If you’ve ever traveled to Peru, you may have noticed that some people like to eat their furry pets. I’m talking about guinea pigs. Okay, just kidding. Guinea pigs (cuy in Spanish and quwe in Quechua) are not pets in Peru, not in the way they’re commonly found in the U.S. In Peru, they are domesticated animals specifically raised for consumption, especially in the Andean provinces.
Even if you consider yourself an adventurous gourmand, I’m here to tell you that while guinea pig is a tasty rodent (which tastes nothing like chicken), there are many other delectable dishes in Peruvian gastronomy that you should definitely try before you dig into a cuy.
Peru’s food is considered as some of the best in the world. The highly-respected World Travel Awards (WTA) has named Peru as the “Best Culinary Destination in South America” for the third consecutive year. Below is a short list of my favorite dishes. Peruvian food is overwhelmingly varied, as the country encompasses three diverse regions: The Pacific Coast, the Amazon, and the Andes.
First on my list is the King Dish of Peru: Ceviche – fish marinated in lime. It’s exquisite in its simplicity, yet it would be wrong to call it a simple dish, as there are ‘tricks’ you must follow when making this delicacy. Yet, it’s simple in that you only add 3 or 4 ingredients to the fish: Lime, salt, red onion – and ají (Peruvian chili), if you wish. Last year, I attended a 3-month course in Peruvian cuisine at the international culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu, in Lima. I don’t like to keep culinary secrets, so I’m sharing the recipe for traditional ceviche. (Recipe)
Oh – and if you’d like to learn more about this dish, you can read an earlier post on ceviche’s cultural and historical background here.
This is another traditional and very popular dish with its origins in Chinese cuisine. In Peru, you can get it anywhere – from the expensive restaurants to the hole in the wall neighborhood joint. Most restaurants outside Peru will also most likely feature this dish. Saltado means stir fried or to stir fry. For best results, a perfect lomo saltado is made with high-quality sirloin (lomo), marinated and then stir fried in a very hot wok (or skillet) with thick slices of red onions and quarters of tomatoes in a wonderful marriage of soy sauce and vinegar. This is typically served with white rice and a handful of hand-cut, fried potato slices. Peruvians will swear to you that their mother makes the best lomo saltado. And yes, my mom makes the best.
Recently, I learned this dish was born during the bitter war between Peru and Chile. That’s ancient history now. What is important is that this dish is as Peruvian as Pisco Sour. Traditionally, causa is served as an appetizer. Causa are layers of Peruvian yellow potato with a variety of ingredients, like chicken or langostino salad. The photo here is one made with chicken, Peruvian mayonnaise, layers of ripe avocado, juicy tomatoes, and hard-boiled egg. What you get is a perfect bite – every time. You must have this with Peruvian beer.
My father’s arroz con pollo (rice and chicken, cooked together) had no equal. This is a home-style dish known to all Peruvians. It’s the perfect dish to share during a family gathering on Sundays. Depending on where you are in Peru, the color of the rice will vary among different shades of red or green. My favorite is light green with a bit yellow (colored by cilantro and ají amarillo). Don’t miss trying this national dish!
Japanese Peruvians, who form a great and marvelous part of the culture, are the masters of Sushi in Peru. The Japanese began arriving to Peru in the late 1800s. The state of their economy in their own country was very poor during that time, and they landed on Peruvian shores looking for new job opportunities.
If you like sushi, you will be in heaven. In Peru, the fish will always be fresh, taken right out of the Pacific Ocean. No need to import it from anywhere else. The fusion between Peruvian food and Japanese food is called Nikkei – and when you’ve tasted this, you will remember it forever. PS: I’m addicted to sushi seasoned with leche de tigre, the flavorful juices of ceviche.
The Chinese arrived to Peru also in the mid 1800s, but under different circumstances than the Japanese. Chinese entered the country as indentured servants to work on guano-producing islands and sugar plantations on the coast. Eventually, they became free men and women. Today, they are respected members of the community and their rich culture has become intertwined with the Peruvian culture. One of those gifts to the country by the Chinese culture is their cuisine. The fusion between Peruvian and Chinese food is known as chifa – and it is simply awesome. There is a Chinatown in Lima, but you’ll find chifa anywhere in town. Don’t miss the opportunity to delve into an important part of Peru’s history and culture by sampling chifa!
This is a fantastic appetizer. Essentially, they are scallops (with or without their roe) baked on their shell, with garlic, butter, white wine – and covered with shredded parmesan cheese (queso parmesano) and baked until the cheese melts. Till this day, these are my 99-year old grandma’s favorite snack. And I promise you – you can’t just have one.
When you see anticuchos, you’ll think, “oh, these are meat skewers.” They are… but they are not like any meat skewers you may have ever had. First, traditional anticuchos are made with pieces of marinated cow’s heart. They are delicious, but if this freaks you out more than eating a guinea pig, then try them de lomo (sirloin steak). Second – and most importantly – is the marinade. It’s unique in that it is made with chili only found in Peru – ají panca, which gives it a rich, spicy and earthy flavor. Anticuchos are sold from street carts or at many different types of restaurants. You can also find them in restaurants around the world. They are served with roasted Peruvian potatoes and Peruvian large kernel corn. Oh, and with a side of ají amarillo or another type of spicy sauce, of course.
Peruvians have a cult-like following and deep love for sánguches (meaning, sandwich). They have sánguches as snacks, for an informal lunch, during lonche (tea time), or after a long night of partying. Please don’t miss the chance to partake in this important Peruvian ritual if you are in Peru. Go to a sangucheria – there are hundreds around town. This is an inexpensive type of street food – and one of the treats I miss the most.
You can have sánguches made with home-roasted turkey (pan con pavo), with jamón del país (amazing home-made ham) known as butifarra, pan con chicharrón (perfectly cooked and fried pork), or avocado and tomato with sea salt, and so many more. My mouth is watering as I write this.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Pachamanca – a delicious rustic Andean meal handed down from the time of the Incas. This is a celebratory dish honoring mother earth (Pachamama), life, and fertility. It’s prepared for special occasions. Pachamanca comes from the Indian language, Quechua. Pacha means earth, manca means cooking pot.
Pachamanca is cooked in a hole in the ground with stones previously heated in a wood fire. Various marinated meats, chicken, potatoes, herbs, large beans, and tamales are layered at different and specific intervals, alternating between hot stones and plantain leaves. The hole is then covered with hot stones, burlap (yute), and thick blankets. Finally, it is all covered with soil to prevent the heat and smoke from escaping. The first photo below, shows the men in charge of the pachamanca uncovering the layers; the second is the plate, as it is traditionally served.
And that’s it for my short list! If you cannot go to Peru, then look up to see if there’s a Peruvian restaurant in your city. They’re are spreading like wild fire all over the world 😉
Have you had Peruvian food? Which dish is your favorite?