Peru is a blessed country in terms of its biodiversity. This ecological abundance directly influences its now world-renowned cuisine, which has placed Peru as a top foodie destination.
There are several different regional cuisines since each region produces base products that develop according to the country’s various ecosystems; the sea, the Coastal Valleys, the Andes, the highest altitudes, the Amazon, and more.
The Coast of Peru is home to a rich sea and marine ecosystem. The Cold Humbolt Current rises from the lower ocean depths and brings the nutrients necessary for the sustenance of plankton, which, in turn, provide nutrients for many of the native fish species in Peru.
These resources have been used since pre-Inca times by virtually all of the cultures which developed along the Peruvian Coast, and their reception of influences from various social, economic and geographical changes have given rise to a very rich food culture. Another big contribution to Cocina Criolla (creole cuisine) comes from the African Peruvians who took part in the evolution of Peruvian food, music, and dances, as well as Asian (Japanese and Chinese) immigrants who added their traditional knowledge and ingredients. This is quite apparent in the large number of dishes which feature rice as a component of the meal.
In the multi-tiered valleys of the Andes grow more than 2,000 varieties of potato, and in the high altitudes “superfoods” such as quinoa, kiwicha-amaranto and maca can be found. These are all well known for their powerful nutritional content.
Here we have composed a short list of some of the best dishes for experiencing Peru through your taste; the smells and flavors of this diverse and multicultural country exposed with every bite. So without further adieu, we present the ultimate foodie guide to Peru!
Ceviche or Cebiche
There are several versions of ceviche’s origin (including the origin of the name), but if there is something that most os us will agree on, it’s that Peruvian ceviche (also called cebiche) is a dish that you must try! Other Latin American countries such as Ecuador and Mexico have their own recipes, but the classic Peruvian ceviche is one of the most delicious options in the world. It traditionally consists of white sea-fish cured in lemon (the small, very sour Peruvian variety) mixed with seasoning such as salt, white pepper, red and yellow ají limo (peppers), thinly-sliced red onion, and optional cilantro. It usually comes with “choclo” (white big corn), baked sweet potatoes and “cancha” (roasted dried corn from the Andes). Even though sole is considered one of the best fish to make a delicious ceviche, you can also use shrimp, octopus, scallops (or just use vegetables for a vegetarian or vegan variation). There is another similar dish called “Tiradito” made with raw, fresh white fish (sashimi style sliced) also cured in lime and same ingredients but without onion. In some cases “Tiradito” can have some sauces on top like spicy yellow chili or bell pepper.
Anticucho: Grilled Beef Heart Skewers
The “Anticucho” name traces its origins in quechua (the Incas language). In pre-Columbian times it was made form llama meat. The Spanish added ingredients like garlic and then used beef instead of llama. The afro-Peruvian community eventually swapped the meat to beef hearts, which is now the most classic version. They can be found as street food on the coast and throughout Andean cities, where vendors sell the staple in stalls or on corners. You can usually find them starting in the afternoons and nights. However, you can also find it served in the most chic restaurants as an traditional entrée. Beef heart anticucho consists of slices of heart cut into approximately 5 cm x 5 cm. They are cooked directly over an open flame on the grill, and are seasoned with salt, (sometimes with vinegar or lemon juice). There is a very popular seasoning dressing made with garlic, onion, chopped cilantro, vinegar, lemon juice and beer, which is painted into the anticuchos with a sprig of parsley. It may sound strange at first, but trust us – one bite and you’ll be hooked!
Cuy: Guinea Pig
Really? Guinea Pigs? Yes…those cute, little rodents were an Inca delicacy, and are now prepared for special occasions and celebrations in Andean homes. However, it’s also a popular menus item in restaurants throughout the country as well. Guinea pigs are traditionally kept in homes, as they need the warmth to survive, and they could commonly be found running around the kitchen floor. They are also a natural recycler of organic leftovers and other food waste. For example, after chopping your veggies, it is common practice to throw any scraps to the floor for the guinea pigs’ delight. There are farms that breed them specifically for restaurant supply, but they are relatively inexpensive for families to raise them on their own. There are several ways to cook Guinea pigs, but it mainly depends on the specific regions. There are some commonalities thought. It is typically presented whole (with head and feet) and it is fried, grilled or roasted. You can most commonly find them served with rice, potatoes, and hot spices . It has a similar taste to rabbit or wild fowl, and the best way to eat it is with hands. Again, it may seem like a completely foreign concept (especially if you grew up with these little guys as pets in your home), but they’re a classic dish and play an important role in Peru’s culinary heritage.
“Saltado” (which is loosely translated to “jumped”), refers to stir-fry in a pan. Its origins – according to some – come from the influence of the strong Chinese migration to Peru, tracing back to colonial times. Many Chinese came to Peru in the mid-XIX century, bringing their traditional ingredients and cooking techniques. The result is the term “Chifa” which is the name for Peruvian-Chinese fusion. Maybe one of the most popular dishes in Peru is the “lomo saltado” consisting of marinated strips of sirloin steak with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and Peruvian spicy peppers sautéed with soy sauce and served with rice and fried potatoes. Definitely a must-try for anyone who likes a steak and a little spicy kick.
This south American camelid is very famous for the quality of its fibers, but now it’s becoming more and more popular on restaurant menus across the country. Camelids have always been a source of meat and is very lean, like many grass fed animals. In ancient times, Alpaca and llama meat was cured for jerky. They have a similar taste to buffalo and can be served as a steak or as key ingredient in many more innovative dishes.
Causa has also a long history from pre-Hispanic times, when mashed yellow Peruvian potatoes (a very soft variety) were kneaded with crushed chili. During colonial times, lemon was added and then more ingredients until the actual presentation of the dish. It is served with a layer of the mashed potatoes then a second middle layer that is usually tuna fish or chicken, avocado, hard boiled egg, tomatoes, and mayonnaise, and the third layer with more mashed potatoes. It’s served cold and usually as an entrée accompanied by lettuce, and black olives. The name comes from quechua Kausay which means “food” or “what feeds” which was a name also given to potatoes.
Papa a la Huancaina: Potatoes with Chilli and Cheese Sauce
The “huancaina” sauce is made from fresh white cheese, yellow Peruvian pepper, evaporated milk, salt, garlic, vegetable oil and crushed saltines. This sauce is served on top of boiled potatoes as well as lettuce and garnished with ¼ eggs, and black olives. This is a cold starter that is now super popular all over Peru. Chances are you will see it make an appearance on many Peruvian restaurant menus.
Pollo a la Brasa: Roasted chicken
This is maybe the most common “fast food” in Peru, and can be found in the hundreds of “pollerias” that you can find all over the country. The full marinated chicken is roasted on a rotation system over coal, gas or firewood. It is served with French fries and salad, as well with multiple sauces as ketchup, mayonnaise and of course a hot spicy and creamy sauce. You can’t go wrong with the delicious dish.
Lucuma: For Dessert!
Lucuma is a fruit that grows in trees in the Andean valleys. There is ancient pottery form the peruvian cultures of the fruit and its mentioned in the legends: Cavillaca was a beatiful princess who rejected all the Gods who tried to conquer her and the most powerful of them disguised his seed in the fruit which she ate delightfully, resulting in her baring a child. Its delicious taste is unique and it’s used in many desserts – but if you can find it, we recommend trying lucuma ice cream!
– Written by Patty Wissar