Peruvian Food: Top 10 Things to Eat in Peru
Perhaps no aspect of Peruvian culture has been impacted by history more than its cuisine. A 3,000-kilometer coastline, over 35 mountains exceeding 6,000 meters, and uninhibited access to the Amazon rainforest – three distinct and abundant regions – are just the tip of the figurative iceberg to the dramatic spectrum of its natural beauty and pre-colonial impact. From the Chan Chan along the northern Pacific Coast to the Uro-Aymara at Lake Titicaca, each community has influenced the customs and history of Peru with their own unique environments and practices.
Geographical variety and scale have made Peru an ample provider of flavors and fares, and the sheer size of Peru makes it a leader in blending diverse ingredients in exciting ways. Fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean, such as sea bass, tuna, halibut, and cod, merge with Andean tubers from dizzying heights – of which there are over 4,000 colorful species. The mountains also yield quinoa and oca. The Amazon provides classic cuisine such as beef, poultry, and lamb in addition to other exotic elements, including rodents and reptiles. Menus across the country feature alpaca and guinea pig side by side with orthodox eats like duck and beef, and while cooking practices may seem orthodox and simple, every kitchen has a rendition as innovative as it is traditional.
People and history also play an important role. Lima is a renowned destination for world-class restaurants, and the country has lent its best chefs to the world to exhibit the unrivaled depth of its cooking. Chef Gastón Acurio, one of the most well-known and conspicuous ambassadors of Peruvian food, has lifted many of his contemporaries into the international spotlight, and has a multitude of restaurants across the country and beyond, including La Mar Miami and Tanta Chicago. Associated with the ceviche revolution at the turn of the century, he is the gold standard of sharing Peru to the world through the stomach and can be credited with Lima’s rise to culinary fame.
Jaime Pesaque, the man behind Mayta in Lima, has also been influential in front-facing Peruvian food. He focuses on organic and sustainable ingredients to promote the wealth of local ingredients that make his country unique. His experimental menus rival those of any chef and have generated well-deserved buzz for his endeavors. Other iconic restaurateurs who have made a print on Peru’s food scene include Virgilio Martínez of Central fame, Pía Leon of Kjolle, and Mitsuharu Tsumara at Maido.
INFLUENCES AND TRENDS
The mobility of Peruvian cuisine seems to be a two-way street; as it became fashionable to export techniques forged over centuries in the Andes, so was incorporating European and Asian techniques into preparing South American food. Often referred to as “criolla” because of the incorporation of Spanish, French, Japanese, and Incan/pre-Incan methods, Peruvian techniques use the country’s copious resources in worldly ways, equal parts playful, inventive, and traditional.
Even in the early 20th century, Japanese-influenced cooking was introduced using Peruvian ingredients – a style known as Nikkei – and it is hitting its stride in modern Peruvian cuisine today. Similar in concept to chifa, the combination of Japanese and Peruvian culture and traditions is more than just food based; the elegance and intention associated with Japanese gastronomy meets the hearty freshness of Peru, focusing on the values and communal ties that make the concept a complete experience. Both use fresh seafood liberally, so the fusion of cooking practices is natural. The aforementioned Maido and Osaka are some of the top restaurants in the capital city, but Nikkei has spread throughout the country and the world, including Erik Raimirez’s Llama San in New York City.
Focusing on dietary staples exclusive to Peru, here are the must-eat dishes of this culinary shangri-la.
One of the most iconic dishes of Peruvian cuisine, ceviche has become a staple in meals around the world. By utilizing a cooking technique called denaturing, a process that changes the color and texture of raw fish while it absorbs flavors as it “cooks” in lime juice, Peru’s national dish is both delicious and fun to play with. Traditionally made with fresh corvina – often sea bass – mixed with onions, lime juice, salt, and aji – which are hot chilies, ceviche has taken on a life of its own and can be created in many renditions.
A true testament to the impact Peru has on global dining, it uses many of the country’s exclusive ingredients where nuance meets tradition. Acidic and refreshing, you can accompany ceviche with sweet potatoes, corn, and even plantains.
LECHE DE TIGRE
Doubling down on the mingling flavors of ceviche, leche de tigre is the marinade-style beverage made from fresh fish, citrus, onions, salt, and spicy peppers. Ingrained in Peruvian culture for its health benefits, which include its role as a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac, as well as general sustenance, the beverage has become a canvas for inventive chefs who want to embellish and savor its basic and bright elements.
It has evolved over the years from an aspect of ceviche to its own delightful dish; some chefs will add fish or milk to give it a thicker consistency to dominate the acid, while others will incorporate sweet potatoes and corn to build on its texture. Leche de tigre is a pillar on many Peruvian menus, and it is perhaps an unspoken custom to order it wherever it is served.
The chifa-inspired dish of lomo saltado is a beef stir fry that includes onions, tomatoes, and aji. The gravy-like sauce formed from the fry is perfectly balanced with rice and French fries, making a complete dish with some of Peru’s finest ingredients. Whether the latter are placed directly into the marinade or set gracefully beside it, the fusion of the two starches have brought this dish into mainstream culinary culture.
The introduction of the wok to the streets of Lima is the main credit to this dish’s creation. As foods and ingredients shifted into the modern era, chefs have experimented with similar items for the dish, such as substituting alpaca for the beef. The original dish, however, has become so popular that it rivals ceviche for popularity and favor.
PAPA A LA HUANCAINA
Potatoes are inextricable from Peruvian culture, so papa a la huancaina is a menu mainstay. This dish of boiled potatoes topped with a creamy and spicy cheese sauce combines the rich and earthy flavors of the starch with savory lipids. A stand-alone appetizer or a side dish to a main, papa a la huancaina relishes the simple ingredients of the country. Traditionally, it is placed atop a leaf of lettuce and garnished with hard-boiled eggs and olives.
The name is a reference to the city of Huancayo, located east of Lima. Most origin stories allude to the prevalence of yellow potatoes around the coast, as well as olives, so it is believed that those folks traveling between Lima and Huancayo via rail would be served the dish at the stations. No matter where it came from, it is still undoubtedly Peruvian and found throughout the country.
Arguably Peru’s most famous Altiplano dish is the rocoto relleno – a spicy pepper stuffed with beef, garlic, onions, raisins, olives, and other spices, then topped with cheese and bathed in a creamy sauce. Born in Arequipa, this dish can be found worldwide in many different iterations, but the classic is undeniably Peruvian. You would be hard-pressed to find a rocoto chili pepper outside of Peru’s borders, so most variations use ingredients that disqualify them from being this iconic dish.
Keep in mind that the pepper used is a hot one – often reaching Scotch Bonnet-level heat. It is a dish that requires the proper combination of all ingredients, typical of the profile found in Altiplano cooking. It is a perfect balance of savory and spicy, with the milk-and-egg sauce tempering any heat alongside rich queso fresco and hearty meat.
ARROZ CON PATO
Simply put, duck with rice is a basic dish. Arroz con pato, however, has a strong hold on a complex and delicious flavor profile. The rice incorporates peas, cilantro, dark beer, and a medley of herbs to add a robust flavor to a basic starch. The duck, usually a leg and thigh, sits atop the rice after roasting, sometimes in its own fat (duck confit!) Garnishes can include red onions and cilantro.
This dish is also versatile, so cilantro paste can sit below the bed of rice, or it can be mixed into the rice for a creamy green consistency. Ducks have long been associated with cooking in ancient Peru, so it is only natural that recipes for this dish have been influenced both by tradition and cultural confluence.
CHUPE DE CAMARONES
Chupe de camarones, or shrimp chowder, is a dish from the coastal regions in southern Peru. Similar in concept to other chowders, chupe de camarones is a fantastic mix of Incan tradition and colonial technique. Shrimp and fish stock serve as the base, with aji, yellow potatoes, onions, corn, and garlic. To thicken, cheese and milk (or cream) are added. Often considered a winter stew, this delicious soup can also include vegetables like peas and carrots.
In other forms, crayfish may take the place of the shrimp, though regional factors may determine how you enjoy the spicy chowder. Arequipa and the surrounding area are often associated with an abundance of “chupes,” but this standard dish often stands alone as a first or even main course.
Frequently coupled with the religious holiday of St. John the Baptist, juane is a dish from the jungle region of chicken, rice, olives, and hard-boiled eggs. Erring on the side of intrigue and function, these ingredients are wrapped and cooked in bijao leaves. Spices like cumin and turmeric add very distinct flavors to the dish and are not always linked to other traditional dishes. Cassava and bananas, often boiled, accompany the dish in its traditional setting.
During the Feast of St. John, on the 24th of June, it is no surprise to see juane served all over Peru. Prepared in a communal way, it is tradition to give waxy-leaved portions to family, friends, and even strangers.
On the sweeter end of the spectrum, Peruvian doughnuts – known as picarones – are steeped in culture and independence. A mesmerizing cross between buñuelo and beignet, they don’t rely solely on flour and eggs but instead utilize sweet potato and squash. Flour, yeast, and sugar is added to the dough, which then ferments. Once ready, it is pressed in the center and placed in frying oil. Served hot with a healthy portion of chancaca syrup – raw sugar that is dissolved and reduced, picarones are nothing short of perfection.
These delicious dough rings are closely associated with Afro-Peruvian culture. Often handed down from generations, recipes for picarones may have slight modifications or use classic cooking instruments. If you see a food vendor on the street using a wooden stick to flip and corral the frying dough, you know dessert is on the way.
No list of Peruvian delights would be complete without the Pisco Sour, an alcoholic beverage made from Peruvian brandy, lime juice, sugar, and an egg white. Shaken and strained into a delicate coup, and garnished with Angostino bitters, the Pisco Sour is a rising star in the cocktail world and synonymous with the grape varietal it gets its name from – as well as the country of Peru. The lime citrus balances the ‘grapiness’ of the brandy, while the sweetness of the sugar cuts the bitterness perfectly. The egg white froth at the apex makes it both aesthetically and texturally satisfying.
The classification requirements of Pisco make this an elusive drink without the proper ingredients; while simple syrup and other sweeteners can find their way into a recipe, without a genuine Pisco as the base, it just isn’t the same.
Peru is home to the second largest Japanese population in South America, and this has influenced the Nikkei movement over the past century. Developed over generations, it is still picking up steam – and followers. At its simplest, it is the combination of Japanese and Peruvian cooking cultures: the techniques of Japan using ingredients predominantly from Peru. The denaturing technique, sesame, and yuzu are emblematic of Nikkei. Dishes associated with this style, similar to ceviche, are tiradito, a crudo-style raw fish, and plates of urchin, octopus, and scallops.
The original basis for fusion foods, chifa has long been part of Peru. Sopa wantan (or sopa de wonton) and pollo chijaukay are well-known examples of the merger between Chinese and Peruvian cooking, but other dishes, such as arroz chaufa and tallarin saltado, are nearly as popular. Chinese immigrants arrived in the mid-19th century and brought recipes and ingredients with them, like soy sauce, ginger, and scallions. Chifa restaurants have been around for roughly 100 years, with the first one opening in Lima around 1920. For adventurous eaters, stepping into a chifa restaurant (or ordering a chifa dish from another menu) is a rewarding and historical choice.
There is no wrong way to enjoy the vast world of Peruvian cuisine. When you plan your trip to Peru with us, we use our expertise to cultivate a personal, enriching food tour through every part of the country. Whether staying at Atemporal – our original Peruvian mansion and casa in Lima; CIRQA – the parador at the heart of the Historic Center of Arequipa; or, Titilaka – the getaway lodge set on our own private peninsula at Lake Titicaca, our first-hand experience at every level of service is designed to provide unencumbered satisfaction and ease for your trip. We curate your experience from beginning to end, seamlessly guiding you to an unforgettable retreat in the most captivating place on earth.