Before traveling to Peru we heard that it was a widely recognized foodie destination. We had traveled around South America and found that in many places the food can be described as uninspired – even a little bland. So we hoped that we would be in for a treat during our month-long stay. As it turns out, the Peruvians do have culinary bragging rights.
The reason for this is partially the sheer diversity of micro-climates in Peru. They enjoy fish from their coast, exotic fruits that grow high in the mountains, rare spices from the Amazon and can choose from thousands of different varieties of potatoes to compliment their cuisine. Since we were in Peru for over a month we tried a dishes, but were able to narrow down our favorites to just a few. We’ll tell you what they are – and where you can find the best we tasted.
Ceviche (fresh raw fish “cooked” in lime juice) is one of THE dishes that Peru is known for – and they boldly claim to have the best. The secret we’ve heard is the quality if the ingredients paired with the superior flavor of their limes – extra tart. It’s fun to watch it being made by a specialist – they squeeze the lime very firmly and quickly over the fish to extract the juice but avoid getting any sour flavor from the white part of the rind into the mix. It’s almost always paired with the giant corn kernels (chocolo) and a slice of boiled sweet potato to balance with the tart citrus flavor. Our favorite was actually prepared in a cooking class we took in Cusco – but you can find wonderful ceviche all over the country. Or, if you can’t wait to give it a try – here’s the Peruvian ceviche recipe from our class.
Aji Gallina (spicy chicken) is Peruvian comfort food. It was first developed by French Chef’s who were hired by wealthy Peruvians. during the French revolution in the 18th century. Some of the ingredients, which include Parmesan cheese and walnuts, are not classically Peruvian. The cheese and nuts are paired with a more traditional sauce made with mild Peruvian Aji peppers. The combination is slightly cheesy, nutty, spicy, creamy ….need I say more? We found our favorite at the Panchita restaurant (known for making upscale classic Peruvian comfort food) in the Miraflores area of Lima. And we’ve also included an Aji Gallina for those who are culinarily inclined.
These pork sandwiches were our favorite street food snack. It has all of the perfect ingredients. Marinated roasted pork that is sliced thin and then cooked with a special spicy sauce in a hot grill, paired with spicy peppers and onions and slid onto a soft crusty roll. And then served up for less than $3. Inexpensive and delicious! The best one we found was in a street food vendor area behind the governor’s palace in downtown Lima.
Causa is as a popular layered cold potato salad dish. It’smade by layering mashed potatoes mixed with a mild spicy Aji (chili) sauce stacked with avocado, onions, and often stuffed with seafood or chicken. Our favorite, however, was elevated by adding a topping of plump shrimp in a signature seafood sauce. You can find it at the Pez Amigo Restaurant, that saw us more than once during our visit to Lima.
This is another street food favorite. Whenever we walked by a food stall that served this sweet dessert there was always a long line. It’s similar to a soft donut drenched in a rich fig syrup. You can find it downtown next to the other street stalls, or in the popular Miraflores area in Kennedy Park. If you go there, you will be in the good company of hundreds of stray cats, sadly many abandoned by their owners. There are volunteer organizations there trying to control the situation – stop by and give a donation, every little bit counts.
When I asked locals what their favorite foods were in Peru, the second thing they came up with was “Cuy” or guinea pig. Most often marinated and served whole. I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled to try it, particularly since a guinea pig was my first pet. Despite my reluctance I did try a small gourmet sample in Cusco, and guiltily admit that it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
There are many exotic fruits that you should sample in Peru. Heading to the market and sampling is always fun. I wasn’t sure initially what to make of these “ground cherries” which grow high in the Andes. They are something like a tart cherry tomato and have a covering that makes it look like a Chinese lantern. You can find them in any market, sometimes sold in small snack sized cups that are perfect for sampling.
These are another street food snack that really deserve a place on your “must try” list. I admit I wasn’t looking forward to trying the grilled skewer of beef heart during a pub crawl that we took of downtown Lima. But honestly it tasted like really lean marinated grilled beef. How could you go wrong with that?
When in Lima you will find that they are liberal with dipping sauces. I’d say that I’m a huge fan of potatoes, but the humble potato really simply serves as a host to all of the fatty, spicy, cheesy, whatever sauce that accompanies it. The same is true for yucca root. It is very similar to potato but with a slightly more fibrous and with a mildly nutty flavor. And when you order it, it will come with a sampling with the favorite dipping sauces of the region. Our favorite was again at the upscale comfort food restaurant in Lima, Panchita.
Seafood Rice (Arroz Mariscos)
If you are looking to eat like a local with a local, the best place to do this is at the market in Lima. Our favorite spot, where they serve top notch ceviche that you can get paired with arroz mariscos (seafood rice) is Cevicheria Bam Bam. This is a no- frills establishment where you’ll sit elbow to elbow with locals who may just strike up a conversation to practice their English. It’s well worth the effort to wind your way around the produce market to find. You may also see another delicacy there which was well beyond my skeevy level to try – but if you do, be sure to let me know what it was like.
This was the #1 dish that EVERYONE told us that we should try in Peru – right from the very first cabbie. It’s a Peruvian-Asian fusion dish most often made with a tender cut of beef in soy sauce always served with rice and french fries. Sounds unusual but it works. You can find it on most restaurant menus, or try our recipe for Lomo Saltado which includes fresh ginger.
Ok, I know this isn’t “something to eat” but it just can’t possibly be left off of the list. Pisco Sour is Peru’s national drink. The potent cocktail is made from distilled grapes and paired with the tart Peruvian limes and shaken with egg whites. I know – I wasn’t expecting that either. But the fresh, frothy citrus flavored cocktail is a favorite for a reason. And it goes well with all of the above (although I can’t vouch or the grubs). We found our favorite at the Tanta restaurant, which is actually a chain in Peru. One of their locations is in Miraflores in an outdoor mall built into the cliff side. While I don’t often recommend mall locations to travelers I do have to stand by this recommendation. The Pisco Sour is wonderful, and the view is lovely.
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