As you dine in Peru, keep in mind the regional and cultural influences you’re tasting. There are three distinct geographical regions for native ingredients in Peru: the Andes, the Pacific Coast, and the Amazon. Different groups of immigrants to each area brought along a few of their own ingredients and cooking styles. Before you go, familiarize yourself with the breadth of flavors you’ll get to sample on your trip.
With increased interest in preserving the Amazon rainforest, a few Peruvian chefs have made a point of showing off its wild ingredients. Amazonian staples include bananas, plantains, wild yucca, wild game, and fish. Some of the plants may seem familiar, but the rainforest's variations on plums, limes, and other fruits don’t grow outside of their humid habitat. Catfish from the Amazon River is readily available, and frequently enormous. You can even eat the widely feared (yet tasty) pirañha, or try out species of game like wild boar. Meats are often boiled, or wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked over a fire. At Amaz, a trendy restaurant in the Miraflores district of Lima, chefs offer visitors the opportunity to try rare ingredients.
The Amazon has also received a lot of recent attention for its cacao crop. Chocolate has become an important incentive to visit the Amazon, especially as new species of cacao are being discovered around the Amazon Basin. Cutting-edge chocolatiers, like the Swiss company Felchlin, have turned to these new flavors to inspire their limited-edition concoctions.
The Coast and Japan
Off the coast of Peru, the cold waters of the Humboldt Current create a nutritious environment for a dense population of sea life. Tender bites of fresh seafood get dished up in a national favorite called ceviche.
Ceviche is typically prepared with some combination of white fish, scallops, shrimp, and squid. These ingredients get soaked in citrus juice and spiced with chilies. To counter the piquancy of the citrus, ceviche comes nestled between fat, roasted kernels of corn, and slices of baked sweet potato.
Along the Pacific coast of Peru, the Japanese influence surfaces in a dish called tiraditos, a seafood preparation somewhere between sashimi and ceviche. Instead of soaking the fish for hours, fresh fish is dressed with citrus and chilies only shortly before serving. Visit the San Isidro neighborhood in Lima for a meal at Chez Wong, one of the most famous purveyors of tiraditos in the country. Chef Wong is a Peruvian of Asian descent, and his restaurant is known for its innovative combination of Asian flavors and Peruvian ingredients.
Soy sauce flavors the beef in a popular dish called lomo saltado, and serves as the base of the marinade for Peruvian rotisserie chicken, pollo a la brasa. Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru around the same time as the Japanese, during the Peruvian railroad boom of the 19th century. Lomo saltado consists of beef sautéed in a wok with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and soy sauce. It is often served with rice, another Chinese contribution to the Peruvian diet.
Chinese immigrants also created 'Chifa,' a variety of Chinese-inspired dishes made with Peruvian ingredients. Much like Chinese food in the United States, Chifa is a staple of the Peruvian takeout circuit. The much-loved arroz chaufa, a Chinese-Peruvian version of fried rice, combines rice and dark soy sauce with local vegetables and meats.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors began importing slaves from Africa. Today, approximately 2 million Peruvians have African heritage. African contributions to the Peruvian culinary scene include peanuts and yams. Crushed peanuts form the base of a much-loved sauce called salsa de maní. Carapulcro is a slow-cooked pork stew, thickened with peanuts and spiced with a Peruvian pepper called ají amarillo. Yams star in a dessert called picarones, a fried dough made from yams and squash, finished with a drizzle of syrup.
Try carapulcro and picarones at El Rincón que No Conoces (“The Corner You Don’t Know”), one of the most famous restaurants in Lima. Renowned chef Teresa Izquierdo opened El Rincón in 1978 as a showcase for the criollo cuisine she learned to cook in her Afro-Peruvian community.
The Andes and The Inca
In the Andes, travelers will encounter recipes passed down from the Inca. Pachamanca, a name that comes from the Quechua word for Mother Earth, is a cooking technique still practiced in the Andes. To barbecue like the Inca, follow these time-honored steps: dig a pit, build a fire, put rocks over the fire, put meat on the rocks, and cover the meat with more rocks.
Inspired by this rustic cuisine, chefs in Lima, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley have started to serve a reinterpretation of Andean cuisine called 'novoandina'. You’ll see this buzzword used to describe much of the upscale cuisine in these areas of Peru.
While you scour menus throughout Peru, be sure to keep an eye out for sweet treats that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Peru grows a wide variety of corn, and they have invented some clever ways to eat it. Mazamorra morada is a chilled dessert made out of boiled purple corn. Fruits like pineapple sweeten the juicy base, and thickeners such as potato flour create the soft texture of this purple pudding.
Turron de Doña Pepa is traditionally served during the October festival for El Señor de los Milagros, held every year in Lima. According to the legend, a woman named Doña Pepa petitioned El Señor de Los Milagros to cure her paralysis. When he answered her prayers, she concocted this dessert in his honor. High demand for the dessert has made it a year-round confection. This cake, made from layers of anise-flavored nougat, gets slathered in a molasses icing and decorated with colorful candies.
Egg whites have a popular use in Peruvian cuisine – you’ll encounter them during your trip in the foamy head of a pisco sour. What to do with the leftover egg yolks? A dessert called el tajadon el Trujillo provides the answer. This recipe is believed to have been developed by Spanish nuns during the colonial era. It combines egg yolks and pisco brandy to form a creamy, fluffy pudding that is usually served with dried fruit.
Peruvian Food Abroad
Peruvian cuisine has enjoyed rising popularity in the U.S. since the 90s, due in part to the influx of Peruvian immigrants to the eastern United States. More recently, one of Peru’s staple grains, quinoa, became a staple of health-conscious diets. Quinoa appeared on the scene at the same time Americans embraced both the concept of “super foods” and gluten-free dining. United Nations even dubbed 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa.” Higher in protein than most grains, its grainy texture and mild, nutty flavor make it a flexible ingredient. It is most often used to bulk up salads or serve as a nutritious alternative to white rice.
One chef gets most of the credit for the increased number of Peruvian restaurants worldwide. Peruvian chef and restaurateur Gastón Acurio owns 44 restaurants all over the globe, including 3 in the U.S. Gastón is most known for his championship of the novoandina food movement. This is most evident in Central Restaurante, Acurio’s fine-dining flagship in Lima.
Acurio trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. He married a German pastry chef, and returned to Lima to open Astrid Y Gastón in 1994. Named after Acurio and his wife, the restaurant started out by serving the French food Acurio had learned to prepare in Paris. Gradually, Acurio’s love of Peruvian ingredients and cooking techniques transformed the menu. Astrid Y Gastón became a high-end Peruvian bistro and a huge success, launching Gastón’s career as a restaurateur and culinary influence.
Many upscale restaurants in Lima have followed in his footsteps. With the increased popularity of food cooked to preserve the memory of Andean traditions comes a willingness to throw off the colonial mantle. From the time Peru declared its independence in 1821 until quite recently, European trends were deemed superior to anything native.
However, since the popularization of novoandina, some of the best restaurants in Peru now serve dishes that invite customers to eat with their hands. These finger foods make a statement about the relationship between Andean food and class. With novoandina, the traditional food of the lower classes gets the attention it deserves. The rigid manners of the European ruling classes have no place in these innovative dining rooms.
But Acurio didn’t bring Peruvian food to the U.S. all by himself. While upscale Peruvian food made inroads in American haute cuisine, the growing number of Peruvians in New York and New Jersey led to a newfound prominence of hole-in-the-wall Peruvian rotisserie restaurants along the east coast.
This cultural exchange is not a one-way street. Peru’s quickly developing economy has attracted an increasing number of American fast food chains. The first Olive Garden in Peru opened in 2014. KFC and Burger King recently expanded their ranks in Lima and have become increasingly popular with younger Peruvians.
Only In Peru
Many menu items in Peru are still difficult to find in North America, in spite of the growing number of Peruvian restaurants. And while the popularity of Peruvian food grows, it’s not yet easy to recreate at home. One of the most essential spices in Peruvian cuisine, ají amarillo, is not typically available in American groceries. If you want some of your own, your best option is to purchase it online. The same goes for huacatay, a kind of Peruvian mint. You will hear its flavor compared to basil, cilantro, and anise–a difficult bouquet to reproduce.
You’ll also have a hard time finding rocoto peppers, the main ingredient in the signature dish of the city of Arequipa, rocoto relleno. Rocoto relleno is a pepper stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and raisins, baked and typically accompanied by a mild cheese. Rocoto resembles a red bell pepper, but has a much spicier flavor. If your itinerary includes Arequipa, make a trip to La Nuevo Palomino restaurant to try their signature preparation.
Anticuchos, the Quechuan word for skewered meat, is a popular street vendor snack. Traditionally, anticuchos consists of beef hearts that have been marinated, skewered, and grilled. Chefs in America most often replace the heart with a more recognizable cut of beef. In Lima, stand in the long line at the street cart called La Tía Grimanesa to get a taste of the real deal.
Plan your mealtime in Peru wisely, and try to sample a little bit of everything that each region has to offer. Don't drink tap water, be mindful of the raw fruits and vegetables you eat, and you'll have a fabulous gastronomic adventure sans an upset stomach. Peruvian restaurants are proving a valuable contribution to the rest of the world’s dining experience. But only in Peru can you really taste the flavors of the Amazon, the Inca, and the resilience of a population that has created its culinary traditions from a history of dramatic change.