YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE Peru (and specifically Lima) is the culinary capital of Latin America. There’s so much happening here gastronomically, from traditional dishes that date back to the Incas, to exciting new fusions inspired by the many peoples and cultures that make up modern day Peru. After two years tasting my way across the country, here’s my pick of the standout Peruvian dishes that deserve a place in the spotlight.
1. Anticuchos de Corazon
These are succulent cuts of beef heart marinated in a blend of spices and grilled on an open fire. I usually steer clear of offal but was pleasantly surprised – the texture and taste resembles a quality cut of tender beef. Your nose can usually follow the aromas, leading you to the nearest popular street food stand. A modest Lima hole-in-the-wall with a reputation for the best anticuchos in town is Grimanesa Vargas, run by Señora Grimanesa, who’s been
making them in Lima for over forty years.
2. Lomo Saltado
Essentially a beef stir-fry, but with a unique Peruvian twist, Lomo Saltado dials up up the Chinese influence on Peruvian food, locally known as chifa. This national favorite brings together chunks of tender steak, tomato, onion and aji amarillo, a flavorsome Peruvian chile, all flash-fried in soy sauce. You’d expect a stir-fry to be served with rice, but this dish also comes with potato or cassava fries and with a fried egg on top. A hearty lunchtime staple on many Peruvian tables, look for it on the cheap menu-of-the-day specials at restaurants across Peru.
The “King of the Amazon” is the moniker given to this beast of a river fish, which grows to over three meters. The flavor is rich and earthy, particularly if you’re used to ocean fish. In Lima head to amaZ, and try the incredible paiche steak – the cut gives you an idea of the size of the creature it came from. Head chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino brings the flavors of the Amazon to life, after spending time in the jungle learning about Amazonian ingredients and traditional ways of preparing them.
No list of Peruvian food would be complete without the national dish. Small chunks of raw fish are ‘cooked’ in lime juice and served up with sweet potato, corn, onion, chiles, and cilantro. For an authentic ceviche experience, skip the upscale eateries and instead head to Lima’s bustling Central Market where pop-up cevicherías offer generous bowls of the freshest ceviche in town. A treat for all your senses, you’ll be surrounded by the sights (and smells!) of the fish market, and the sounds of the vendors vociferously advertising their offers.
5. Alpaca Carpaccio
A domesticated camelid, alpacas have been bred in South America for centuries for their fiber, and their meat is considered a delicacy in the Andes. Many restaurants in Cusco and the Andes serve alpaca meat, usually oven roasted. It’s a lean, flavorsome meat resembling venison. For something different and exciting, try the alpaca carpaccio at Cicciolina, one of the best restaurants in Cusco, serving up modern interpretations of traditional Andean cuisine.
6. Causa Rellena
The humble potato, served cold. But don’t let that put you off. This interesting take on Peru’s most famed crop is like no potato dish you’ve tried before. Smooth mashed yellow potato flavored with lime is layered with avocado, mayonnaise, and chicken or seafood. The result is a surprisingly light and zesty dish, and aesthetically pleasing with its delicate and colorful layers. It’s a family favorite that’s often shared as a cold starter before a hot meal.
7. Pulpo a la Parilla
When not prepared correctly, octopus can be tough and chewy – that had been my experience before coming to Peru. Peruvians really know what they’re doing with this wriggly sea creature, and they keep it simple. Fresh octopus from the Pacific Ocean, straight on the grill. The result is tender and full of flavor. What more could you ask for? My favorite is at La Mar, an upscale seafood restaurant in Lima with a great vibe and a cult following that’s only open for lunch.
Pacha means earth, and manca means oven. Dating back to the Inca Empire, this sacred and highly ritualized meal is prepared by layering meat, potatoes, vegetables and Andean herbs on red hot rocks and then burying the whole thing underground. It’s like an ancient pressure cooker! Once uncovered, the result is tender meat, with crispy edges like a BBQ, all infused with the aromas of the herbs. Participating in a pacamanca was one of my favorite foodie experiences in Peru. Try it at El Alberge, an organic farm in the picturesque Sacred Valley.
9. Adobo de Chancho
Peruvians are serious about their stews. There are many regional variations and traditions, and my favorite is this rich pork stew from Arequipa. Many stews around the world use wine, but this one stays true to its ancient Peruvian roots, with the meat marinated in chicha de jora, a homemade corn beer using fermented corn, originally made by the Inca. It’s then slow cooked with tomatoes, onions, cumin, chile and oregano. I’m hungry just writing about it.
10. Aji de Gallina
Another pillar of Peruvian cuisine, Aji de Gallina is slow cooked by smothering shredded chicken in a rich sauce made with of walnuts, milk, cheese and the bold flavor and color of the aji amarillo chile pepper. The brightly-colored sauce is topped with black olives, a boiled egg and served (like many Peruvian dishes) with the double-carb-duo of rice and potatoes. El Rincon que no conoces has been serving their family recipe Ají de Gallina since 1978 – full of flavor, nostalgia, and love.
11. Choclo con Queso
Giant Cuzco corn is a special variety of corn, first grown by the Incas and now only grown in Peru’s Sacred Valley. It looks like corn on steroids, with huge white kernels three times the size of your average corn. This popular street food snack is simply hot boiled Cusco corn, served up with a slap of fresh, salty Andean cheese. It’s a warming and filling snack that’s one of the simple pleasures of life in the Andes. Try one as you stroll around Cuzco’s main square.
12. Rocoto Relleno
A regional speciality from Peru’s second largest city – Arequipa, Rocoto Relleno is Peru’s version of the stuffed pepper. Rocoto looks like a red bell pepper, but beware – it comes with a spicy kick. The rocoto is stuffed with a mix of minced beef, pork, onions, and pecans, then topped with cheese and grilled to perfection. It’s often served with a side of pastel de papa, thin layers of potato and cheese. Overall it’s an immense tour de force for your taste buds, so bring a friend to help you out.
13. Chupe de Camarones
Peru has 1,500 miles of Pacific coastline, and incredible seafood is featured on menus across the country. A showcase of the ocean’s finest catch, and a great warming dish for a chilly evening, Chupe de Camarones is a hearty and shrimp chowder. Made with shrimp, potatoes, tomatoes and chiles, the flavors of the ocean are complemented with huacatay, an Andean herb. Another dish that hails from Arequipa, if you’re in town try it at Sol de Mayo, one of Peru’s oldest restaurants that’s been going for over a hundred years.
Churros are to Spain as picarones are to Peru. You could easily walk past and mistake them for onion rings, but these deep-fried doughnut rings are made with flour, mashed sweet potato, and aniseed, and then bathed in a sweet cinnamon and clove syrup. They’re a late-night favorite for soaking up the booze. You’ll find picarones carts around Parque Kennedy in Lima’s trendy Miraflores district, just waiting for the bars to empty.
Tacu Tacu is a creole dish that originates from the Afro-Peruvian population who sought an economical way to whip up a meal out of leftovers. It’s a tantalizing plate of comfort food, bringing rice, beans and chiles together to form a crispy-on-the-outside and soft-in-the-middle mound. It’s often served with a sabana (thin slice) of steak, with a fried egg on top, though it’s delicious and filling enough as a meal in itself. The Creole restaurant La Panchita in Lima serves a winning tacu tacu with pork chops.