One thing Peruvians are undeniably proud of is their food. Peru’s biodiversity offers the country with a generous and varied amount of fresh ingredients. These include a range of seafood, sweet corn, ajíes (peppers) and tubers—of the 3,000 varieties of potatoes documented in Peru, only 40 are eaten—exotic fruits, succulent river fish, palm hearts, and wild game.
The Spanish conquest of Peru brought together two great culinary cultures of the 16th century: the Mediterranean cooking techniques and the Andean ingredients. When Pizarro’s men landed in Peru, they had their first taste of corn, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, peanuts, alpaca meat, and blistering ají peppers. The Spaniards brought olive oil, lime, and garlic to the table and shortly thereafter created a local supply of lamb, beef, pork, wheat, rice, and sugar.
Things got even more complex with the arrival of Africans and North African Arabs during the viceroyalty, Chinese coolies in the mid-19th century, and successive waves of Italian and Japanese immigrants. Such a succulent mix in the pot created a bewildering range of dishes and entire subsets of Peruvian cuisine, such as chifa, a mixture of Cantonese and local criollo cooking.
Peruvian cuisine is still evolving and is difficult to classify into pat categories. Because Peruvian cooks work only with ingredients at hand, there do tend to be styles of Peruvian cooking separated by geography. Here are some highlights you should not miss.
Peru’s coast is known for comida criolla or creole cuisine, which is based mainly on a huge range of seafood, including corvina (sea bass), lenguado (sole), cangrejo (crab), camarones (freshwater shrimp), calamar (squid), choros (mussels), and conchas negras (black scallops).
One of the more famous dishes is cebiche: chunks of raw fish marinated in lime juice, spiced with ají, and served with sliced red onions, slices of sweet potato, and choclo (boiled maize kernels) or cancha (roasted maize kernels). A delicious variation of cebiche is tiradito, which can be easily explained as a fish carpaccio topped with a ají and rocoto sauce over the cuts. Fish fillets can be served in a variety of ways, including sudado (steamed), a la chorillana (basted with onion, tomato, and white wine) or a lo macho (fried with yellow peppers or ají amarillo).
Other comida criolla favorites are anticuchos, grilled beef-heart brochettes served with a wonderful assortment of spicy sauces. Papa rellena is mashed potato stuffed with meat, vegetables, onions, olives, boiled eggs, and raisins and then fried. Papa a la Huancaína is a cold appetizer of potatoes smothered in a spicy sauce made from Andean cheese, milk, crackers, and ají amarillo. Another popular dish of Asian influence (some say now that it actually has French influence) is the richly-flavored lomo saltado, made with strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onions, ají amarillo, and fries made of (preferably but not only) yellow potato. This dish can be found, literally, in any corner of Peru.
Sopa a la criolla is a cream soup made up of a mildly spicy concoction of noodles, beef, milk, and peppers with a fried egg on top. If you are in the mood for chifa, which you can have anywhere in Peru, try tallarín saltado, which is noodles spiced with ginger, soy sauce, green onions, bok choy, and any kind of meat, including beef or chicken or shrimp, depending on what kind you order. To drink, try a pitcher of chicha morada, a delicious juice made from purple corn mixed with clove, cinnamon, and lime juice.
Arequipa is well known for its robust, generous, and spicy food. Chupe de camarones is a cream-based soup with potatoes, milk, eggs, and lima beans, and laden with succulent sea shrimp. Rocoto relleno is another emblematic dish consisting of a bell pepper–like chili, stuffed with meat, chopped onions, raisins, and black olives and then baked with a cheese topping. Ocopa is made of a spicy peanut sauce with huacatay (black mint) served over slices of boiled potatoes and garnished with eggs and black olives.
In the north, between Trujillo and Piura, some specialties are seco de cabrito, which is roasted goat marinated with chicha de jora, corn beer, and coriander, served with rice, and arroz con pato, which is duck stewed in black beer with spices and coriander, served with green rice.
Peru’s Andean cuisine stands out for a range of meats, choclos, high-altitude grains such as kiwicha and quinoa, and a huge variety of more than 200 edible tubers, including potatoes, freeze-dried chuño (actually dehydrated potatoes), and tubers like olluco and oca. The high point of mountain cooking is pachamanca, which means “earth oven” in Quechua and consists of a variety of meats, tubers, corn, beans, and native herbs roasted underground with red-hot rocks. Andean restaurants often serve trucha, which is fried mountain trout, and cuy (guinea pig), either roasted (in Cusco), stewed (in Huaraz), or fried (in Arequipa).
Soups and broths are widely consumed in the highlands at any time of the day but especially during the early morning. Lamb, beef, hen, or certain parts of these animals are all good to make a tasty broth. For vegetarians a good option is sopa de quinua, made with potatoes and quinoa grains. Lastly, make sure to sample choclo con queso, which is an ear of steamed corn with a strip of Andean cheese. Gulp it all down with chicha de jora, corn beer that can be fresco (fresh) or fermented.
In the Amazon jungle, you will have a whole new type of cuisine to sample. At the top of the list are the roasted fillets of succulent jungle fish, including paiche, doncella, and dorado. Patarashca is fish fillets wrapped in banana leaves and seasoned with spices before being baked over coals. There is also paca fish steamed inside a bamboo tube. Iquitos is famous for juanes, a rice tamale stuffed with spices, chicken, and rice. A common game meat is majá, also called picuro, which is a medium-sized rodent that can be grilled, stewed, or fried.
If you tried chicha in the highlands, you have to try masato in the jungle, which is an alcoholic drink made from fermented yuca. Most of the jungle dishes are garnished with palm heart, which is often cut into piles of paper-thin ribbons, or plátanos verdes (green plantains).
Did we mention dessert? On the coast, you can try suspiro a la limeña, a sweet custard topped with meringue and vanilla, and mazamorra morada, a purple pudding made from corn and potato flour mixed with clove, cinnamon, and fresh fruit. Peru’s exotic fruits make incredible desserts with flavors that can be shocking to a North American or European palate. Lúcuma, or eggfruit, is a small fruit with a dark peach color and a rich, smoky flavor, often made into pies or ice creams, as is maracuyá (passionfruit). Chirimoya (custard apple) is so exquisitely sweet that it is often served on its own as chirimoya alegre. Other delicious fruits such as granadilla (another type of passionfruit), guayaba (guava), tuna (prickly pear fruit from cacti), and guanábana are made into delicious juices—or try a few slices of papaya sprinkled with lime juice and powdered cinnamon.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition