The foods and flavours of Peru are vast, vibrant and varied and we ate some amazing dishes on our trip. An abundance of fresh produce and a fusion of cultural influences means Peru has become the gastronomic epi-centre of South America. Lima, Peru’s capital, is a culinary hotspot and home to eateries on the world’s top 50 restaurant list. Traditional Peruvian food and drink is available from markets, street stalls and tiny family run restaurants called huariques. If you’re heading that way, here’s the low down on some Peruvian food and drink you really need to try.
Peruvian Food and Drink
The dishes found in Peru reflect the cultures that have influenced the country’s cuisine. The Incas, immigrants from Spain, Italy Germany and further afield from China, Japan and West Africa have all made their mark on the ever-increasing Peruvian menu.
I’ll start with Ceviche because it’s pretty much Peru’s signature dish and I love it. I first tried this Peruvian classic at a cooking class in Uni Restaurant, London and have since been besotted ever since. The fish, usually sea bass, is ‘cooked’ by curing it in lime juice. Coriander, chilli and ginger are added before being served with onions and sometimes tomato or peppers. White corn kernels and sweet potato came with the ceviche I had in Lima and were the perfect accompaniment. The word ceviche comes from the word ‘siwichi’ which means fresh fish in the original Peruvian quechua language. Delicious, zesty and very fresh, one of my favourite Peruvian foods.
Alpaca Spring Rolls served with guacamole. Peru grows avocados like they’re going out of fashion and Alpacas are just as ubiquitous. You’ll even see them walking down the road in Cusco. Alpacas, the camelid cousin of the llama, have been farmed in the Andean Highlands for centuries. The meat is lean, rich and quite dark and in this case a bit chewy. This wasn’t one of my favourite Peruvian dishes but I’ve heard Alpaca steaks are very tender and lean. Alpaca is also used to produce incredibly soft wool – I’ve got to admit I preferred wearing it to eating it.
An iconic Peruvian street food is Tamales – steamed dumplings made from cornmeal dough. Mr Jones had the ones below as a lunch-time snack on the Marcelo Batata roof terrace in Cusco. If you’re ever in Cusco do eat there because it serves fabulous Peruvian food with amazing rooftop views of the cathedral. Since we left I’ve discovered that they also hold cooking classes.
Tamales can be made with a range of different fillings and wrapped in all sorts of leaves. Ours were stuffed with aji amarillo (more on this below) and served with fresh tomatoes, corn kernels and coriander. The dumplings were wrapped in corn husks for steaming. Thank you, Mr Jones, for patiently letting me photograph everything you eat before you get a chance to tuck in…
The brightly coloured tamales wrapped in banana skins below were for sale at the food market in Lima. I love how they’re chilli colour coded for hotness!
Aji de Gallina
Aji means chilli in Peruvian Spanish, amarillo means yellow and gallina means hen. Or, put more simply, chicken in yellow chilli sauce. The sauce is made with cream, ground nuts, cheese, aji amarillo and thickened with bread. It’s a mild sauce with not too much of a chilli kick; I’d have preferred it to be spicier. Shredded chicken is added to the sauce before being dished up with rice and black olives.
Causa or Causita
I couldn’t have chosen better for my first meal in Peru. We’d arrived in Cusco and randomly picked a rooftop bar for a drink and a snack. Restaurant Marcelo Batata turned out to be a highlight. Golden potatoes mashed with lime, oil and spicy aji amarillo sauce made up the base. Next avocado is topped with crispy black sesame covered chicken and dressed with hot chilli chimichurri and black olives. Finally, a mayonnaise dressing is drizzled on with a garnish of syrup of rocoto and passion fruit. Pretty much a work of art I think and it tasted pretty good too. Avocado on toast will never be the same again…
Causa is a classic Peruvidan dish which means ‘the cause’. Last century, in the war between Peru and Chile, the only food left was potato. The wives of the Peruvian soldiers made a cold mash potato salad ‘for the cause’ and the dish was born.
I always like to try the local beer when I travel and Cusquena, a premium lager, was a bit of a hit. Brewed in the foothills of Macchu Picchu, Peru, since 1911 the label states that it’s crisp, pure and totally refreshing. The label was right about that!
Lomo Saltado or “jumping beef” is a popular Criollo Chifa dish. Criollo means mixed influence and Chifa is the fusion of Chinese food with classic Peruvian ingredients. Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru in the 1850s bringing with them new flavours and cooking techniques. Juicy pieces of mouthwatering soy-marinated beef or alpaca are stir-fried in a wok with tomatoes, peppers, aji chillies, ginger and other spices. It’s often served with two starches; french fries and rice for a total carb overload. It’s basically your steak and chips with an oriental twist and very tasty. This dish was served up at Cala in Lima and enjoyed on the restaurant’s balcony overlooking the Pacific.
After you’ve overdosed on the rich fruity flavours of Peruvian chocolate head to the Choco Museo to make your own. Learn about roasting and grinding the beans before making your own bar of Peruvian chocolate that you can take home with you. There’s a Choco Museo in Cusco and another in The Barranco in Lima. The founders of Choco Museo have partnered with local Peruvian farmers to form a small cooperative producing high-quality beans that make their way up to Cusco from the jungle just beyond Machu Picchu.
When we arrived in Cusco I immediately felt the change in altitude. Pulling my suitcase up the ramp at the airport left me feeling breathless and incredibly unfit. The Peruvians have a dodgy brew which is supposed to help you adjust to the altitude. Coca Tea was our welcome drink when we checked into the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas in Cusco. But here’s the thing; Coca is illegal in all countries except in Peru, Bolivia and parts of Argentina. And there’s a good reason for that. Coca contains the raw material for cocaine! It’s actually present in miniscule amounts in Coca tea but the brew is just a mild stimulant – a bit like caffeine.
I had a couple of cups whilst in Cusco and it tastes okay, a bit like green tea, and I can’t say I noticed that it made any difference to the altitude affects. A word of warning, don’t buy any to take home it’s illegal in most countries.
Lúcuma is a fruit native to Peru and looks like a round avocado with a pale orange coloured flesh. It’s also supposed to be a super food. It’s sweet and creamy with a hint of caramel and really popular in Peru. I can see why, it’s delicious. We tried this fruity smoothie during our Lima food tour David from Da Taste of Peru. If you’re in Lima this is a fabulous tour I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Read my review of Da Taste of Peru tour.
Finally, how could I write about Peruvian cuisine and not mention the country’s national drink Pisco. The Pisco Sour is made with Peru’s national spirit, a grape brandy called Pisco. Citrus juice, sugar syrup, bitters and egg white are shaken to give a zingy blend of sweetness and acidity all under a soft foamy topping. Here’s the recipe if you want to try making your own.
Pisco Sour Recipe
And just in case you were wondering, no I didn’t eat Guinea Pig or Cuy (pronounced ‘kwee’). I prefer to see the fluffy little things bright-eyed and munching on grass! How about you – would you eat Cuy?