In an article in January 2004, The Economist magazine reported that Peru could “lay claim to one of the world’s dozen or so great cuisines”. It truly is the last great international cuisine that has yet to be discovered on a worldwide scale. That is slowly changing though. Many upscale restaurants in places like New York and LA, with world-class chefs, are slowly integrating dishes like ceviche and anticuchos in their menu. In Honolulu or Dubai, you can try tiradito at Nobu if that tells you anything.
There are many aspects that make Peruvian food so dynamic. First, the level of diversity that exists within the countries landscape. So many different fruits, vegetables, animals, and fish are found here, that the plate easily becomes canvas for some of the countries greatest artists. Second, the level of cultural diversity here and their willingness to adapt to new flavors. Let alone the Incas, who ruled over an array of cultures themselves, but came along the Spanish, African slaves, the Chinese, Japanese, and Italians. Many dishes are derived from blending ingredients and techniques of these immigrants to whatever at the time was a local recipe. The cuisine is always reinventing itself. It can be spicy, or just spiced up with some aji, or pepper sauce. It can be fried and fatty, fruity and creamy, light or even raw. It truly is one of the most diverse cuisines on the planet.
Lima is being hailed as the gastronomic capital of the continent, and possibly of the Americas. Many internationally trained chefs are coming to Lima to open new restaurants that delight even the most sophisticated diners. Cuzco is next in line. A decade ago international visitors had trouble finding good places to eat. Now, they have trouble choosing a restaurant. Some of the best in the country can be found here. Each year a few more open up that completely redefine dining out in Cuzco.
Elsewhere, there is Arequipa which lays claim to a cuisine almost of its own, Iquitos with its dishes derived from jungle plants and animals, Cajamarca with its cheeses and highland delicacies, Chiclayo with its sweets, Ica with its wine and Pisco, etc. Each place is home to its own regional recipes and ingredients.
Did you know? More than 4,000 varieties of potatoes are thought to have originated in Peru, although many of them have disappeared.
The Andes: The potato is the biggest contribution to the new world by the Inca. Entire countries rely now rely on it for their well being. It is hard to imagine that a few hundred years ago the crop was limited to Peru. When the Spanish arrived the Inca had already domesticated more than 1000 varieties. Papa a la Huancaina is perhaps the most popular potato based dish. Created in Huancayo, although it is served throughout the country. The creamy sauce is made of cheese, onion, garlic, and most importantly aji, which gives it a slight zing.
Many Incan recipes have been unchanged for 500 years. Carapulca and pachamanca are the most notable. Carapulca originally was made with dried meat and potatoes, sometimes with rabbit. It is a hearty stew and is often found in a clay pot at many potlucks and feasts. Pachamanca is usually a part of big Andean feasts. The recipe calls for a hole to be dug in the ground where a fire is set and covered by large stones. A variety of meats wrapped in small leaves and potatoes, corn and beans are thrown in the pit and then covered with dirt. Hours later everyone grabs pieces of the food with their hands. Often a creamy sauce is poured over the food, sometimes right in your hand.
The most famous, or infamous, meats, depending on whom you ask, are Alpaca and Cuy. Each are prepared in a variety of ways. Alpaca sometimes is served as a steak or as medallions. Cuy is often served al horno, or baked, as well as fried. Picante de Cuy is cuy served in a spicy sauce with potatoes. As you might expect, cuy tastes a bit like chicken. It is best eaten by grabbing it on each end, and gnawing on it like an ear of corn. If you are paying less than say, 15 soles for it (this goes for larger cities, not necessarily small highland towns) there is a good chance it is a rat.
Quinoa, a 3,000-year-old grain, used frequently in the Andes has made it onto tables and health food stores in North America for its numerous health benefits. It is low in carbs, high in protein, and contains each of the eight essential amino acids. It can be used in soups, salads, pudding, or risotto and is frequently used in Novo Andina, or New Andean recipes.
Criollo Dishes: When the Spanish arrived to the country they introduced a variety of cooking techniques and ingredients to Peru. During the three centuries of the Vice Royalty they had a lasting affect on Peruvian food. They introduced olives, grapes, dairy, beef, chicken, and rice. The combination of both native and Spanish cooking. Dishes such as Aji de Gallina and Papa a la Huancaina, which mix chilies, cheese, and milk for their sauces, are perfect examples of how new dishes came to be and became mainstays in Peruvian households.
Other criollo dishes are influenced by other cultures as well. Afro-Peruvian created two of the most popular dishes in the country: Tacu-tacu and anti-cuchos. Tacu-Tacu was once made with leftover seasoned beans and rice, and fried together for a nutritious meal. The general recipe today calls for a fried egg on top and plantain on the side. Anti-cuchos are kebabed beef hearts that are grilled on small charcoal grills in city streets. Novo-Andina recipes often have chicken or fish on the skewer instead. The most typical Chinese Peruvian fusion dish is lomo saltado. This dish stir-fries strips of steak, French fries, tomatoes, and onions over white rice.
Causa is a popular appetizer found along the coast. It comprises layers of mashed yellow potatoes with many possible fillings such as avocados and seafood. Cabrito, or goat is used in many northern dishes such as seco de cabrito, a kid goat stew. Papa rellenas are potato croquettes stuffed with meat, olives, and cheese or other various ingredients. The butifarra is the most common sandwich and can be found during afternoon tea, for snacks, and in a variety of sizes. A white bun is filled with spiced country ham, onions, and salsa.
Tip: Salsa in Peru is not the tomato-based salsa you find in Mexican restaurants in the United States, rather the term applies to all sauces.
The Amazon: Jungle food can be interesting or just plain bland. I spent nearly two weeks with a mestizo family along the Rio Napo and they ate nearly the same thing for nearly every meal: fried plantains or yucca, a fried egg, and a huge pile of white rice. Occasionally there would be soup, a fried fish, or a few very small chunks of beef. That is the most typical. Juanes are steamed corn meal wrapped in banana leaves much like a tamale and are often filled with chicken, rice, olives, and raisins. Yuca, is often served fried, or frita, as an alternative to French fries. Paiche, the world’s largest freshwater fish is found on most Iquitos menus either as a sandwich, filet, or in ceviche. Alligator (lagarto or caiman) is also found in Iquitos in a variety of preparations. There are many interesting dishes to be found if you look for them such as turtle soup (sopa de motelo), sajino (roasted wild boar), or even tapir. Keep in mind that some species are endangered, including many species of turtle. If you go to the Belen market you will find skewered grubs that are grilled in front of you, among other strange creatures.
Seafood: The Peruvian coast is home to a variety of fish and sea life that have greatly contributed to the cuisine. Meat was actually considered more refined to eat in Peru until the past century when Japanese immigrants began arriving. The Nisei cooks recreated the use of pescado and mariscos, fish and seafood, in Peru. They were the ones who brought ceviche and tiradito up to more modern standards. Some of the names you will encounter: lenguado (sole), langosta (lobster), chorros (mussels), conchitas (scallops), camarones (shrimp), langostinos (prawns), cangrejo (crab), corvine (sea bass), lenguado (flounder), pulpo (octopus), calamar (squid), raya (manta ray), and trucha (trout).
Ceviche is Peru’s most famous dish and has been around in some form for centuries, for instance the Incas ate fish marinated in chichi. Today you can find some variation of it in every part of the country. The dish is fairly simple to make. It uses just a five main ingredients: fish, lime, salt, onion and aji. Yucca, sweet potatoes, and corn usually accompany it. It is raw, however, it isn’t raw in the way that sushi is raw. A chemical reaction takes place when the fish is put in the lime juice and it cooks the fish. The juice (leche de tigre) left at the end is thought to cure hangovers and a spoon is usually served so you can slirp it up before you finish. Classic ceviche uses a white fish, usually sea bass. It can be made with shrimp, mixto (with a variety of seafoods), erotico (with conch), or in several other variations. It is made in Ecuador too, however, the recipe is quite different and is served more as a soup and much greasier. Ceviche can also be made using duck (pato) or mushrooms (champinoñes). It is often eaten in the mornings after a night of drinking (it is thought to cure hangovers) or for lunch.
Tiradito is the younger cousin of ceviche. It is cooked in lime like ceviche; however, the fish is cut into thinner strips and does not use onions. The most modern variations come from this dish and it can be served in a variety of sauces, usually containing aji.
Street Food: In Peru, eating in the street is commonplace, particularly in the highlands. Food can be found everywhere. Much of it is fried or boiled, so it is generally safe to eat. If you have a weak stomach, however, you may want to hold off. Humitas are steamed ground corn with aji and cheese wrapped in a banana leaf (which you don’t eat) and can be either sweet or salty. When the Spanish came along they added fillings such as chicken, cilantro, egg, and chickpeas and called the recipe tamales. Either can be found in a large covered woven basket on street sides, often near bus stops or terminals. Empanadas, kind of like an English pasty, are small pastries filled with meat and potatoes. They are cheap, usually 1 sole or less, and make a great snack to hold you over or to take hiking. Choclo con queso, or corn on the cob with cheese, is common in much of the highlands. Juanes are big in Iquitos. Anticuchos are found nearly everywhere.
As for sweets, try Mazamorra Morada. It is a jelly-like dessert made from purple corn and found in most parts of the country. There is one stand set up on Plaza San Blas in Cuzco on most nights. Picarones, or pumpkin donuts, are fried right in the street. Churros are fried sugary donut sticks that are often filled with cream or manjarblanco. Also, you will often find simple burger or French fry stands.
Fruits & Vegetables: With so much bio-diversity, you would expect a wide variety of fruits and veggies. In the Andes potatoes and chilies; the coast is home to many fruits such as mangoes and limes; coastal plantations grow avocados, asparagus; and the Amazon bananas and yucca. This is just the mouth of the Amazon. A quick run through:
Limes, or limones, are often used in a variety of dishes including ceviche. The Peruvian lime is similar to the key lime in nature. Other fruits include Maracuya (passionfruit), bananas, pineapples, mangoes, and papayas. A few fruits found in few other places are Chirimoya and Lucuma, which are used in desserts and ice creams. Also the aguaymanto, or the Cape Gooseberry, which is native to the Andes.
As for vegetables, other than the potato, there are Platanos (Plantains), Yuca (manioc), Camote (sweet potato), Choclo (corn), Aceituna (olives), Zapallo (pumpkin), Palta (advocado), and Alcachofa (artichoke). Make sure vegetables and fruits are washed in clean water. With almost all tourist restaurants you won’t need to ask, but just be wary if buying something street side, as the water is not often clean.
Vegetarians: Vegetarianism isn’t wildly popular in Peru, but it is present. The best vegetarian restaurants are found in cities such as Lima and Cuzco, while many other tourist driven towns will have one restaurant or two. Try the Govinda chain, which has a large menu and is found in most cities. There are also many, many fresh juice stands throughout the country. Many Chinese restaurants also have a variety of vegetarian dishes.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.