Peruvian food is having its moment—and it’s been going on for several years now. Long enough for anyone who’s picked up a travel magazine or pondered visiting South America to catch on. And long enough for several Peruvian restaurants to gain international acclaim and start spreading to other capital cities.
Gaston’s La Mar now has a presence in New York City, and Central’s chef Martinez has opened a Peruvian restaurant called LIMA in London. Astrid y Gaston—the leader of the Peruvian culinary pack and ranked as the 14th best restaurant in the world—has a presence in capital cities across Latin America as well as in Madrid. Though Peru’s culinary genius thrives in various environments, its produce does not. The only proper way to experience Peru’s gastronomic greatness is at home, in Peru.
Eating in Peru is affordable, varied, and delicious—at all levels. Travelers can spend hours wandering through local markets (the ones in Arequipa and Cuzco are extensive), sit down at a local menu (a small restaurant that sells set meals with appetizer, main, and dessert), or make an event of dining out at gourmet establishments. And each experience will yield yummy insight into Peruvian culture.
Though we encourage you to explore and pick whatever appeals to you, to get your Peruvian culinary adventure started, here are a few suggestions of what to try when you're in Peru.
Snacks/Starters: Tiny Treats
The ultimate sweet Peruvian street snack is the picarone. Made from delicious sweet potato batter mixed with cinnamon and anise then looped and fried, picarones are topped with molasses syrup and served in sets.
This sounds yucky, but stay with us. Anticuchos are skewered bits of beef heart marinated and then cooked on the grill. The secret is the spiced marinade and how long the meat soaks before being cooked. This is a dish that dates back to Incan times. The texture takes some getting used to, but the flavor makes it worth the while.
Choclo y queso
If you’re a vegetarian traveling to some of Peru’s more remote regions, you will inevitably end up having a dinner of choclo y queso. This is a simple dish of boiled Andean corn, easily identified by its massive kernels, and a chuck of white cheese.
Peru is packed with fruits from the Andes and Amazon. A particularly delicious one is the cherimoya, also called the custard apple. Its tough outer skin is sliced open to reveal a soft, custard-like filling. Cherimoya has a complex tropical taste similar to what I image a pineapple-banana hybrid would taste like.
Peru has thousands of potato varieties and hundreds of ways to prepare them. Perhaps the most decadent is causa. Creamy potato patties sandwich a soft filling of mayonnaise mixed with items such as avocado or tuna. This dish is served cold.
Drinks - When You Need to Refresh
While in Peru, skip the Coca Cola and pick up an Inca Kola. This neon yellow beverage has been called Peru’s national beverage and has yet to gain such a faithful following elsewhere. The taste is similar to cream soda.
You will not leave Peru without being offered a pisco sour. Pisco is a strong grape brandy primarily produced in the Ica region. It’s classically mixed into a pisco sour with lime juice, egg whites, simple sugar, and Angostura bitters, however you should also try a coca or maracuya sour.
A non-alcohol drink, chicha morada is made from boiling purple corn with spices and sugar. It’s decadently sweet. If you’re feeling adventurous, try chicha. This is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented corn. It’s common in the Andes and has a very….unusual …taste.
Mains: Fill Up Your Plate
Fusion of Asian elements plays a large role in Peruvian cuisine. Lomo saltado is a sort of stir fry with a base of French fries topped with sautéed vegetables and beef. It’s usually served with a hearty portion of rice.
Aji de Gallina
Once you get over its yellow hue, aji de gallina is different and delicious. It consists of strips of chicken mixed into a sauce of yellow aji, evaporated milk, nuts, bread, and parmesan cheese and served with a scoop of rice.
Pollo a la brasa
It may look like a regular rotisserie chicken, but don’t tell that to a Peruvian. Pollo a la brasa is a go-to dish in Peru and you’re almost guaranteed to see at least one pollería on every street. The difference apparently comes from rotation cooking over wood fires with special seasonings. Regardless, it will be some of the best roasted chicken you’ve ever had, guaranteed.
Sandwiches are to Peru what hamburgers are to the US. Served on the street and in small sit down restaurants, Peruvian sandwiches are packed with meats, aji, and onion. It’s the easiest way to experiment with Peruvian flavors.
Chinese influence in Peru is most evident in the thousands of chifas (Chinese-Peruvian restaurants) adorning most street corners. Meat and vegetables are marinated in soy sauce and aji and served with the ever present portion of rice. It’s basically Chinese cooking with Peruvian substitutes.
The classic dish to try in Lima is ceviche. Best served fresh from the sea, locals prefer it for lunch rather than dinner. In its most basic form ceviche is raw pieces of white fish marinated in lime juice and seasoned with onions and aji. It’s served with a side of sweet potato and choclo.
Oh cuy. This rodent dinner has gained fame mainly because in English cuy is something we’re all familiar with: a guinea pig. In the Andes villagers keep pens of cuy similar to a coop of chicken. Cuy tend to be served fried or baked, but if you don’t want your dinner looking back at you, try it at a fancier restaurant where the meat is usually cooked and seasoned beyond recognition.
Quinoa is a pseudo-grain native to the Andes with exceptionally high nutrient properties. Vegetarians favor quinoa as a protein substitute. In Peru, quinoa is used in a variety of dishes, everything from desserts to soups. If you see it on the menu, try it.
Thanks to Jussi Savolainen for the title image of this blog.