Peru is well-known for its diversified cuisine that has recently aroused international enthusiasm. What makes Peruvian gastronomy so rich is its extreme variety: between seafood on the coast, “heavy” mountain dishes in the Andes’ area and tropical flavors in the Amazon jungle: a huge number of discoveries is there for you!
The country’s so contrasted geography and climates are the habitat of an incredible biodiversity. Peru would shelter as much as 84 of the 117 natural areas of the world. And this biodiversity results in a wide variety of food products. The potato’s example is edifying: being the birthplace of this tuber, the country has nearly 2,000 different kinds of potatoes (whereas in a large consuming country like Belgium there are barely a few varieties). Other typical Andean products are Quinoa, Kiwicha, Olluco and Camote (sweet potato). In addition, you’ll find a wide range of tropical fruits, some of which (such as Lucuma) are only found in this part of the world.
Fresh and high-quality ingredients are one of the keys to explain the success of Peruvian cuisine. Another important feature is the incredible cultural diversity of the country. Thus, national and local dishes originate either from the indigenous peoples (Incas and many other pre-Hispanic civilizations; as well as a myriad of Amazonian tribes) or from the interbreeding brought by colonization and successive migrations (mainly African and Chinese).
Of course, “Ceviche” is the national symbol: the most famous Peruvian dish has been well exported and is now prepared in the world’s best restaurants. But Peruvian cuisine is not limited to ceviche and it would be sad to miss out the country’s other 1001 delicacies.
Here is a quick overview of some carefully selected dishes. This list is not exhaustive since it would take a whole life to roam every corner of this huge country to taste its flavors. I will therefore only refer to dishes I’ve had the opportunity to taste
So let’s get to it:
- Ceviche and other sea delicacies (Origin: Coastal region)
Taking a tour of Peruvian cuisine without mentioning the Ceviche is like going to the country without visiting Machu Picchu!
The Ceviche is the Peruvian dish par excellence. It is made of raw fish (usually “corvina”, and preferably freshly fished), lightly “cooked” in a subtle mixture of chilies and lemon (forming a delicious juice named “Leche de Tigre” – Tiger’s Milk – simply the best to recover from a hangover!).
Obviously, there are many more options. The South Pacific water offers an incredible diversity of seafood, and it would be a shame not to try one of the following options :
- “Chorros a la Chalaca”: mussels simply prepared with tomatoes and fresh onions. Perfect as an appetizer.
- “Arroz con marisco”: a local version of Spanish paella marina. It’s just so good when it’s freshly fished in the Pacific!
- “Tiradito”: raw fish, finer and less spicy than the ceviche.
- “Chicharron de Pescado”: marinated and fried fish (perfect with some “aji”)
- “Parihuela”: typical seafood soup (scampi, octopus, mussels, crab, lobster, etc. including potatoes and vegetables).
However, if you feel hungry and wanna try a bit of everything, you can opt for a “Fuente” (literally “source”… of a thousand pleasures!).
Seafood is usually served with a “Caldo”, the cooking juice of fish and seafood.
The best “cevicherias” are located on the coast, and more specifically in Lima.
I recommend you try “El Muelle” in Barranco (Lima).
- Guinea Pig – “Cuy” (Origin: Andean region)
Peru’s other classic often frightens people visiting Cusco. “Cuy” is a Guinea pig which is usually cooked “Al Palo” (BBQ style) or “Al Horno” (in the oven), and comes with potatoes, sometimes stuffed chilies and (very few) vegetables.
Andean people love it, and I had to give it a try. Actually, the main thing to overcome is the visual aspect, since the animal is simply peeled before being spiced and cooked… which gives it a fairly disgusting appearance.
As regards the taste, it’s similar to the quail: a white poultry meat, full of little bones (not that much meat here!). To be honest I’m not a big fan.
So I’d say neither excellent nor disgusting. Try it and get your own opinion.
Most “cuyes” are industrial so try to opt for one that was raised in a local farm (the difference is significant).
A good place to taste “Cuy”: Kusikuy in Cusco
Moreover, if you are in Cusco during the celebration of “Corpus Christi” (early June), be sure to try the “Chiriuchu” (meaning “cold dish” in Quechua), a seasonal dish made of meat (guinea pig, chicken and chorizo), all served cold with chili sauce and potatoes.
- Juane (Origin: Amazon region)
Typical jungle dish prepared with rice and seasoned with various spices. It usually comes with chicken, all the ingredients being wrapped in a leaf of “Bijao”. It is often consumed with “Tacacho”, a green banana that is crushed and fried.
I only had the opportunity to taste it at Puerto Maldonado’s market. And it was quite yummy!
- Aji de Gallina (Origin: Lima)
One of my favorite ones! An exquisite sauce prepared with “Gallina” (young rooster), pecan nuts, cheese, milk, spices and “Aji amarillo” (a mild yellow chilly that is only found in the area).
The sauce is served with potatoes, rice, a hard egg, salad and olives.
Finding a good “Aji de Gallina” is a rather complex task. I’m fortunate to share my life with a Peruvian who perfectly manages the recipe. In my new hometown (Urubamba), the only decent “Aji de Gallina” I have found is at “El Chorrillano”. You can also find a tasty “Aji de Gallina” in tourist restaurants, but I did not venture there since the price is at least 5 times higher than that in popular restaurants.
Another version of this meal: “Papa a la Huancaina”, which is similar in appearance, but features some variations in the preparation (neither meat nor bread is used). It’s served cold, usually as an appetizer, with potatoes.
- Roccoto Relleno (Origin: Arequipa)
Arequipa’s cuisine is well-known all over the country. Its dishes are more seasoned and spicier than in the rest of Peru. The “Rocoto relleno”, stuffed hot pepper, is prepared with a mixture of minced meat, cheese, milk and potatoes. It’s one of the city’s most famous dish.
The best place to enjoy it: one of the many “Picanteria” spread throughout the city.
A recommended restaurant: “Nueva Palomito”, located in the beautiful district of Yanahuara.
- Pachamanca (Origin: Andean region)
Typical mountain dish. The special feature lies in the cooking: stones are heated using firewood. All ingredients are cooked underground. The homemade and rustic stone oven is then covered with local plants. The main ingredients are beef, pork, chicken and guinea pig. Other Andean products are also used, such as potatoes, camote (sweet potatoes) and yuca. The “Pachamanca” is a social and sacred rite: a ceremony is sometimes held by the “Pachamanca’s master” before dishes are removed from the “oven”.
Your best bet to try a good “pachamanca” is in the Andean countryside.
- Chupe de Camarones (Origin: Arequipa)
It’s a simple shrimp soup. Prepared with many other ingredients like milk, eggs and oregano: simply delicious!
The 19th century experienced a strong migration from China to Peru. Immigrants brought their culinary traditions. And there was born the “Chifa”, a fusion between Peruvian and Chinese cuisines that is found everywhere in the country. Most meals include “arroz chaufa” (rice marinated with soy sauce and fried in a wok pan with vegetables and pieces of meat).
The most common dishes in Chifa restaurants are: “Tallarin saltado” (Sautéed noodles), “Wantan Frito” (appetizer) and “Aeropuerto” (a mix of rice and noodles). Almost every single meal is served with “sopa Wantan” (noddle soup).
- “Pollo a la brasa”
“Pollerias” are to Peru what “taquerias” are to Mexico… These restaurants are found at every street corner. They typically offer “1/8 chicken-fries-salad” formulas for barely $2.
You can also find other junk food options such as “Salchipapa” (industrial sausage served with French fries) and “Pollipapa” (the same but in its chicken sausage version).
These are among the most popular street food. “Anticuchos” are kebabs found at every corner of Peruvian streets. There are several options: chicken, beef and even heart and giblets.
Other specialties to enjoy:
- Yuca Frita (fried cassava)
- Trucha Frita (fried trout)
- Sopa de Quinoa (quinoa soup)
- Estofado de pollo (chicken cooked in a tomato-based sauce)
- Chicharrones (meat – usually pork – fried in its own fat)
- Papa Rellena (stuffed potato)
- Pescado a lo macho (grilled fish served in a tomato-based gravy)
- Tacu Tacu (mix of white beans and rice, served in risotto style)
- Causa Rellena (made of mashed potatoes mixed with other ingredients as e.g. tuna, vegetables, chicken, etc.)
- Lomo saltado (minced beef cooked with onions, tomatoes and served with its cooking juice (you can add pisco) on rice and fries)
Another Peruvian delicacy: the “Ajis”
“Aji” means hot peppers, but Peruvians know how to get the best sauce out of it. Forget industrial Tabasco that destroys our taste buds: Peruvian Ajis are organic peppers finely mixed together. Thus, the result is rarely very spicy but always really tasteful.
There are so many “Ajis”, but my favorite is the “Huacatay” one. It is named after a native herb that is its main ingredient, to which peanuts are added.
Now, you’ll ask me: what to drink with all this?
First of all, as an aperitif, I’d recommend the national cocktail: “Pisco Sour”.
Pisco is a distilled alcohol extracted from grapes. Unlike Marc or Grappa, it is produced from the whole fruit and not from the residues after juice extraction in the wine processing.
This liquor, originating from Ica region, is used in the making of numerous other cocktails: “Chilcano de Pisco”, “Capitan”, “Peru libre”, “Ponche”, “Algarrobina”.
How to make the pisco sour? Simply mix pisco with lemon, glucose syrup, ice cubes… and white egg!
It seems a bit strange, but it’s delicious!
Then, to accompany your meals: first, you have to know that Peru is not a famous wine-producing area, and thus, most dishes are not easily combined with wine. “Ceviche” for example, is usually very spicy and citric, which will too aggressive for white wine aromas. You’d rather have a refreshing beer with it. In the finer and less spicy versions (tiradito), a glass of white wine with a fine acidity balance will be perfect. Since European wine is hard to find (and way overpriced) in Peru, we’d better choose a South American wine, why not a sauvignon blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley?
As regards white meat, more especially chicken and pork (chicharron), we can still opt for a white wine but we might look for some more rounded and full-bodied wine. How about a chardonnay from the Central Valley (Chile)?
On the other hand, a “Lomo Saltado” will be magnified by a Chilean Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec. And if you wanna try a local red, go for an Intipalka reserve (Carbernet/petit Verdot).
And for the driver: refresh yourself with the most famous Peruvian softs: “Chicha Morada” (made of purple corn) and “Inka Kola”.
Finally, let’s mention the most popular drink in the countryside: “chicha”, a maize maceration, always handcrafted in a hazardous hygienic way (legends say that the maize was formerly chewed before being spit out and macerated…).
In conclusion, Peruvian cuisine is definitely worth a try, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised by its varied and tasty flavors.
“Buen provecho”… and cheers!