I LOVE Peruvian food. In fact, I wouldn’t exaggerate when saying it’s my favourite kind of cuisine (OK, after Italian perhaps). A while ago I spent some time in this amazing South American country and discovering its local food was one of the highlights of my stay. Peruvian cuisine is incredibly diverse, combining South American ingredients and indigenous Andean heritage with European and Asian influences. In my view, there’s nothing better than stepping into a local picantería (a traditional Peruvian lunchtime restaurant) and try as many dishes and drinks as possible. And while some people might expect to see roasted guinea pig (or cuy) on every menu, Peruvian food is so much more. Here are 12 of my favourite Peruvian dishes and drinks that I think you should try.
Ceviche is probably the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Peruvian food. No wonder, because Peru’s national dish has garnered fame well beyond the country’s borders. Ceviche is a raw seafood dish, typically made with small cubes of raw white fish marinated in lime. Added to this are onion, chilli peppers, salt and sometimes coriander, sweet potato, avocado or corn. Did you know that the history of ceviche goes back a whopping 2,000 years? No wonder the Peruvians cherish this dish. They have even dedicated a special day to it: the National Day of Ceviche is celebrated every year on the 28th of June.
Think you’ve tasted enough potatoes in your life to know what they’re all about? Not until you visit Peru. The Europeans may have made the potato famous, indigenous populations in South America have been cultivating potatoes for more than 7,000 years. The Inca even turned it into a form of science, using microclimates to grow and study different potato varieties. Today, more than 3,000 types of potatoes still exist in Peru. Want to get a taste of some of them? Several restaurants across the country are dedicated solely to the potato – such as Hatunpa in Arequipa. Although these kinds of restaurants often target tourists, they’re worth a visit because they tell you a lot about Peru’s culinary history. And who wouldn’t want to try a bright blue potato?!
Causa is not just a plain old potato salad. No, this is something much more sophisticated and beautiful-looking. Although every chef has its own take on it, causa is essentially a cold, layered potato dish. The bottom and top layers are made of mashed yellow potatoes seasoned with lime and chillies. In between are one or more layers filled with a mayonnaise-based salad. What’s in the salad differs, but usually it includes tomatoes, onion or avocado along with tuna, crab, shrimps or chicken. Causa is sometimes made as a large casserole-style dish, but often it’s also served in elegant individual portions. It’s one of Peru’s most popular (side) dishes, so if you’re visiting the country you’ll guaranteed find this on the menu!
Chifa is not so much a dish, but rather a collection of dishes that share the same culinary tradition. It’s a tradition that mixes Chinese cooking with traditional Peruvian ingredients. Chinese, you might wonder? Interestingly, Peru is home to a considerable Chinese community (several million Peruvians have Chinese heritage). Chinese immigrant workers have been coming to Peru as early as the 1850s, as the country was abolishing slavery. The first Chinese restaurants that opened in Lima in the early 20th century were called chifa, Cantonese for ‘to cook rice or to cook a meal’. Today, chifa is a quintessential part of Peruvian cuisine. Common chifa dishes include arroz chaufa – fried rice with veggies and meat – and tallarin saltado – stir fried noodles.
Love a good stir fry? Then you’ll love lomo saltado. This meat dish was introduced by Chinese immigrants as part of the chifa tradition. As its popularity spread, it became a key dish in Peruvian cuisine. These days, you’ll find lomo saltado in many traditional Peruvian restaurants. The dish is made of marinated, stir-fried strips of sirloin, tomatoes and onions, which are served with rice and chips (or French fries, for the Americans amongst us). This one’s a real classic!
Vegetarians out there, this one’s for you. Torrejas are vegetable fritters and taste oh so delicious. As with so many Peruvian dishes, they come in many forms, but they’re usually made with spinach and onion. I’ve also read they can be made with cauliflower or broccoli though. After dipping the veggies in a batter of eggs and flour (sometimes cheese is added) they are deep fried. You might be surprised to hear that Peruvians sometimes eat this for breakfast… It’s not the lightest of dishes, but very tasty indeed.
What’s Peruvians’ favourite drink? No, not pisco sour – we’ll save that one for later. Peruvians can’t get enough of chicha morada. This drink is made of purple corn, pineapple peel mixed with sugar and spices (cinnamons and clove). In Peru it’s almost as popular as cola. Some people still make chicha morada manually at home, but vast quantities are sold in industrialised form these days. If you weren’t convinced yet: chicha morada is said to have health benefits due to its high antioxidant content. I’d say: cheers!
If you visit the Peruvian city of Arequipa you have to try one of its most famous local dishes: rocoto relleno. This stuffed pepper dish is very much influenced by Spanish colonisers who started to arrive in this part of South America in the 1500s (Arequipa still has a strong Spanish feel to it). Because the rocoto pepper was much spicier than the sweet peppers the Spanish were used to, they cooked them in water and vinegar, before baking them in the oven, filled with minced meat and cheese. I had delicious rocoto relleno at La Nueva Palomino, a historic picantería just outside Arequipa’s old town. It’s sometimes served with another Arequipeño classic: pastel de papas, an oven-baked layered potato dish.
Aguadito de pollo
This traditional Peruvian chicken soup is a crowd pleaser. I had aguadito de pollo at Cusco’s San Pedro market – a great spot for a quick fresh-made bite. The warm, earthy flavours actually reminded me a bit of the kind of soup I used to have at my grandparents. With a Peruvian twist, of course. Expect a bowl of flavourful chicken stock filled with chicken, potato, onions and peas as well as aji peppers, coriander, corn, rice and lime. Yummm…
As the name indicates, salsa criolla is a sauce. Kind of. It’s not actually liquid. Its main ingredient is sliced red onion. This is mixed with red pepper, tomato, vinegar and oil, as well as coriander or parsley. In Peru, salsa criolla is often used to accompany meat. I had it with cooked pork and absolutely loved it. It totally transformed the taste of the dish. Meat with salsa criolla is the kind of dish you’d find at a local picantería, such as La Capitana in Arequipa. I’d highly recommend a visit to this non-touristy lunchtime restaurant if you’re in town!
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without pisco, Peru’s national alcoholic drink (apparently, the Chileans claim the same). Pisco is a type of brandy that’s produced in winemaking regions in Peru and Chile. Because of its high alcohol percentage (between 35%-60%) pisco is a great liquor for cocktails and mixed drinks. Pisco sour is the most famous of these. The traditional version is simple yet divine: pisco mixed with fresh lime juice, sugar syrup, egg whites and ice (shaken, not stirred). Sometimes, the pisco is infused with fruits or vegetables such as pineapple or cucumber to add extra flavour. I like mine plain though. Salud!
You might not immediately associate Peru with chocolate, but the two have a long history. In fact, the cacao tree is said to originate from the Amazon forests. Although these days, most of our cocoa comes from West Africa, Peru’s cocoa production is on the rise. It’s currently the ninth largest producer of cocoa in the world. Perhaps more impressively, Peru is the main producer of organic cocoa globally. So, you wouldn’t want to leave the country without trying some of its great chocolate. You can even create your own. Places such as Chaqchao in Arequipa organise chocolate making workshops. You’ll not only learn loads about the origins of chocolate but also get to make your own organic chocolate creations. Dangerously good…!
And for the real foodies among us: take a local cooking class to learn how to prepare some of Peru’s most famous dishes yourself! Across Peru, plenty of small business offer short cooking classes and it makes for a great experience. I did an evening cooking class in Arequipa and loved it!