Before my trip to Peru I had no idea what to expect with the food there. Would it be like Brazilian cuisine with savory meats, black beans and fried plantains? Or like Argentinian, with an emphasis on charbroiled beef? Or maybe like Mexican with tortillas, salsas, and spicy chilies? I discovered was that in Peru, it’s entirely different from all of these and far exceeded my expectations.
Peru is the origin of many foods that the world loves. Potatoes (3000 varieties in the Andes alone!), corn, tomatoes, and peanuts all first came from the region that now encompasses Peru. The country has emerged as the latest in global culinary hotspots. Flavorful meats and seafood, creamy soups, mild cheeses and zesty sauces all make up the Peruvian diet. Below are some of the foods and beverages I enjoyed during my visit to Peru.
The unofficial “national dish” of Peru is ceviche, freshly prepared raw fish that’s been marinated in lime juice, chopped red onions and spicy aji peppers. It’s served chilled and often with a side of choclo, a white Andean corn with gigantic, waxy kernels. Purists love ceviche made from raw fish alone, but it can be made with (cooked) seafood like prawns, octopus and squid too.
No trip to Peru would be complete without imbibing in the national cocktail, the Pisco Sour. A yellowish colored grape brandy (similar to grappa), pisco is a Quechua word meaning “bird.” It is quite potent too—between 60 – 80 proof (30 – 40% alcohol). To make a pisco sour, you mix 3 oz. of the liquor with 1 oz. lime juice, 1/4 oz. simple syrup, some crushed ice, a pasteurized egg white and a dash of angostura bitters. Drink slowly since you barely taste the alcohol—it will knock your socks off! A delicious variation is called the maracujá sour, in which passionfruit juice is added to the classic recipe.
One of the most common meals in Peru is pollo a la brasa, roast chicken that’s been marinated in a sauce flavored with red peppers, garlic, and cumin. It’s often served with thick, greasy French fries and a selection of spicy dipping sauces including salsa de aji (a sauce made with yellow chili and oil).
Influenced by the large Asian community residing in Peru, lomo saltado has become a signature dinnertime staple as well. Strips of sirloin steak are cooked in a wok, smothered in soy sauce and topped with onions, roasted vegetables and rice. This dish usually comes with a side of fries too.
A Peruvian delicacy, especially in the Andes, is known by the adorable-sounding name of cuy. To North Americans however, this is the adorable-looking pet that we call a guinea pig. The meat is usually barbecued parrilla style on a spit and served whole—often with its head still on. Some people on our tour enjoyed the cuy, comparing the flavor to rabbit for its wild, gamy taste. I did not particularly care for it, since it was quite bony, but I wanted to eat like the locals so at least gave it a try.
In the Andean highlands, another unusual animal makes up part of the people’s diet too—alpaca. Most people are familiar with alpacas for their fine (and pricey) wool that’s sheared to make sweaters, socks, and knit hats. This cousin of the llama and camel has been a source of meat for centuries. I tried grilled alpaca steak and could not taste the difference between it and beef. It was actually quite lean and delicious.
Gaining in popularity around the world for its extremely high protein content, vitamins and minerals, quinoa (pronounced: keen-wah) has been a staple of the Andean diet for 4,000 years. The Incas called it “the mother of all grains” and it remains the second-most important food to the Peruvians after the potato. An unfortunate side effect of quinoa’s popularity is that global demands have caused the price of the grain to skyrocket in Peru, making it expensive for locals to buy. I tried a delicious traditional soup made from quinoa, pumpkin, and indigenous spices on our visit to Chinchero, a town on the way to Peru’s Sacred Valley.
All over Peru you’ll find people enjoying, Inca Kola, a soft drink that’s day-glow yellow and tastes a lot like bubblegum. It was created in Peru back in 1935 but is now manufactured worldwide by the Coca-Cola Company. [I had a sneak peek at Inca Kola when I visited the Coke Museum in Atlanta, Georgia last year.] It is really sweet, but refreshing.
Coca tea, also called mate de coca, is an herbal tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. Yes, it’s the same plant that is used to make cocaine. In the Andes, the coca leaf is considered sacred and it’s completely normal for people to sip on the tea throughout the day. In fact, the stimulant properties of the tea help with altitude sickness so pots of tea are always available to guests at mountain hotels. It’s greenish-yellow in color and has a mildly bitter flavor similar to green tea. Don’t try to bring any home with you though; they will ask if you have any when you pass through customs.
Another popular beverage in Peru is called chicha. It’s made from fermented corn and can be flavored with a variety of other grains or fruit. In rural Peru, especially in the Andes, the locals set up their own chicha bars, selling their own home brew. How do you find one of these establishments that sell chicha? Just look for a long pole with a red plastic bag affixed to the end—you’ll see them all over.
A non-alcoholic version, chicha morada is made from purple maize that’s been boiled with pineapple rind, cinnamon, and cloves. Chicha morada is very popular across Peru as is served at restaurants as an alternative to soda–kind of like iced tea or lemonade.
One of the tastiest desserts I came across in Peru I didn’t actually discover until my last night in Lima. They’re called picarones and are basically the Peruvian version of the doughnut. However, the dough is made from sweet potatoes and squash. The rings are deep fried and then drizzled with syrup and served with and a dollop of whipped cream. They’re delicious!
Have you ever tried Peruvian food? What were your favorite dishes? Feel free to comment in the section below!