In contrast, Peruvian cuisine featured hot and cold, acidic and starchy, and potent and delicate. That’s because the main ingredients in Peruvian cuisine are spices and intense flavors, some of which are clean and crisp and others deep and heavy. Each sip of pisco sour softened the lemon and pepper attack of ceviche, the fish so fresh that it virtually crushed between the teeth.
The vast mountain landscapes and historic ruins come to mind when most people think about Peru. The sound of a distant pan flute playing above the Andes may accompany those thoughts, and if we’ve been briefed on the cuisine, the talk will likely begin with the nation’s astounding array of potatoes.
A Peruvian Primer
Peruvians have always been passionate about their country’s culinary heritage. They steadfastly cling to the traditional, multiculti flavors of home—pit-roasted feasts and all—even in the face of modern gastronomic innovation. Peruvian cuisine has only recently exploded onto the international culinary stage. Various climes offer an impressive diversity of products, from high altitude to low. Yes, it includes potatoes—over 3800 different varieties—and numerous types of corn and other cereals. Not to mention the native aji chilies from the nation, which are frequently puréed into sauces.
Including food everywhere else today, there is a brand-new Peruvian culinary movement. This is called nueva comida that top chefs in Lima like Gaston Acurio and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino have developed. It’s ingredient-driven, says New York chef Eric Ramirez, formerly of Raymi Peruvian Kitchen and Pisco Bar and soon-to-open Llama Inn. Young chefs search far and wide for increasingly unusual ingredients, so the options are unlimited. The evolution of the country’s cuisine continues into simultaneously new and ancient modernist culinary regions.
Here is a quick tour of only a few of Peru’s traditional gastronomic gems, but for now. Think of it as a packing list for your next journey.
The national cuisine of Peru, which practically everyone who tries immediately falls in love with. Although other nations may claim to have their variations using shrimp, octopus, scallops, tomatoes, and even tostada chips, Peru was the first to popularize cold-cooked fish using just five essential ingredients: sea bass (corvina) marinated for only a few minutes in lime juice, onion, salt, and, of course, hot chiles (aji). With sides of starchy boiled corn (choclo) and creamy sweet potato (camote), the dish’s texture is balanced, while the crisp onion adds to the softness of the super-fresh fish. Sprinkled cancha (dry-roasted corn kernels) offer a satisfying crunch.
Leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), the residual marinade, is a fiery, saline elixir frequently sipped from a shot glass or boosted with Pisco, either at the table or the following morning as the hair of the dog. Leche de pantera, or panther’s milk, is used in the latter situation. Tiradito is a regional take on traditional ceviche that involves slicing the fish into thin strips and then marinating it with puréed aji amarillo, soy sauce, and mirin.
Lomo Saltado (Stir Fried Beef)
This chifa meal combines traditional Peruvian ingredients with Chinese stir-frying, making it almost as popular as ceviche. Juicy strips of beef (or alpaca) marinated in soy sauce are stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, aji chiles, and more spices until the beef is cooked and the onions and tomatoes begin to make a hearty, meaty gravy. Then it is served with a heap of rice and a side of French fries, two starches that are a pleasant fusion of East and West (often tossed with the meat). The crowd-pleasing meal is served almost everywhere in Peru and is similarly well-liked in Peruvian eateries outside of Peru.
Aji de Gallina (Creamy Chicken)
A thick sauce consisting of cream, cheese, crushed walnuts, and aji amarillo coats the shredded chicken. The nutty, creamy sauce tames the aji’s delicious, reasonably fiery taste to a cozy warmth. The sauce is mild but piquant. The meal shows Peru’s fondness for sauces poured over and cooked with meats and vegetables. They are also often thickened with chilies, cheese, cream, or bread. In this dish, the sauce is combined with the chicken and served over rice with cooked potatoes and black olives. It creates a rich, vibrant yellow chowder that shimmers on the plates of restaurants and homes throughout Peru.
Papas a la Huancaina (Potatoes in Spicy Cheese Sauce)
Another example of “meat or starch buried in a creamy sauce” involves sliced yellow potatoes drowning in a purée made of queso fresco, aji amarillo, garlic, evaporated milk, lime juice, and—you guessed it—saltine crackers. A yellow sauce over yellow potatoes with yellow-yolked hard-boiled eggs on top is not particularly tasty. Beware, though—this unassuming sauce has a slight, slow-burning burn subdued and enlivened by the earthy potato and cooling egg, lime, and queso fresco.
It’s a typical appetizer and a side dish for meals. It consists of tiny, round, purple potatoes that are boiled whole, then covered in sauce and topped with olives, eggs, and, yes, more crackers. Its origins are in the hilly city of Huancayo, but it is now a staple food all over Peru.
Cuy (Guinea Pig)
This guinea pig-as-food strikes dread in the hearts of Westerners who think of it more as a pet than a meal. It is one of the Andean region’s most popular meat sources (the other being alpaca), though. You may start to see the allure when you think of the supple, smokey black meat (almost like fowl!) hidden beneath a shimmering golden veneer of piercingly crisp skin. Or see it as a suckling pig that serves one.
The whole animal is stuffed with regional herbs, roasted over an open fire, and served with potatoes. When presented in this manner, it tastes best when eaten with a hand, like fried chicken and dipped in aji sauce. But more sophisticated restaurant-ready recipes that may entail deep-frying or braising are now frequently consumed from Cusco to Lima.
Causa (Potato Casserole)
It is frequently served as a cake roll, terrine, casserole, or dynamic individual servings. This everyday Quechan meal has undergone innumerable European-style variants. It begins with a mixture of mashed potatoes from Peru spiced up with aji amarillo, lime, and oil. Mayo is blended with diced tuna, salmon, or chicken, then layered with avocado, hard-boiled eggs, and olives. The potato mixture is then spread over that surface, creating as many lasagna-like layers as one dares. Cold salad courses or side dishes are offered with this cheerful, lightly spiced entrée.
Rocoto Relleno (Stuffed Spicy Peppers)
Red aji rocoto chilies are filled with ground beef, onions, garlic, olives, raisins, herbs, and spices. The mixture is then coated with queso fresco and baked in an egg and milk sauce. Fair warning: this dish is not your typical stuffed bell pepper despite its scarlet appearance. The rocoto is about the size of a plum, has a bright, fruity, tropical berry essence, and has almost twice the heat of an aji amarillo (or, in gringo terms, about ten times the warmth of a typical jalapeno). The first taste will so awaken you. The sweet and savory filling within, the melting queso fresco, and the eggy cream sauce in which it all cooks soon cool the chili’s first burn.
Anticuchos de Corazón (Grilled Heart)
Don’t be turned off by the word “heart.” After all, the heart is a more flavorful muscle than a ribeye, and thinner than fillet mignon. It is, as well, excellent when licked over an open flame. The crimson heart (alpaca or beef) is often chopped into one- to two-inch cubes, marinated in vinegar, cumin, aj, and garlic, and grilled over charcoal to a medium-rare with slightly charred edges.
These cubes are popular appetizers and much more popular street food nationwide. They are frequently served on skewers with sliced onion, potato, and lime drizzle. Anticuchos can now be made with beef or chicken, but the original cardiovascular form still reigns supreme.
Arroz con Pato (Rice with Duck)
A national meal in Peru, this recipe for Spanish Criollo appears to be straightforward. Dark beer, spices, and cilantro paste cook rice grain, giving it a rich, smoky flavor. On top of a heap of green rice, a roasted thigh and leg or crisp-seared duck confit is added. The meal has been altered into various varieties of rice mixture, texture, and duck parts. With chicken or other poultry – making it a staple on almost every Peruvian family table and in the best restaurants in Lima.
Pollo a la Brasa (Roasted Chicken)
Due to the abundance of Peruvian chicken rotisserie restaurants nearby (see our selection of DC’s best), this cuisine is conceivably the most well-known in the US. Before being roasted on a spit, a whole chicken is marinated in a potent concoction of garlic, herbs, and spices, giving the browned, crispy skin an irresistibly exotic and earthy flavor. Every chicken comes with green huacatay (Peruvian black mint) sauce; however, the recipe is frequently different and closely guarded. It is possibly even more adored than the chicken itself. Some claim it’s a mayonnaise-based creamy concoction of mint, cilantro, garlic, and chili that all Peruvians eat in unrestrained quantities.
However, Peru is the Hope Diamond of Latin American cuisine, with unique foods and flavors found nowhere else. There are more Peruvian restaurants outside of Peru than ever, yet we don’t give them enough credit. There aren’t many places on earth with such a wide range of local ingredients, never mind a mashup of flavors and methods from Europe, Africa, and East Asia. These foreign contributions have effortlessly merged with traditional Peruvian cuisine to create something original rather than maintaining cultural segregation.