Peru has an amazing cuisine that blends together the varied geography with cooking methods of the many people that have passed through and settled here throughout history. Not only different regions, but also altitude determines the taste of what is grown in Peru. The country can be divided into three main zones: the coastal desert (costa), the mountain area (sierra), and the rainforest (selva). Each produce different vegetables and meats. Moreover, the different altitude and micro-climates bring out different tastes in the same plants.
Land of plenty
Going to the market you can see a colourful cornucopia of potatoes ranging from purple to pink spotted. The Inca Empire in a never ending quest to improve farming techniques in the difficult Andean terrain used terraces to experiment with different varieties of grain to optimised yields. Thus there are now over 4000 varieties of potatoes and about 55 types of corn. The Spanish eventually brought the potatoes and also the tomato back to Europe.
Rice arrived with the Chinese settlers and is now a staple Peruvian food. “Chifa” (derived from the Chinese “chi fan” word for eating) restaurants where you can find Chinese-Peruvian fusion food are everywhere. Hearty criollo food is another popular cuisine on the coast. It is essentially comfort food with colonial origins: fatty stews and creamy sauces, a typical dish is aji de gallina.
Peru grows a lot of healthy food to export, but does not seem to eat much of it. All kinds of vegetables and fruits like asparagus, avocados, chillies, Passion fruit, mangoes, granadillas etc grow on huge plantations in the desert north of Lima. The whole area is owned by huge mostly Chilenian agricultural corporations that mostly export the produce. Have you ever seen Peruvian asparagus in your supermarkt? Yes, it grows in the desert.
Peruvians eat a lot of meat. Typical lunch menus include fried pork belly Chicharron, fried rice or noodles, tacu-tacu (Fried rice bean balls), arroz con pollo. While Alpaca steaks are mostly served to tourists, the locals eat animals like goat, beef, lots of pork and chicken. On special occasions in the Andes cuy (Guinea pig) is also served. One such special occasion is the Last Supper painting in The Cathedral of Cusco and the Jesuit Church in Arequipa. Cuy is a good source of protein. Funnily enough the Guinea pig was food first and only became a pet in Europe after some British visitors of the Andes brought some back to the USA.
In many areas with lakes and rivers you find a lot of trout (trucha) on the menu.
The rainforest (which we unfortunately skipped this time) provides so many different fruits that the Peruvians themselves do not know all of them. Chirimoya and soursop are popular. In the mountain valleys you can get the very delicious cactus fruit called tuna.
According to the huge variety of vegetable, fruits and landscapes, each region has their own typical dishes. In Arequipa it is rocoto relleño (stuffed pepper) in Lima causa (mashed potato layered with avocado and tuna fish or chicken) and ceviche are popular. In the north you get cabrito (goat) and in the south cuy.
For a great insight into the Peruvian culinary revolution watch Chef’s Table Virgilio Martinez who is the Chef of Lima’s Restaurant Central, currently among the top 5 restaurants worldwide.
Here is what we especially likes about Peruvian food.
Best snack: Pan y palta
Avocados or palta are amazing in Peru, although Peruvians complain that the best ones are exported. Bread in the bakery and avocado at the market are really cheap too.
Best soup: Chupe de verduras
Chupe is a generic terms for a hefty soup or stew made from vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, …), quinoa and other cereals and milk. There are many variations with sea food, chicken or other meat.
Best vegerian dish: Papa a la huancaina
Actually it is more of a very filling starter. A small tower of potatoes is stacked and poured over with a rich yellow sauce made out of crackers, cheese, and aji chillies. Huacaina sauce also goes well with with pasta.
Best Starter: Ceviche
This one is really difficult, as we encountered great starters but ceviche made the top. The fresh fish that has been marinated in lemon and chilli and served with red onion can be divine, if done well. For peace of mind it is best to eat it in markets or specialised restaurants on the coast.
In a creative restaurant in Aguas Calientes (Indio Feliz- highly recommended!) I ordered Trujillo Melon as a starter and got a drunk fruit salad which was half a cantalope filled with more melon types and elderberry liquor.
Best food group: potatoes
They come in all shapes, sizes and tastes. If you like the earth vegetable, Peru should be on your bucket list. Chuño is the small freeze dried version.
Best fruit: Granadilla
A cousin of passion fruit, this sweet slimy fruit is good for digestion, tasty and even exciting to eat. You can open the orange peel to get to the slimy grey seeds that smell like fantastic dried apricots.
Other fruits like mangos on the coast and chirimoya are fantastically sweet and way better than elsewhere. Sorry Southeast Asia!
Best Desert: Lucuma ice cream
Lucuma is a creamy fruit with a slight taste of caramel that vagely resembles an avocado. It is also delicious as a smoothie, especially mixed with mango.
Best soft drink: Chicha Morada
The national drink of Peru is made out of purple maiz cooked with cinnamon, cloves, quince, pineapple and orange peel and a little sugar. It tastes refreshing and a bit like Christmas. Most restaurants will serve it. A lady on our first day insisted we try it, after we bought a bottle of Inka Cola, which is the other national drink. The awfully sweet yellow Inka Cola is sadly owned by Coca Cola Company these days.
Best cocktail: Pisco Sour
The creamy white foam on top, the lemon juice and angostura bitters mixed with the smooth pisco are simply delightful. The Spanish brought the grapes and planted them around the town of Pisco. For a long time it was the cheap go to alcohol for passing sailors. Now pisco has become so popular that neighbouring Chile also claims it as their national drink, which Peruvians understandably do not appreciate. The town of pisco is definitely in Peru.
Enjoy as many Pisco sours as you can, they are distilled holiday spirit.