Peru has been awarded World’s Leading Culinary Destination at the World Travel Awards for seven years in a row (2012 - 2018) and the popularity of her cuisine internationally continues to grow, as more Peruvian restaurants open across the globe.
With ingredients sourced from the Pacific Ocean, the Amazon jungle and the Andes Mountains, diversity is the keyword. To give an idea of what local chefs have had to work with, Peru’s land and water are home to:
Maize: 35 varieties.
Tomatoes: 15 species.
Potatoes: over 4,000 native varieties grow in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia & Ecuador.
Fish: 2,000 species, both freshwater & saltwater.
Fruit: 650 native species.
These are all products that were in Peru when the Conquistadors arrived in 1531. To suit their tastes, the Spanish imported cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, and began growing non-native crops such as wheat, barley, and oats, along with numerous fruits, vegetables and spices with which they were accustomed.
With the passage of time, Spanish ingredients and recipes mixed with those of Peru. Further waves of immigration (and slavery) added extra flavours and techniques, so that modern Peruvian gastronomy has African, Chinese, Japanese, German and Italian notes. A true fusion.
With so many ingredients, flavours and influences, it is hard to summarize Peruvian cuisine succinctly. Not surprisingly, potatoes and maize are important staples … but so is rice, which was introduced by the Spanish.
Every town and village has at least one polleria selling grilled chicken (pollo a la brasa) and one chifa selling Peruvian-style Chinese food. These are the places to go if you want a fast, filling, good-value meal … but are not too worried about the service or decor! You will also have to watch Peruvian TV during your dining experience, which will consist of either a telenovela (soap opera) or a game show with scantily-clad participants.
Coastal cuisine has a strong seafood bias, taking advantage of the rich fishing waters of the Pacific; while the people living in the Andes make use of the crops that grow there, such as quinoa, kiwicha and maca - which are now gaining popularity worldwide on account of their high nutritional value.
Cooks in the Amazon region use the naturally-occurring ‘superfruits’, such as aguaje, cocona and camu-camu, to flavour their food and drinks. Freshwater fish also plays a large part in Amazonian cuisine.
Underlying all these regional variations is the use of aji, the local chili pepper, a member of the Capsicum family (Capsicum baccatum), which comes in various forms and colours, and gives many Peruvian dishes a distinctive, mildly spicy flavour. Even if it is not added to the food during cooking, there is nearly always a bowl of chopped aji on the table to be used as a condiment.
Another native capsicum is the rocoto pepper (Capsicum pubescens), which is certainly a step-up in spiciness. Its similarity in appearance to a red pepper or tomato has caught out many a tourist, who has taken a large bite before realising what they were dealing with!
Some PeruNorth favourites include:
Causa rellena: Mashed yellow potatoes, seasoned with lime & aji, filled with avocado, crab, tuna or chicken.
Lomo saltado: Strips of beef stir-fried with tomatoes, onion, and potato, and served with rice.
Aji de gallina: Strips of chicken stewed with ají amarillo (Peruvian yellow chili), cheese, milk & bread, and served on rice.
Ceviche: Raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in lime juice, with chili and onion. Peru’s signature dish. In the Andes, trout is often used in the absence of seafood; while in Amazonia, freshwater fish are used.
Tiradito: the same as ceviche, but without the onions.
Papa a la huancaina: literally, ‘Huancayo-style potatoes’: sliced boiled potatoes, served on a bed of lettuce with a slightly spicy cheese sauce and olives.
Parihuela: Concentrated, spicy soup made of fish and shellfish.
There are also a number of dishes popular in parts of Peru that may not sound quite so appealing to Western palates … but we urge you to give them a try (at least once!):
Cuy: guinea pig: a highland dish, usually roasted or barbecued.
Anticuchos: brochettes made from beef heart marinated in various Peruvian spices and grilled, often with a side of boiled potato or corn. Commonly sold by street vendors.
Alpaca: the cousin of the llama, whose meat is considered a delicacy in the Andes.
Mondongo: a stew made of tripe, which when mixed with rice is called Cau-Cau.
Chicharrones: salted pork, deep-fried in its own fat.
Cochayuyo: sea weed. Often added to ceviche as a garnish.
Pachamanca: Variety of meats, potatoes and vegetables seasoned with aromatic herbs and cooked underground on hot stones.
Peru’s political capital is also undoubtedly its culinary capital. Three Lima restaurants were named in 2018’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants: Central (#6), Maido (#7) and Astrid y Gaston (#39). By contrast, London only has two restaurants in this list, at numbers 38 and 42!
The seafood in Lima is certainly a real treat, but there are restaurants catering to every taste and budget, and using ingredients from all over Peru.
A popular way to get a greater understanding of Lima’s culinary world is with a half-day Gastronomic Tour. This includes a guided tour of a local market, to see the range of produce available. You then go to a local restaurant or home to have a go at preparing a Peruvian dish (and possibly a Pisco Sour), under the guidance of a chef. Finally, you have the chance to eat what you have cooked, along with other dishes prepared by said chef.
But, wherever you go in Peru, you are sure to be presented with tasty, wholesome fare, that uses local produce. For example, PeruNorth had a superb meal at Casa de Seizo in Moyobamba, where the Japanese owner prepares exquisite dishes using fish taken from the large pond in front of the hotel.
Here are a few comments on the food from our clients, to illustrate the point further:
“We had a tremendous meal after Gocta in San Pablo de Valera, that Roger [the guide] arranged for us. It was chicken, rice, potatoes, yucca, mango juice.” - Ella Levy & Neal Evers
“We enjoyed the food everywhere, it really has become such an amazing cuisine, and was surprised that even in the 'chain' hotels such as those in Trujillo and Cajamarca, the standard of dishes at dinner was very high, especially the soups. Lunch at Celendin that day was good too.” - David Cregan & Michael Kyriagis
“We also thought that the food [at Tambopata Research Center] was particularly good.” - Chris Mizen & Danielle Hurley
“The cook [on the Spondias] served us artistically-presented, delicious meals.” - Ruth Mankoff & Family
“The food [at Gocta Andes Lodge] is delicious and the views were the best.” - Lobke de la Ruelle & Jimena Delgado
“The level of service [on the Inca Trail] was WAY above what we were expecting, the food was incredible and every single thing was perfectly organised.” - James & Paul Metcalfe
“Isla Suasi is indescribably beautiful. The hotel is wonderful. The staff friendly. The food good” - Mike & Jennifer Vidler
So, you can see, any itinerary with PeruNorth is sure to include good Peruvian food. But if you want to explore the farm-to-fork process, or want to enjoy gourmet dining, here are a few tips:
Delfin I & Aria: these luxury Amazon cruises take particular pride in the a la carte menu served on board. They also offer occasional cruises hosted by an acclaimed chef, such as Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.
Pacific Beach Break: if seafood is your thing, then you won’t find it fresher than when staying beside the ocean. Also, you can ‘fish your own ceviche’ on a half-day boat tour, which culminates with swimming with turtles (which you cannot eat!).
Mistura: an annual two-week food fair held in Lima since 2008, which has rapidly grown into the largest culinary festival in South America, showcasing restaurants and produce from all over Peru. Held in September, this is a great place to sample a wide variety of dishes, at reasonable prices.
NB. Despite its success, Mistura did not take place in 2018, as the organisers mysteriously claimed it had to be ‘adjusted to the demands of its international franchise’. Everyone is hopeful it will return in 2019.
Finally, if you would like to sample Peruvian food prior to departure - or bring back happy memories after you get back - here are a few respected Peruvian restaurants you could try:
La Mar: a seafood restaurant owned by Peruvian celebrity chef, Gaston Acurio, located on the waterfront.
La Mar: another branch of Gaston’s restaurant empire, located in The Mandarin Oriental hotel, overlooking Biscayne Bay.
La Cocina Peruana: located in the suburb of Randwick.