By Claire Sturzaker
Peru is renowned for its cuisine, and rightly so. Immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa all came to Peru with their own style of cooking, and fused it with traditional flavours to create some of the most exciting and delicious food in the world. Peruvian cuisine showcases the very best of ‘fusion’, and from street food to Michelin starred restaurants there is a huge range of dishes in Peru to choose from.
Traditional Peruvian cuisine is based on potatoes, corn, quinoa and legumes; and the spicy yellow ají and rocoto peppers add heat and colour to many dishes. Restaurants will often offer a daily ‘menu del día’, a cheap 3 course meal including a soup, main course and a dessert or juice.
Prices can vary from 7 soles (approximately 2.50 CAD or 2.00 USD) & up to 25 or 30 soles (9.50 – 11.50 CAD or 7.50 – 9.00 USD) in more touristy areas, but the menu is always a great way to sample local dishes for rock-bottom prices. In the evenings, the à la carte menu is more expensive but of course you get more choice!
Food can vary wildly according to the region of Peru where you are, and dishes you find in the North are very different to those found along the coast or in the Andes. Wherever you visit in Peru you are sure to find delicious food, but here are my top 10 must-try dishes in Peru that you simply have to eat while you are here!
10 Must-Try Dishes in Peru
This classic Peruvian dish is made of pieces of raw fish marinated in lime juice and chilli to ‘cook’ the fish. Ceviche is usually served with sliced raw onion, choclo (corn), a slice or two of sweet potato, and perhaps some lettuce for a bit of colour. More popular (and fresher) around the coast, this delectable dish has just the right amount of spice to mix with the tart lime and fresh fish. Generally, ceviche is made with a white fish such as sea bass or sole, although you will also find mixed ceviche including cooked prawns, a ceviche of concha negra (black blood clams) in the North of Peru, or trout ceviche around Lake Titicaca where the lake provides an abundance of the freshwater fish.
Not for the faint hearted, this is street food at its best. Marinated slices of beef heart, threaded onto skewers and barbecued over an open flame – a delicious, iron-rich snack for the meat lovers out there! If you’re not sold on the beef heart, you can also find anticuchos of normal chicken or beef meat, although the beef heart is the most traditional.
3. Palta a la Reina
Avocado is king in Peru, or should I say queen? There are many simple starters made with sliced or halved avocado, the creamy pale green flesh needing little to compliment it. Palta a la Reina, is ‘Avocado, Queen Style’ and usually includes one, or even two, avocados stuffed with a mixture of shredded chicken, carrot, potato, green beans and mayonnaise. It makes great light lunch or starter for your main meal, and lots of healthy vitamins too!
4. Papa a la Huancaina
Of course the potato is the real king in Peru. There are over 3000 types potato in Peru and this dish, originating from Huancayo in the central highlands of Peru, highlights the yellow potato as its main ingredient. The potatoes are boiled whole, then sliced and served smothered in a creamy, spicy, cheesy ‘Huancaina’ sauce. Accompanied by lettuce, boiled eggs and black olives, this is a great dish for veggies too.
5. Lomo Saltado
This fabulous dish showcases the blend of traditional cuisine with the Chinese stir-fry style of cooking. Slices of juicy steak are stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and aji, and served with fries and rice on the side, or sometimes all mixed in together. This dish truly has everything!
6. Aji de Gallina
A scrumptious dish made from shredded chicken in a creamy yellow sauce, served with rice, boiled potatoes, and black olives. At first glance this is very similar to Papa a la Huancaina with chicken – but the secret is in the sauce. The famous aji amarillo (yellow spicy peppers) give the sauce its unique flavour, together with mixed walnuts, milk and cheese. A Peruvian classic and definitely one of the must-try dishes in Peru!
7. Arroz Chaufa (Chifa Style)
A whole style of cooking evolved from the mix of Chinese immigrants who came to Peru in the 19th century and starting serving up their traditional dishes. Chifa comes from the Mandarin word meaning ‘to eat rice’, and the fusion came from the lack of availability of Chinese ingredients in Peru and the immigrants used what they could find in their dishes. Chaufa is a stir fried rice which combines Chinese and Peruvian flavours, and can be made with beef, chicken, hot dog sausages or a mix of all three.
8. Causa Rellena
Another classic Peruvian food where the potato reigns supreme. In this traditional dish, mashed yellow potato is layered with tuna or chicken, avocado, sometimes other vegetables, and plenty of mayonnaise. Served as a starter or a snack, the key is in its pretty presentation and combination of layers.
You can’t have a list of must-try Peruvian dishes and not include our furry friend the guinea pig. Viewed by many of us in Europe and North America as a cute family pet, here in Peru guinea pigs are a sustainable, easily reared, and tasty source of meat. Andean families keep cuy in their homes to add warmth in the winter, entertain the kids, and even diagnose illnesses, but they simply love to eat them! Usually roasted on a spit and served whole (including the head, teeth and feet) this dish may be a step too far for the squeamish, although you can ask for it to be served without the head. With a flavour somewhere between chicken and rabbit, the meat is surprisingly tasty if cooked well, so be sure to seek out a restaurant with a good reputation to get the best guinea pig!
10. Rocoto Relleno
Peruvians are definitely fans of stuffing things. Palta (avocado), papa (potato) and rocoto (a kind of spicy bell pepper) are often served stuffed with various delicious fillings. My favourite of these is the rocoto relleno. Traditionally from Arequipa, though also common in Cusco and the rest of Southern Peru, these spicy peppers are served stuffed with a tasty minced meat mixture, and usually deep fried in batter. Served with rice, potatoes, or perhaps a bit of salad, this is comfort food at its best!
Watch out for Inca Kola!
Not technically a food, so I haven’t included this in the Top 10 list, however Inka Cola is a Peruvian national institution. More popular in Peru than Coca Cola, the American giant bought shares in Inka Cola, as they were worried about the competition! This freakishly yellow, ridiculously sweet fizzy drink is sure to rot your teeth if you drink too much, but to Peruvians it is sweet, sweet nectar and they drink it like water. If the yellow colour doesn’t put you off, prepare for a taste like bubble gum or cream soda. Be sure to give it a try to get a ‘real’ taste of Peru!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Creator & writer of Tales of a Backpacker. Claire Sturzaker is currently backpacking South America sharing her adventures, tips, tricks and thoughts about life on the road. You can also find her on Twitter & Instagram!
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