms of its biodiversity, which means in nutritional terms it is rich beyond measure.
The Andes holds dozens of unique grains, roots and vegetables. It is the birthplace of the potato, with around 3,000 varieties.
The Peruvian Amazon is sparsely populated but a whole new world of flora and fauna. You can find caiman (a type of crocodile) on the menu here and an enormous freshwater fish, the paiche. Plaintains, peccaries (a type of wild pig) and dozens of unusual fruits make up the cuisine.
Peru's coast has probably the richest fishing grounds in the world thanks to the cold water Humboldt Current which sweeps up the western side of South America from Antarctica.
Gaston Acurio is Peru's number one celebrity chef
While chronic overfishing has left much of the rest of the world's oceans with dwindling fish stocks, Peru's sea is still bountiful. It has 80% of the world's biomass of anchovies near the bottom of a thriving food chain of marine fauna.
Fishmeal exports are one of the principal pillars of the economy. But now it is the food business which could be propping up Peru's strong economic growth as the financial crisis hits commodity prices and the country's extractive industries.
One study by a Peruvian company, Arellano Marketing, predicts that the food business will make up about 11% of Peru's predicted GDP in 2009.
'Story of conquest'
And it's just the beginning, says Gaston Acurio, a celebrity chef and household name in Peru. He is the man with the Midas touch in all things culinary and he aims to make Peruvian cuisine as international as Chinese, Thai and Mexican.
He already has restaurants outside Latin America with La Mar, a seafood restaurant in San Francisco, and he plans to break into New York to really move into the gastronomic fast lane.
Ceviche is Peru's flagship dish
It is Peru's flagship dish of raw fish marinated with Peruvian limes and chillies - ceviche - which will "make the world discover the other Peruvian dishes, just as the Italians did with pasta and pizza and the Japanese did with sushi", says Mr Acurio.
"We are going to start telling our story with ceviche. It's a story of conquest," he explains.
"Our story is one of a third world country. For the first time a Peruvian invention - our food - is seducing the world, so that's like liberation for us."
For Mr Acurio, Peruvian food reflects a perfect blend of all its cultures and races, added to over time by waves of immigration.
"Like an orchestra with a lot of instruments, all our bloods are like a perfect melody," he says.
La Mistura, or the mixture, is a gastronomic festival organised by the Peruvian Gastronomic Society, or Apega, of which he is president. Hosted in Lima's Parque de Exposicion, or Exhibition Park, it has dozens of food outlets and aims to play host to 200,000 people over four days.
Food is culture in Peru and all its regional varieties are celebrated
The event began with a speech by Peru's president, Alan Garcia, who spoke of Peruvians' self-esteem and pride in their national cuisine. A confidence boost for a nation which won't qualify for the 2010 Football World Cup.
The government has passed a decree declaring that food is part of the nation's heritage and contributes to the "consolidation of national identity". And that identification seems to be a tangible economic force as the restaurant sector is still growing despite the global financial crisis.
"Peruvian cooking is terrific, it's now just a question of doing what the Japanese have done," says Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist and author.
"It's not just a question of the quality. It's a question of how you patent it, brand it, capitalise it and finance it."
Chef schools are opening up across the country, with more than 6,000 students now studying haute cuisine but with Peruvian ingredients.
"If someone tells you their son is a chef, they say it with great pride so obviously cooking has gone up in the esteem of Peruvians," says Mr de Soto.
Being a chef is something to be proud of
"I think I'd rather my son was a chef in this country than a congressman."
To be a chef also means creating opportunities for those who don't have them in Peru, says Gaston Acurio. As the gastronomy business grows so, in turn, will the demand for quality Peruvian produce, be it coffee, red onions or native potatoes, bought for a fair price from a small farmer.
"Food must be a space to break down the barriers and prejudices in our country," explains Mr Acurio.
"If we can be a vehicle for that then our work is justified. We should because food and hunger are not compatible.
"As Peruvian cooks we need to be proud not only of our food but to be proud of what we build in our country too."